Souping Up Wireless

 
 
By Anne Chen  |  Posted 2001-06-04
 
 
 

Sometimes Cindy Groner must feel like shes swimming in circles in a sea of acronyms. As director of mobile traveler services at Sabre Inc., Groner oversees a team of wireless developers who, in the process of coming up with new wireless services for Sabres customers, must create multiple versions of each page. One in the Wireless Markup Language format for Wireless Application Protocol devices. Another in Handheld Device Markup Language for devices using the Openwave Systems Inc. browser. And another in Compact HTML for Nippon Telephone and Telegraph Corp.s i-mode devices. Every time content or wireless services change, developers must test the application on multiple devices to make sure the experience is the same on all platforms, a strenuous process.

"When you have to manipulate content for various devices and various standards, it becomes a management issue trying to deliver services," said Groner, in Fort Worth, Texas.

Now, however, Groner said she believes help is on the way. And it doesnt even matter that its coming in the form of yet another acronym: XHTML. It stands for Extensible HTML, and its a rapidly emerging standard that could soon allow e-businesses such as Sabre to write online applications just once and deliver them across multiple platforms—whether wireless or PC-based.

"XHTML will not just allow us to deliver richer content but will also tremendously speed up our delivery of that content," Groner said.

The payoff? In an industry where it pays to be first to market, Groner and other e-business managers say XHTML will reduce the development and testing time of mobile applications significantly. Groner estimates that with XHTML, she can cut the time it takes Sabre to roll out new wireless features in half. And that, experts say, will encourage e-businesses like Sabre to begin to offer more than the simple applications, such as stock quotes and news updates, that epitomize most wireless applications today.

Thats why, having spent millions of dollars developing and deploying wireless applications for multiple devices—cell phones, PDAs (personal digital assistants) and televisions—companies such as Sabre, IBM and Edmunds.com Inc. now are already planning to make XHTML a critical component of their wireless e-business strategies by pilot testing the new standard even before its supported on mobile devices or embedded into networks.

Most companies should begin to do the same, experts say. But, they warn, the schedule for actually rewriting existing Web and wireless applications should be determined by how much function is shared by a companys regular Web site and its wireless services, among other issues.

Still, experts say, just about any e-business with a wireless strategy should benefit—and soon—from XHTML, which the World Wide Web Consortium officially released in January 2000.

"There are a lot of benefits to be seen in XHTML, particularly the reduced need for intensive testing with every browser device you support," said Rich Waller, chief technology officer for Microsoft Solutions at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, in Seattle. "If you support several different devices as well as different browsers, you end up spending millions of dollars just trying to satisfy the various demands."

The lack of robust wireless content and services—in part caused by the multiple markup languages that must be supported today—is blamed for what many see as the slow development to date of mobile e-commerce.

While consulting company Accenture, in Hamilton, Bermuda, estimates that more than 130 million customers worldwide will spend $200 billion between now and 2006 buying things wirelessly, so far its been all talk, no walk: The constrained size of current devices makes it difficult for e-businesses to display more than four to five lines of text. And, in reality, only 100,000 of the 1 million Internet-capable handheld devices owned by consumers are used to access the Web, according to Giga Information Group Inc., in Cambridge, Mass.

The problems stem from the fact that the current standard for developing Web content—HTML—was never meant for wireless devices. HTML applications typically take up too much memory for small mobile devices.

XHTML, on the other hand, solves that problem by being more modular and structured than its predecessor. Essentially a marriage between HTML and XML (Extensible Markup Language), XHTML is able to ensure that only code suitable for smaller browsers is transmitted to wireless devices, something HTML is unable to do (see chart, Page 56).

Because its mobile subset, XHTML Basic, is essentially the same language designed to deliver Web content to devices ranging from mobile phones and PDAs to pagers and television-based browsers, it lets programmers write content for PCs and mobile devices at the same time without conversion. XHTML Basic, which was recommended as a standard by the W3C last December, includes features from many existing wireless protocols, enabling developers to take advantage of the larger color screens and greater graphics capabilities of new devices designed for networks that run at higher speeds (see chart, Page 54).

The wireless industrys big guns, including the WAP Forum and Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, of Tokyo, have already announced that they will support XHTML as the standard for next-generation browsers and other mobile devices (see story below). Handset manufacturers Nokia Corp., Motorola Inc. and Ericsson SpA, and mobile operators Vodafone Group plc., Orange SA and Telecom Italia SpA are also backing the standard and plan to develop products, content and services based on XHTML.

"Using an XML-based language supported by our carriers makes a big difference both in presentation and in what we are able to provide to wireless users," said Joe LaMuraglia, director of wireless initiatives at Edmunds.com, an online provider of automobile pricing information in Santa Monica, Calif. "Rather than scraping our Web site, we are able to offer content like photographs and functionality we werent able to provide before."

Phones and other mobile devices that support XHTML wont appear overnight, though. Giga predicts that support for any form of XHTML Basic in mobile devices will not appear on the market until next year.

Developers at companies such as IBM are using the lag time to their advantage. Managers responsible for IBM.com began looking into XHTML in the winter of 1999, and this year, as part of an eventual migration to XHTML, began authoring all 4.5 million pages of the companys Web site using XML development tools.

"For us, XHTML is really a steppingstone to rich-level XML," said David Leip, corporate Webmaster of IBM. com, in New York. "Because wireless standards arent really settled down in the industry, it became important that we use something that could deliver information to multiple devices. Moving the main bulk of millions of Web pages on our site to XHTML now ensures that well be able to support any wireless device in the future."

The technical aspects of migrating Web applications to XHTML is far from intimidating, officials at IBM said. While Leip made an effort to educate all the Web development teams within IBM, he said no training was necessary because of the similarities between XHTML and XML. The recoding of the site, which was done in conjunction with a mid-March release of Version 11 of the Web site, was finished in less than three months. Converting the code for the site was done using Xerces, an XML parser developed and contributed to the Apache Group by IBM.

Besides making it easier to access multiple browsers and devices, using XHTML will help IBM maintain a common look and feel across all its Web and wireless applications. In addition, Leip said, it will allow the company to add richer content to wireless applications. While parts of the IBM site are already coded using richer XML data, Leip said XHTML will enable IBM.com and its mobile portal to deliver in a more uniform way a richer graphical experience to wireless devices such as phones and PDAs in the future.

Although companies such as IBM report that training and tools will not be a problem in migrating to XHTML, experts say that some organizations may face problems getting developers in scattered business units to accept the shift to the new standard. Therefore, they say, not all enterprises will want to move to the new protocol as early as the end of the year.

Experts say the decision of when and how to migrate toward XHTML depends on a companys market and the role of mobile commerce in its strategy. Waller, at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, said companies should consider what role XHTML will play in their long-term mobile strategies and the products and services they intend to provide in the future.

Companies, for example, that expect to make large amounts of content accessible by mobile devices should look to migrate early to XHTML for their regular Web sites and their mobile sites, as IBM is doing.

However, experts say companies with a focused geographical market or that tend not to replicate all content between their regular Web sites and their wireless sites can get away with using transcoding software and style sheets to convert HTML content to todays mobile languages, as they do now. Eventually, however, most e-businesses will want to move to XHTML, experts say.

"XHTML is a better, cleaner version of HTML, and were telling companies that they need to move toward it no matter what their Internet and wireless strategies are," Waller said. "Going forward, your needs will really determine how you will use the standard for presentation to different devices and versions of browsers."

At Sabre, there are no plans to convert the companys corporate Web site to XHTML. Instead, the company has chosen to look at XHTML for its mobile applications for now and to eventually code all future mobile applications in the language.

At the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association trade show this year, Sabre showcased a prototype of its Virtually There wireless service coded in XHTML.

The prototype of the flight scheduling and arrival time information service, while not quite the same as what wired users would see, gives a more graphical and user-friendly experience.

"Sabres vision is to deliver information and services to the customer whenever and wherever they need it to any device, and XHTML plays into that strategy very nicely," Groner said.

Groner said Sabre will wait for automated conversion and validation tools for the XHTML Basic version of the standard to be released before making any final decisions on when to migrate its mobile code. Such tools are expected to hit the market this summer.

When Sabre finally does switch to XHTML, Groner said she doesnt expect the company to go wild by streaming video and graphic-intensive material to wireless devices right away. Still, she said, the move will be worth it because thinning out the current profusion of acronym-happy wireless standards will allow the company to get new wireless services to market and into the hands of mobile users quicker.

"If you only have to write an application once and it formats appropriately across multiple devices, it would definitely help speed up the process of delivering new content and applications," Groner said. "While manipulating content for several different devices is not as time-consuming as writing the application itself, it is a management issue nonetheless."

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