New Wireless Apps Cater to Carriers, Not Users

The drive toward next-generation wireless services is producing a torrent of application development.

The drive toward next-generation wireless services is producing a torrent of application development. But a look at some of the resulting products reveals a concerted effort by developers to satisfy vendors and carriers bottom lines, rather than solve real-world wireless issues.

Several vendors, such as Octave Communications Inc., Bitfone Corp. and Danger Research Inc., are set to roll out wireless multimedia and collaboration applications that introduce cutting-edge convergence features—and premium prices—to users who remain less than enthusiastic about the concepts.

Octave this week, for example, will launch applications that enable wireless carriers to host subscription services for instant group conferencing. With the companys MeetAbout software, which is in beta trials at British Telecommunications plc., a subscriber can select participants from preset buddy lists using a browser on a PC or any wireless device that supports Wireless Application Protocol.

Users on the buddy list can receive messages via Short Message Service, instant messaging or e-mail. After setup, the subscriber can then establish an immediate conference, dialing out to several group members at once. The subscriber is charged for the call, and the charge is multiplied by the number of people in the conference, a feature wireless carriers embrace, according to Octave officials.

The carrier-centric offering is just one of several on the bill at this weeks DemoMobile show in La Jolla, Calif., where the wireless eye candy will also include a peek at long-awaited products from Danger and updated handheld software from Microsoft Corp.

The wooing of service providers is most obvious in coming products from multimedia developers creating premium, bandwidth-hungry services. Bitfone, one of several companies at DemoMobile, which is funded by Nokia Venture Partners, will show a multimedia messaging application that enables wireless transmission of photographs to handheld devices. Bitfone also has plans for more-complex video applications, according to officials at the Palo Alto, Calif., company.

Carriers certainly are interested in such multimedia services, which will be possible with the General Packet Radio Service networks that are slowly being deployed in Europe and the United States. Last week, for example, NTT DoCoMo Inc. and PacketVideo Corp. announced a deal to deliver video to mobile phones for DoCoMos networks in Japan.

But potential customers are critical.

"Its an idea waiting for customers to want it," said Erich Berman, advanced technology consultant at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., in Milwaukee, and an eWeek Corporate Partner. "I have a hard time seeing multimedia as an important PDA [personal digital assistant] tool. Theyre just developing stuff that eats a lot of bandwidth that nobody really wants."

Analysts agreed that many new applications will please providers before they please customers. "It falls into that whole group of use once, never again software," said Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in San Jose, Calif. "Its clever ... but you ask yourself if you need it—and you dont."

Others point to the state of the hardware as the chief obstacle. "I havent heard much about [multimedia applications], but thats possibly because there arent any devices that support it," said Felix Lin, chairman of wireless service provider AvantGo Inc., in Hayward, Calif.

In that vein, the industry has been waiting for upcoming hardware from startup Danger, which will be strutting its stuff at DemoMobile. Danger is targeting carriers with a back-end service that provides wireless messaging, e-mail, Web browsing and other applications. But the company is also providing a hardware reference design for a device custom-made to support these applications, according to officials at the Palo Alto company.

Vendors preparing for DemoMobile defended the tack of their next-generation offerings. "The way [carriers] are going to increase their average revenue per user is with applications like these," said Craig Randall, vice president of marketing at Octave, in Nashua, N.H. Octaves MeetAbout application is available now, and wireless carriers in the United States should be offering services within the next few months.

In handheld operating system news, Microsoft is expected late this week to unveil the next version of its Pocket PC, code-named Merlin, reported sources close to the company, who said the operating system is likely to appear at Demo. The official version will be called Pocket PC 2002, sources said. Developers have had Merlin in the labs for several months. Hewlett-Packard Co. and Compaq Computer Corp. have committed to supporting Merlin in upcoming products. Like the current version of Pocket PC, Merlin will be based on Windows CE 3.0, but the new version is designed to sync better with Windows XP. Merlin is expected to hit the market in the fourth quarter.