On the surface, NTT DoCoMos $9.8 billion investment in AT&T wireless looked like just another shrewd business deal, but overnight the pairing stirred fresh debate about Wireless Markup Language and data-delivery protocols.
AT&T Wireless has a history of making moves that alter the course of the wireless marketplace. And the NTT DoCoMo partnership and a similar investment in KPN Mobile in Europe show the Japanese powerhouse is serious about spreading its home-brewed i-mode protocol around the globe — just when it looked like Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) had been established as a worldwide standard.
Ideally, a hybrid of standards will emerge, but industry experts acknowledge the challenges of joining the markup languages and protocols NTT DoCoMo uses to deliver its i-mode service and WAP, the de facto standard used by almost everyone else.
"We believe that WAP and i-mode will dominate in North America for the next four or five years and possibly converge," says Dave Grannan, chief executive of Geoworks, a developer of wireless server software.
The WAP Forum, whose members include NTT DoCoMo and the protocols original developer, Openwave Systems, is at work on the next version of WAP. Developers hope the upgrade will solve compatibility problems between WAP and i-mode.
Instead of Wireless Markup Language (WML), WAP 2.0 will be based on Extensible HyperText Markup Language. As the standard language defined by the World Wide Web Consortium, XHTML lets developers use the same set of tools to build applications for personal computers, personal digital assistants (PDAs), wireless phones and other devices. NTT DoCoMo, which uses a programming language called cHTML — an acronym that stands for chunks of HTML — says it too will use XHTML, according to Scott Goldman, CEO of the WAP Forum.
But the markup language is only one piece of the puzzle.
"The i-mode folks will tell you that the technology they use — cHTML — is the least important part of their equation for success," Goldman says. "Whether you render a screen in XHTML or WML is largely irrelevant in terms of plumbing and data transmission." The protocols also include security layers, an application environment and telephony integration. Those components arent compatible between i-mode and WAP, and the hope is that those pieces will also merge in WAP 2.0.
AT&T Wireless, which uses a pre-WAP technology and an early WML — Handheld Device Markup Language (HDML) — plans to migrate to WAP and then to WAP 2.0, also known as WAP next generation (WAP NG).
"The thrust behind WAP NG is 100 percent alignment with the Internet itself," says Tom Trineer, vice president of portal development at AT&T Wireless.
Many wireless players have hopes for XHTML, which some regard as the future language of the Internet, period.
"The market has spoken and the Net has won," says Rich Rifredi, vice president of marketing at Pixo, which develops software for handsets. "The wireless Internet will evolve on Internet standards because of the momentum there," he says. The wireless Web community hopes that if it can use an Internet language, it can attract the attention of the entire Internet development community.
Before its clear what will happen, vendors and operators are considering gluing i-mode and WAP together, hoping to glean the best from both. AT&T Wireless is developing handsets with dual browsers that will display content designed in both i-modes cHTML and WAPs WML.
"The dual browser is an interim step that allows us to leverage the [NTT] DoCoMo technology earlier," Trineer says. Typically, it takes nine to 12 months for new handsets to hit the market, which will still be before the next version of WAP emerges.
AT&T Wireless wont be the first operator to combine the technologies, though. Hutchison Telecom in Hong Kong has already rolled out a WAP-based i-mode service. While some parts of the i-mode service can be ported easily to new markets, others require some tweaking.
"[NTT] DoCoMo is coming at the globalization of i-mode from the top down, beginning with the i-mode brand and content and business model and the portal," says Ben Linder, Openwaves vice president of marketing.
But other pieces of the service are more difficult to port. For example, Hutchison uses software that translates i-modes cHTML content to WML so it can be read and delivered by WAP devices, Linder says.
Since that service was introduced, Openwave has developed a software platform designed for carriers migrating to next-generation systems that enables multimode cHTML, HDML, WML and XHTML browsing support.
Without a single solution, the wireless Internet is a confusing place, especially for content companies hoping to move from the wired Internet into the mobile Web. Some companies are popping up to help these entrants sort through the clutter.
"They are faced with the problem that today wireless bandwidth is low, and on top of that there are literally hundreds of different devices, different browsers and PDAs," says Gurminder Singh, president and CEO of NewsTakes. The companys solution takes content and delivers it to wired or wireless customers, regardless of the end-user device. The software eliminates the need for content providers to rewrite and reformat content.
Other companies claim to have developed solutions that cut out the need for a gateway that translates Internet content for handheld devices. Swedish company Mi4e has developed a product that WAP-enables servers.
Geoworks Grannan compares the development of i-mode and WAP to the early days of the Internet.
"If I had to compare this, Id go back to 92 or 93," he says. Like America Online was, i-mode is a very successful but proprietary system. WAP is like the public Internet because it aims to be an open industry standard. "Eventually I envision where both coexist, much like AOL plugged itself into the larger Internet," he says.