Waterloo to study Wi-Fi

Sybase Inc. plans to invest US$25 million researching corporate applications in a Wi-Fi world, and some of that money is coming to Canada.

The software maker, headquartered in Dublin, Calif., last month said it means to create “competency centres” at universities to research wireless business applications.

The University of Waterloo (UW) in Waterloo, Ont. is the first Sybase competency centre. The school’s Institute of Computer Research (ICR) will endeavour to suss out new methods of making corporate apps ready for wireless access.

According to Vic DiCiccio, director of UW’s ICR, the challenge is making applications that were designed for wireline access more intelligent, and thus better prepared for the vagaries of wireless access. The big question: since mobile connections tend to be less robust, less pervasive and slower than wired connections, how would a user access an app built for always-on, wireline connectivity?

DiCiccio said the solution might lie in automated synchronization and database management. First of all, a mobile computer would have to learn to connect automatically when it comes close enough (about 100 metres) to a Wi-Fi hotspot; the computer, be it a laptop or a personal digital assistant (PDA), would tunnel through the Wi-Fi connection to corporate headquarters and synch with the office server – upload new information, perhaps work that was done offline.

Next, the application itself would have to understand that the mobile computer does not have the high-speed, dedicated pipe that a wired computer does. The app would have to strip down the information, such that the user receives only relevant data – just the text of a PDF document, for example, instead of the entire presentation.

Building an intelligent application presents certain challenges, DiCiccio said.

“Right now most of the synchronization that we do involves plugging your PDA into your cradle.…It’s wired, and it’s done at the level of the application. Your datebook synchronizes with the datebook on the computer. Your address book synchronizes with the address book on the computer. We’re looking at how application-independent the synchronization could be.”

How to attain application independence? “Maybe something like an underlying database, so maybe you could look at the information with the most appropriate application, depending what kind of device you’re on,” DiCiccio said.

At this early stage in the research game, however, “maybe” is the operative word. “If the synchronization is less application-specific and more underlying-database-specific – maybe that’s not the perfect answer,” DiCiccio said. “Maybe it should be more of a system-embedded database. That’s what we’re seeking to find out: what needs to be added.”

The work at UW aims to help create a pervasive computing environment, wherein users access information anywhere, regardless of the application in which the info is created, and where the user happens to be – at the home computer connected by DSL, with the laptop or handheld computer connected by Wi-Fi or advanced cellular technology, or sitting at the plain old office desktop connected by Ethernet to the applicable server.

According to Carl Zetie, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., research like this makes sense, especially in an increasingly wireless world.

“You have to design the applications so they can be used offline. You can’t just assume connectivity and give [users] browser-based apps. You have to build the application with a bit more intelligence and probably a local database.”

Rob Veitch, Waterloo-based director of business development with Sybase’s database-minded subsidiary iAnywhere Solutions Inc., said it’s not surprising that the company chose UW as its first competency centre.

For one thing, “iAnywhere Solutions has a large R&D centre here in Waterloo,” he said. “We have a long history, more than 20 years, of working with and doing research with the University of Waterloo. That, and the University of Waterloo is one of the best, if not the best technical university in the world.”

Veitch added that Sybase’s pervasive computing project would impact mobile workers, including sales professionals, people in the delivery business and the ultimate corridor warriors: nurses and doctors working in hospitals.

DiCiccio said the school has not finalized its arrangement with Sybase, but he figures the money might go to laboratories and graduate students researching technology that speaks to the company’s goal of creating an intelligent, pervasive computing environment.

“I don’t think we’ll end up building a whole system that you’d imagine wanting to work with, or use,” DiCiccio said. “We’ll investigate pieces of such a system, and understand better the issues, the choices you have to make in designing such a system.”