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Wireless Computing: Mobility Without Restraints

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To most IT professionals, mobile computing brings up visions of carrying a 5-pound laptop to and from home, the office, the airport, and whatever client site or conference is on the day’s agenda. To actuate the mobile component of this rather new IT model, all you have to do is plug into the nearest telephone jack. Then you can access the Internet and Lotus Notes or a similar application, which, in turn, allows you to access back-end corporate data. The problem, in many cases, is finding a suitable Web connection. And once you’ve found that, you have to rely on the telephone infrastructure to maintain a fast and stable connection. Well, campers, while this method of mobile computing may increase the strength of your biceps and get you, at best, a mediocre connection to your corporate database, there’s a new kid on the block that doesn’t need to use any wires or switches in the relatively antiquated analog telephone infrastructure: wireless communication.

The Bright New Wireless World

Three or four years ago, most wireless applications were limited to cellular phones. The first Palm computing devices and small wireless LANs were used primarily for running a shipping operation in a localized warehouse setting. By the end of 1999, the wireless landscape had changed dramatically with the introduction of many new handheld computing devices and a number of wireless data services supported by a variety of both small and large wireless carriers. While market researcher International Data Corporation (IDC) (www.idc.com) estimates a respectable 7 million U.S. users logged onto the Internet with wireless devices in 1999, it forecasts an incredible leap to more than 60 million wireless Internet users by 2003. This may even turn out to be a low estimate if the public becomes educated about the true potential of wireless Internet access. Several developments are pushing the public acceptance of wireless Internet access:

• Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) Forum (www.wapforum.org) has become a driving force behind the acceptance of wireless communications. The WAP Forum itself estimates that close to 500 million handheld devices will be integrated into its protocol by 2003 (obviously an optimistic forecast compared to IDC’s numbers).


• Wireless computing has been energized with significant input from companies like Microsoft and IBM. The introduction of mobile-specific portals is driving the introduction of new and cost-effective wireless providers.

While the WAP Forum isn’t a standards body (see “Technology Spotlight: Technology Standards: Who Makes the Rules,” MC, February 1999), one of its goals is the certification of WAP by such industry standards bodies as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Figure 1 shows an approximation of the design of the WAP infrastructure. (WML stands for Wireless Markup Language, and WTA stands for Wireless Telephony Application.) You’ll be hearing much more about WAP, its constituents, and its efforts to stabilize and expand wireless communications in the coming months. The WAP Forum and the different standards bodies are intertwined with many different alliances in the growing wireless movement. In many ways, they’re like a family. They may have disagreements from time to time, but their goal is the same: to complete a wireless infrastructure that includes Internet access from any location by using any one of a number of certified devices.

Now I’ll take a look at one of the real wireless solutions available today: Mobile Services for Domino. I’ll also discuss some initiatives that will determine the future of wireless technology, which looks so bright you may need sunglasses.

Mobile Services for Domino: A First-generation Wireless Solution

Lotus Domino/Notes has been reinventing itself regularly since its primitive origin as a mail solution during the dawn of PC computing. Lotus Notes has responded to the evolution of mobile business computing with its own evolving mobile capabilities. As I mentioned, the whole definition of business computing mobility has changed drastically in the last two years. Lotus Notes/Domino is perfectly poised to take advantage of this new model of wireless mobile computing.

Since the advent of Lotus Notes/Domino, a Notes client has been able to communicate with a Domino server and access a corporate database by using a modem or LAN protocol. And with the introduction of EasySync for Notes, Lotus took its mobile computing strategy one step further. EasySync allows users of IBM’s WorkPad (www.ibm.com) and 3Com/Palm’s PalmPilot (www.palm.com) handheld computing devices to instantly synchronize their Notes databases and mail bidirectionally by using IBM’s Mobile Connect (www-3. ibm.com/pvc/mobile/solutions1.shtml) or another Web connection. While this is certainly a step forward in mobile computing, EasySync still requires a global wired infrastructure. The downside to this approach is the lack of any usable telephony infrastructure in many parts of Africa, South America, and Asia.

Finally, in late 1999, Lotus announced the release of Mobile Services for Domino
1.0, its first mobile solution that is truly wireless. Basically, Mobile Services for Domino is a Domino server-side module designed to communicate with a growing number of wireless devices. Mobile Services for Domino has extended Lotus’ reach into the world of mobile computing with the following features:

• Broad and expanding support for most categories of wireless handheld communication devices including pagers, cellular phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and handheld computers

• Complete wireless Web access using one of the many wireless Web providers that are blossoming like a field of goldenrod

• The ability to search an enterprise Domino directory and use it to initiate email and other services directly from the mobile device


• The ability to create or modify Domino applications to include mobile devices in your application framework by using standard Notes APIs

Many wireless devices contain microbrowsers that can access Domino content by using handheld device markup language (HDML). (Lotus will add support for a newer version of this protocol called Wireless Markup Language [WML] at the end of the year.) Mobile Services for Domino works as a “foreign” Notes mail domain, routing messages to and from wireless devices by using one or more wireless data services. During Mobile Services for Domino installation, you can optionally have it create a Web site that allows employees, customers, and business partners to exchange messages by using mobile devices without using a Notes client. Mobile Services for Domino acts like a hub for all wireless devices and services that an enterprise uses. It supports most of the major protocols such as Simple Network Paging Protocol (SNPP) and Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) to connect to a variety of wireless data services. Mobile Services for Domino works with most cellular phone networks, paging services, and wireless packet data networks. It provides a central point of administration for these wireless connections.

Lotus is a member of the WAP Forum and many other initiatives, so Mobile Services for Domino will evolve along with the protocols that run the wireless world. The next release of this product (Version 1.1) should be out by the time you read this, and an even more robust version that may or may not be called Release 2.0 is scheduled for release at the end of this year.

Strategic Alliances Drive Wireless Standardization

The standardization of wireless protocols is the biggest challenge that all segments of the wireless IT industry face. Products like Mobile Services for Domino must be designed with flexibility and extensibility—mandatory characteristics for any wireless solution—in mind. While the WAP Forum and standards bodies will play a major role in developing wireless guidelines, a growing cadre of industry alliances is starting to make its mark on the development of new wireless solutions. Lotus and Ericsson have announced a broad initiative to integrate Ericsson phones with Lotus products starting with Lotus Organizer
5.0. Lotus has optimized Organizer 5.0 to work with Ericsson phones and intends to continue this initiative to its logical conclusion: the integration of Ericsson products with Lotus Domino. IBM recently announced alliances with Cisco Systems, Ericsson, Nokia, Palm, Motorola, and several other companies to start a series of initiatives designed to speed the development of wireless e-business solutions.

Evidently, Big Blue has seen the future of Web communications, and it is wireless. IBM wants to create an open, scalable “engine” for wireless voice and data communications. It also wants to aid Cisco in developing new wireless networks, help Ericsson create wireless applications, and work with Palm to deploy enterprise applications based on the Palm platform to IBM customers. And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. IBM has also announced that data synchronization across multiple wireless devices and WAP support for wireless Internet access are part of its WebSphere Everyplace Suite software—proof of an obvious need for truly pervasive computing.

Speaking of data synchronization, early this year, IBM, Lotus, Nokia, Motorola, Palm, Ericsson, and a growing list of other companies announced the formation of the SyncML (www.syncml.org) initiative. This alliance was formed to create the first open industry-standard protocol for data synchronization across virtually all wireless and mobile devices. SyncML was created to stem the proliferation of proprietary data synchronization protocols and deliver an open standard by the middle of this year. Whether SyncML can deliver the goods according to this schedule is debatable, but no one is denying the need for such a standard.


Who Needs Wires?

In the future, wired mobile devices may become the exception rather than the rule. The only real limitation to the size of small wireless devices is the physical size of the human hand. (Most complaints I’ve heard concern fat fingers and small keypads.) The PC came of age in the last decade of the 20th century, and wireless communications are rapidly coming of age in the first decade of the 21st century. Software giants like IBM and Lotus are teaming with wireless device manufacturers and wireless service providers to form strategic alliances that are developing comprehensive wireless solutions at a torrid pace. There are several problems that need to be solved before the IT industry will accept wireless as an enterprise solution; most notable are the security and interoperability issues. However, if the WAP Forum and the IT industry can achieve the goal of industry standardization with guaranteed security, they will achieve what Iridium and its satellites promised: universal wireless communication.

References and Related Materials

• 3Com/Palm Web site: www.palm.com

• IBM Mobile Connect Web site: www-3.ibm.com/pvc/mobile/solutions1.shtml

• International Data Corporation Web site: www.idc.com

• SyncML Web site: www.syncml.org

• “Technology Spotlight: Technology Standards: Who Makes the Rules,” D. Ellis Green, MC, February 1999

• Wireless Application Protocol Forum Web site: www.wapforum.org

WAP Proxy

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Filter

WML Filter WAP Proxy WTA

Server

WML

HTML HTML

WML

Wireless Network

Web Server

WML

WML

Figure 1: This chart shows the basic design of the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) infrastructure.


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