Wireless execs, Gates share vision

Wireless executives at an opening keynote session at last month’s CTIA Wireless show in New Orleans looked toward ubiquitous high-speed services and new ways of using phones, but some disagreed as to how those services will be delivered.

Wi-Fi wireless LAN hot spots will complement fast wide-area data services such as General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), said Sky Dayton, founder and chief executive officer of Wi-Fi service provider Boingo Wireless Inc. The company announced a partnership with T-Mobile USA Inc. in which users will be able to connect to Wi-Fi hot spots and GPRS services with the same account and the same software, Dayton said. The software, provided by Boingo, will show users all the hot spots available in the local area as well as whether GPRS is available, and the user can choose between the two.

“These two technologies really belong together. They have different strengths and they’re complementary, and together we can deliver a better user experience,” Dayton said.

Irwin Jacobs, chairman and CEO of Qualcomm Inc., sees a different future. High-speed third-generation (3G) cellular service will leave behind Wi-Fi for most users on the go, he said.

“You don’t have to go to a hot spot. You don’t have to park your car in the gas station in order to get a download. It’s available wherever you might be,” Jacobs said. “That’s the one, I think, that will end up being the preferred service … for most people. Once you’ve paid for that service, then why pay additional whenever you’re near a hot spot, if the service is completely adequate?”

NTT DoCoMo Inc. president and CEO Keiji Tachikawa gave a glimpse into the future of that carrier’s wireless services. Wireless services are moving from voice to non-voice, from domestic to international and from people to other kinds of “users,” such as PCs, cars and pets, Tachikawa said.

Microsoft Message

Meanwhile, speaking at the first Microsoft Mobility Developers Conference in New Orleans – purposely held near the annual CTIA Wireless 2003 conference – Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates presided over the launch of the company’s .Net Compact Framework. This is a set of development tools, code and software objects that let developers quickly build applications for an array of handheld devices that use Windows operating systems.

Gates painted a rosy view of mobile computing trends. Then he issued what could be viewed as a promise, threat or statement of fact – or all three – with regard to handheld rivals PalmSource Inc., Symbian Ltd. and Sun Microsystems Inc.

“We are going to invest and invest and invest to get the most popular software platform because we believe in these [kinds of mobile and wireless] scenarios,” Gates said.

He called the Microsoft Tablet PC operating system, introduced late last year, an “explosive form factor.” He pointed to new software platforms for “smart devices,” including sophisticated cell phones and even a wrist-watch-sized network device, dubbed Spot, versions of which watchmakers Citizen, Fossil Inc. and Suunto Corp. are developing. “We’re taking familiar things [from the Windows development world] and bringing them to this new form factor,” he said.

And then he reminded his listeners where the money was.

“Those who start early in writing applications for this [market] will be the winners,” Gates said.

Test versions of .Net Compact Framework have been available for months. But the finished product goes a long way toward simplifying mobile programming, according to an engineering team at Shelflink Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based software company that was one of the first to partner with Microsoft in the Compact Framework project. Shelflink has shifted from Web and client/server development on Microsoft platforms to mobile applications.

“You can develop for handheld devices without needing expertise in that device,” said Andrew Park, a Shelflink software architect.

This first release of Compact Framework is for Windows CE .Net 4.1 and above, and for Pocket PC 2000, which is a version of CE tailored for handheld computers and PDAs. But during Gates’ keynote address, Microsoft employees demonstrated Compact Framework for a future version of the Smartphone operating system, which is targeted at Internet cell phones. In the onstage demonstration, a developer created a customized “home” screen for an Internet cell phone and installed it in just a few minutes.

Gates left no doubt that Microsoft is trying to bring its dominance in desktop operating systems and application development to a mobile market that will grow to billions of devices.

He cited a recent survey that gave Microsoft’s Smartphone operating system, a version of Windows CE, 55 per cent of the U.S. market for these cellular phones that combine voice with data capabilities such as Small Message Service messaging, or Web browsing. “We’re just at the start of this,” Gates said.

The .Net Compact Framework is a subset of .Net, a set of APIs, development tools and other Web services building blocks.

“Web services are a perfect fit for mobile devices,” Gates said. That’s because remote servers can do the heavy lifting in application processing.

That describes the experience at Pepsi Bottling Group of Somers, N.Y., and Shelflink, which was PBG’s software developer for a critical new sales application built using Compact Framework.

That application is being loaded on custom-built Microsoft Pocket PC handhelds from Symbol Technologies for 6,000 Pepsi sales representatives, who call on thousands of grocery and convenience stores and other retailers every week.

“When our reps meet with a store manager, they have just a few minutes to make their sale,” said Paul Hamilton, PBG’s vice-president of supply chain logistics. “We’re giving them the ability to forecast [accurately] what a given Safeway [supermarket] will sell during a particular week. The goal is to manage inventory to zero, and out-of-stocks to zero, for the retailer.”

Instead of a binder inches thick with data on Pepsi promotions, product sales and retailer sales statistics, sales representatives have started to use the Symbol handheld to download and display a variety of data on the customers’ past and pending orders, on how various Pepsi products have sold at that retail site and current PBG promotions, including Macromedia Inc. Flash animations.

One of the most important elements is a highly sophisticated sales forecasting application. PBG, working with IBM, created the complex mathematical models, which run on servers. The servers do all the initial processing. Then, the relevant data for a specific customer site is made available as an XML Web Service, which is called by the program on the Symbol handheld. There, a calculation program built by Shelflink with Compact Framework completes the number crunching and displays how many cases of each beverage product to order. The entire project took eight months instead of years, according to PBG’s Hamilton.