The Sweet XML of Mobile Success

By Guy Kewney  |  Posted 2003-10-14

The Sweet XML of Mobile Success

Just about the only thing there is to know for sure about the new Vodafone-Microsoft partnership is that it is based on XML, and that Bill Gates himself thought it was important enough to justify a personal appearance at Geneva ITU.

Microsoft, of course, has a product which is just switching to XML: Office 2003, which rolls out next week. Vodafone has Vodafone Mobile Office—a set of specialist desktop applications for the mobile PC user. Neither product, as yet, exploits ideas like desktop SMS messaging; they dont share an Instant Messenger service (Office 2003 doesnt even have one!), and the concepts of SIP-based voice-over-IP phone calls are to be found in neither. But it doesnt seem that these are the concepts that either company has in mind.

According to the official release: "Mobile Web services will utilize existing industry standard Extensible Markup Language (XML)-based Web services architecture to expose mobile network services to the broadest audience of developers." And it adds: "Developers will be able to access and integrate mobile network services such as messaging, location, authentication and billing into their applications."

The message that they are selling is an innovative one—from Microsofts perspective, at least.

In the past, what this sort of statement has really meant, is that Microsoft is playing its "We have more developers than anybody" card, in an attempt to preempt a strong comeback by Palm in the corporate mobile space. And it is a good card.

There are thousands upon thousands of professional software writers, all skilled at Windows enterprise application building, and Microsoft needs to harness these people to the yoke of its still-struggling mobile phone and PDA business.

But on this occasion, it seems to be the other way around. Rather than turning server-based applications loose on the harrassed phone user, Microsoft is offering mobile features—and applications—to the IT manager, and the user on the desktop. The question is: Why?

The answer may be simple. It may be "because nobody else is really trying to do this yet." Up to now, Microsoft has been able to develop its first strategy pretty freely. Its main rival in the phone business, Symbian, has not been focusing on corporate development, and what business tools it does have are not exactly household words in the lives of senior executives. And Palm is only now emerging from the long hibernation imposed on it when it became a cash cow for 3Com.

So it was able to launch Pocket Outlook for handheld devices, presenting the mobile phone and pocket PC as an extension of the corporate web, and few rival products were visible.

The problem, of course, is that nobody knows, yet, how sensible an ambition this is. Is the Windows platform really suitable for a handheld device with a tiny screen? Are corporate IT applications really capable of being rescaled for the slow connect speeds, and the intermittent connectivity, and the small footprint of a 250 MHz ARM device?

the universal appeal of the Java platform, which is the only common thread linking Palm, Symbian and Windows based phones—and several other proprietary mobile systems, too.

So the reverse strategy looks like a real innovation. Rather than extend the server functions onto a platform where it may really not be much use (for example, theres actually a SQL Server module, available for pocket PCs) the new plan is to bring the facilities that mobiles and mobile networks already have, back into the reach of the corporate developer.

The trouble is, nobody quite knows what that will involve. I dont just mean, nobody knows what Microsoft and Vodafone has in mind—rather, I mean that we still dont have a clear idea of what the mobile network of the future will actually be asked to do. I get the distinct impression that the new partners are hoping to get the jump on it, which may be why theyre so coy with details.

In general terms, of course, theyve been pretty forthcoming: "The new partnership is an opportunity to bring the PC and mobile worlds closer together," said Vodafones Maxwell. "Application development is limited to either/or. Mobiles been about consumption of services, and the PC has been about the consumption of software."

What Does It Mean

?"> But what does that actually mean? Apart from optimistic determination, theres no clear answer from either Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect of Microsoft, or Ian Maxwell, group strategic relationship director of Vodafone.

What they said was that they had "a vision of providing developers with access to mobile services using industry-standard Web services techniques and tools."

So, when Microsoft and Vodafone "called upon the industry to embrace this approach" to bring about the convergence of PC and mobile applications and services through Web services standards, what mobile applications, exactly, do they want us to embrace? When they also announced their "plans to detail a technical roadmap of the mobile Web services specifications on which they intend to collaborate and seek industry engagement," was this more than just plans to have plans?

When Vodafones Maxwell says "the agreement between Microsoft and Vodafone, extends the reach of our services to customers who may not have mobile devices," what Vodafone services, specifically, would be useful to the desktop user, or the server manager? Is this a really useful idea?

The answer looks like "Yes!"—but despite attempts at detailed analysis by several observers, theres nothing of substance from either company, yet, to support that judgement. Just warm, fuzzy-friendly phrases, like: "The companies efforts will help expand commercial opportunities for developers to further promote their applications and enable solutions that work seamlessly across PC and mobile environments," as it said in the official hand-out released before Bill Gatess speech at the ITU conference in Geneva. There are mentions of "payment network services" on Microsofts web site for the Professional Developers Conference.

This isnt the first such XML-based collaboration Microsoft has initiated. Its corporate Web services link with IBM has been judged as a powerful initiative by many observers. In their judgement, it has worked.

If the new plan works, "customers will be able to use mobile Web services from multiple devices on both wired and wireless networks."

Well, thats purpose of the plan. Were unlikely to know the details of it, even after the company presents its White Paper to the Professional Developer Conference in LA later this month. And even when we have details, it will still be an act of faith to judge whether it is a viable plan.

Here are some questions which Ive heard asked, and which Microsoft is welcome to take on board as suggestions:

  • Will Vodafone give phone number access over the Internet to subscribers when they are in their office?
  • Will Microsoft Office be able to track where its users are, and adjust their data feed to the available bandwidth and latency?
  • Will the concept of "seamless roaming" extend from desktop to board-room to street to automobile to airplane to home den?
  • Will directory services be able to track a user who appears to be using three devices simultaneously, in two different locations?

Too much depends on how far into the future the partners are looking. A plan made for todays network would have to cope with the extreme latencies and unreliable bandwidth of 2.5G phone data, which is rarely faster than 28 kilobits per second, often sees delays of up to eight seconds between ping and pong, and on which the concept of "quality of service" is as appropriate as the concept of football on a tightrope.

But if theyre looking just two years into the future, where theres a reasonable expectation of widespread 3G data networking and the chance of initial 4G broadband wireless rollouts, then the barrier between fixed and mobile will have dissolved more than somewhat. Then, they can really let their imaginations run riot.

The White Paper at the PDC should be a popular download. Particularly, I suspect, to people sitting at terminals inside Symbian, Palm, and the other phone network providers.

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