Trying to get wireless to catch fire

For a variety of reasons wireless technology has faced an uphill battle in North America. While Asia and Europe are embracing the mobility with a passion, especially instant messaging and voice – where some areas approach 80 per cent market penetration, Canada and the United States are lagging behind.

At a panel discussion in Toronto recently, sponsored by Borland Canada, industry representatives spoke about wireless adoption rates and future areas of growth for the industry.

North America, at times, suffers from what appears to be too much competition or lack of cooperation, depending on which side of the fence you sit on. This has resulted in disparate networks unable or unprepared to communicate with each other. Instant messaging was going to be the next killer wireless application, said Stephen Jack, director, marketing business services for Rogers AT&T Wireless. But it ran into interconnectivity problems.

“Not only do you have to be my friend, you have to be my friend and a Rogers’ customer,” he said.

But interconnectivity is getting better, participants agreed.

The North American lag was blamed on better networks in place in Europe and Asia, using common protocols and having less regulatory restrictions surrounding them. Because there is extensive market penetration in Europe and Asia, application developers have been quick to jump on the bandwagon.

Uphill for developers

Wireless developers face several challenges – not the least of which is figuring out how to make a buck. If the developer works for a large corporation, the funding is internal and there is no need to market the application. But for the thousands of independents, the battle is distinctly uphill.

Tony Davis, CEO of Tira Wireless in Toronto, said traditional developers in the PC world have less of a challenge since it is relatively easy to create an application and publish it. In the wireless world there is another hurdle.

“[With] these devices you basically have to go through a monopoly if you like, which is the carrier: they own the access, they own the pipe,” he said. “You can run an application, but there is no easy way to get it deployed on the devices because of the nature of the network.”

“[As a developer], what do I do next? Should I walk down to Bell Mobility and knock on their door,” he said.

Tira Wireless is helping to bridge the gap between developer and carrier by addressing some of the technological issues.

The company is an aggregator which takes developed wireless applications to the carrier and presents them as a business opportunity for them. Tira Wireless takes care of issues such as certification, testing, updates and support, he said.

“I want to get to the point (where) a guy can sit in the basement, write an application and earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year while everyone else all over the world utilizes it.” Most carriers would like to be able to offer more applications, but they don’t traditionally have the skills within the organizations to manage large development programs.

Thus there is a tendency for larger companies to develop wireless applications in-house. The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation did this in order to move some Lotus Notes applications onto the RIM BlackBerry.

Eric Verbonac, an Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation solutions delivery analyst in Sault St. Marie, Ont., said the process was less of a challenge than he had prepared himself for, though the fact that Java and the BlackBerry both work well with Lotus Notes may have had something to do with it. Regardless, there were complications when certain aspects of Notes had to be written to HTML and Java from the native Notes language. Also, a second wireless server had to be incorporated into the process.

John Fisher, president of Borland Canada Inc. in Markham, Ont., agrees the hurdles depend on what exactly the developer is trying to do with the application. But taking an existing wired application and pushing it to the wireless world “is not slam dunk by any stretch,” he said. Even with the application running from a server, there is still the issue of reducing the desktop-sized GUI to fit logically and functionally on to a smaller mobile device display. Fisher said developer’s tools of the future may well address this issue so the transfers can be made with relative ease.

Though there is consensus that Java will be the de facto language of the wireless world, there is nothing close to a consensus as to what types of devices we will see.

“We are still going to have multiple devices,” Davis said.

“The devices with keypads are trying to get a phone into them and the devices with phones are trying to put keypads in them, so you get the worst of all worlds.”

There is one addendum to note. A recent survey done by NFO CFgroup found that 57 per cent of cell phone users, who also use the Internet, had no interest in using Web-enabled applications on their cell phones. Which goes to show wireless developers have one more hurdle to overcome – users not wanting their applications in the first place.