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Wireless Applications: A Natural Evolution

Fri, 06/01/2001 - 5:05am

A new generation delivering web-type applications over wireless networks.

Arnie Phatak, Syntel Inc.

Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) offers the opportunity to adapt enterprise applications so that mobile employees and customers can access them from small, light, inexpensive handheld devices on an anytime, anywhere basis. The critical benefit for all of these applications is that they reduce the reaction time of mobile professionals — from the CEO to the service technician — who are far from their desks by providing real-time information, enabling them to take immediate action and dramatically increasing productivity. The exploding proliferation of Internet-enabled cellular phones — expected to reach 96 million in North American alone by 2005 — makes it possible for mobile users to access enterprise applications without even having to learn and carry a new device. WAP provides a de-facto world standard that makes it possible to enhance enterprise applications so that they can be accessed from virtually all web-enabled phones. This article will provide suggestions for taking advantage of the wireless explosion and will also profile one of the first wireless enterprise applications.

The greater mobility of today's workforce means that it is more critical than ever that they have immediate access to the information needed to do their job. Today's information systems connect the entire organization as well as suppliers and customers on a nearly seamless basis. At the same time, a new generation of reporting systems is making it possible to instantly deliver information that can identify problems or opportunities so that immediate action can be taken. Yet, the fact is, today nearly all employees are out of the range of these applications whenever they are away from their desks, which for many of them is most of the time. They are forced to rely upon printed reports that quickly fall out of date. The knowledge that they have gained in the field can't be put to use by the rest of the organization until they have returned to their offices, days or weeks later, and input the data and knowledge.

Increasing Productivity and Effectiveness
That's why a new generation of applications based on wireless devices makes it possible to increase the productivity and effectiveness of employees while providing a tighter bond with customers, suppliers, and channel partners. Access to key data such as customer order information, inventory levels, and service information on a 24 by 7 basis can accelerate routine processes and decision-making by putting information at the fingertips of those with the power to act upon it. For example, a service technician could learn about a problem with a key account in time to immediately visit the customer site and solve it before it causes a production bottleneck. A salesperson could access a company database to determine in-stock status of items needed by the customer and deliver a quotation on the spot. A report from Aberdeen Group showed that mobile enterprise applications can provide a significant competitive advantage. Aberdeen concluded that in almost all of the organizations that have deployed enterprise applications on handheld devices, the benefits have been real, quantifiable, and impressive in terms of return-on-investment or payback.

Yet, before wireless applications can truly take hold, what's needed is a standard that corporate developers can use to provide enterprise applications on the hundreds of different types of wireless devices in use around the world. As the defacto world standard for the presentation and delivery of wireless information and telephony services on mobile phones and other wireless terminals, WAP addresses that issue. WAP is a specification for delivering web-type applications over wireless networks. Carriers representing more than 100 million subscribers worldwide have joined the WAP Forum and delivered tens of millions of WAP-browser enabled products. Dataquest Inc., a unit of Gartner Group Inc., recently reported that WAP has conquered 73 percent of Asia's subscribers through operators who have installed gateways supporting WAP or HDML microbrowsers. By building open specifications and encouraging technical exchanges among key industry players, the WAP protocol has already laid the groundwork for a new generation of wireless-enabled enterprise applications.

Unique Characteristics of Wireless Devices
The unique characteristics of wireless devices — one-finger navigation, smaller screens, limited RAM/ROM, and the usefulness of location-based information — all demand a unique type of browser. Wireless markup language (WML) provides the foundation of a microbrowser specially designed to capitalize on these unique factors. Instead of using the flat document structure of HTML, WML structures its document in decks and cards. A card is usually small enough to be displayed on even the smallest cell phone screens. The use of decks and cards provides a navigation model that calls for minimum interpage navigation — the user is guided through a series of cards rather than having to scroll up and down a large page. WAP addresses the limited memory and CPU of mobile phones and wireless devices by defining a lightweight protocol stack that makes small claims on computational power and memory resources. Finally, it addresses bandwidth limitations by encoding transmissions into a compact form that minimizes on-air traffic.


Figure 2. Graph showing various technologies and their respective visibilities.

A WAP connection consists of: 1) a WAP-enabled mobile phone; 2) a gateway that provides the link between the mobile phone and the Internet; and 3) the application that is hosted on a conventional web server. Users select options from WAP-enabled devices using arrow keys, phone buttons or some other form of selection to jump to specific pages. The WAP stack of protocols covers the entire process of wireless content delivery and resides on the gateway. The actual request goes to the gateway, which translates requests from the WAP protocol stack to the web protocol stack. Content must be formatted suitably for the mobile phone's small screen and low bandwidth/high latency connection. Content is written in WML, which includes a scripting language to provide client-side intelligence.

Choosing the Right Application
The first step in developing a successful WAP application is choosing the right application to develop. Consider the value that would be gained by accessing each application under consideration from wireless devices. Look for an immediate return on investment, such as being able to provide quotations to customers in seconds rather than days. Anyone who has attempted to surf the web on a cell phone can testify to the fact that the amount of data that can be delivered and level of interaction are far inferior to a conventional desktop PC. So look for a relatively low-bandwidth application. But also keep in mind the possibility that you may be able to reduce the amount of data handled by the application while maintaining most of its value. For example, consider an executive information system that provides intricate three-dimensional graphics that are far too complex to be depicted on the screen of a cell phone. Perhaps the display could be condensed to a few key numerical values that would easily fit?

The strategy that you have selected to create your original application also can have a big impact on the wireless development process. While it's always possible to develop wireless applications from scratch, most companies want to save money and time by leveraging their existing code. This process is easier if applications are built with separate business logic and presentation layers. For example the data layer could execute on a mainframe computer while the business logic is developed as Java Beans and the presentation layer is based on Java Server Pages. This type of architecture makes it possible to utilize the existing data and business logic layers for the wireless application with little or no modifications. All that is required is the development of a new presentation layer that serves up WML pages for conversion by the WAP gateway.

Improving Usability
In developing the wireless application, keep in mind the unique characteristics of wireless platforms in order to improve usability. "The really hard part about delivering content to WAP phones is to take content from a completely different device and reduce it so it is still useful. I cannot overstate how important that capability will be," said Meta Group analyst Ashim Pal. Limitations in the width and length of the interface make it desirable to place the entire screen within a single column so that the application does not wrap around the screen and there is no horizontal scroll bar. This requires that each object be placed on the left-hand edge of the interface and have the same horizontal position as the other objects. Long objects, such as labels, need to be edited so that they are able to fit within the width of the screen. It's also wise to eliminate all unnecessary text and graphics both to conserve screen real estate and bandwidth. It also frequently makes sense to combine host screens in order to simplify the user interface for wireless presentation. For example, if two host screens are used to show the value of commodities in two different currencies, the first currency screen can write the value to global variables. Those variables can then be written to the second currency screen and all the values viewed simultaneously.


Figures 3 - 6. Images illustrating WAP.

Selecting an M-Commerce
Development Partner
One more critical part of your wireless strategy is determining whether to build up your own expertise or to outsource development to a service provider. Most companies select the service provider route because they are able to take advantage of the business savvy and technical skills that can be provided by an organization with considerable wireless experience. If you take this route, look for a company that has multiple successful wireless development projects under its belt. Ideally, these should be real-world enterprise projects that have demonstrated not only glitzy technology but also the ability to generate a return on investment. Make sure you select a firm that understands the source technology of the applications that are being converted to wireless. This is critical because in most cases it doesn't make sense to reinvent the wheel for wireless but rather to leverage the value buried in your existing enterprise applications. The shortage of IT personnel in North America means that a developer that is able to provide a global outsourcing approach can offer significant advantages in cost and time-to-market. Look for a company that not only has a strong offshore development operation but can provide an on-site project manager who is knowledgeable in business, technical, and cultural issues to insure that western-style project management values are maintained.

Finally, it's important to note that the opportunity of providing wireless enablement of enterprise applications should not wait until the universal solution can be developed that meets all the needs of everyone. The technologies available today, most prominently WAP, provide such a dramatic leap forward that any company that does not take advantage of them will face a serious competitive disadvantage. While current mobile computing technology will not deliver a perfect application, it will meet the fundamental requirements of being able to access information and enter transactions from the field. The implementation of such applications can provide such dramatic rewards in improving decision-making, reducing organizational response time, enhancing communication with customers, and raising worker productivity that nearly every company should strongly consider moving immediately to provide wireless access to key applications.

Example:
Insurance Marketing Application
Wireless applications also have the potential to substantially benefit marketing operations. Most sales reps in the field communicate by phone, mail and fax with clerks located at headquarters who enter information in the host system and respond to the rep's inquiries. The problem with this approach is that an enormous amount of time is spent on back and forth communications between the reps and clerks. When a customer calls a rep with even the most basic question, the rep either has to either call back the customer with the response or try to reach someone in headquarters who can provide an answer while the customer waits on hold. Reps are typically so dispersed that providing a terminal and a reasonable speed network connection would be quite expensive. On the other hand, the cost of a cell phone with Internet access is typically in the $100 to $200 range.

An excellent example of how wireless applications can improve sales rep productivity is a WAP application that is about to go live on nekema.com, an online marketplace of insurance products targeted at insurance agents and financial intermediaries. The application was written in Java using the Versa business rules engine. The developers added a set of components in the middle tier that interact with Versata business components using Corba objects. These objects determine the type of client device and generate XML pages targeted for user's screen. The application is currently designed to deal only with existing customers but will soon be expanded to allow entry of new customers as well. The application begins when the agent enters the first few characters of the customers' name and the application pulls up the nearest match in the DB2 database. The application then prompts the agent to capture all policy-related information from the customer, such as the geographical location of the facility, type of coverage needed, policy limits, etc. and concludes by accessing a mainframe application to provide the agent with an instantaneous quote. Using infrared technology, agents can easily print out a copy of the quote from the portable device and provide it to the customer on the spot. This approach increases the agent's productivity by eliminating the need for telephone and fax communications with the home office and raises customer satisfaction because quotes can be provided far more quickly.

Conclusion
This application is among the first of an expected tidal wave that will dramatically increase productivity of mobile professionals by allowing them to access mission-critical applications from the job. Forrester Research, in a report called "Latent Demand for a Wireless Web," said it believes that exceptional growth will be achieved when marketers position themselves to better respond to customer needs, to build on existing technology platforms, to complement old surfing habits, to create niche markets, and to innovate. hand-held wireless devices will become an even more compelling application platform in the next several years as next generation wireless technologies provide higher bandwidths and significant performance improvements. Accessible electronic versions of reports, quote and order forms, work orders, punch lists, and electronic forms provided via a device held in the palm make it easier and faster to perform a broad range of tasks. Basically, anyone who accesses a host computer from a terminal can now use a hand-held device to obtain anytime, anywhere information access and data entry.

The steps outlined above can help you fully leverage the wireless world. To start, select an application where the return from providing mobile access will be high. Throughout the development process, focus on the unique characteristics of mobile devices. Select a development and integration partner with experience not only in mobile applications but also in the enterprise systems to which they connect. Finally, keep in mind that hand-held devices will become an even more compelling platform in the near future as next generation technologies provide higher bandwidths and significant performance improvements.

For more information, contact Syntel Inc., 2800 Livernois, Troy, MI 48083, (248) 619-2800. Visit Syntel's website at www.syntelinc.com

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