A World Without Wires

Upcoming wireless technologies demystified.

Acronym Soup

"Record breaking bid for licenses to operate in the 3G spectrum"

"Video on demand on your mobile phone"

"The refrigerator talking to your neighborhood grocer’s computer"

If you follow technology, you've probably seen headlines like these in all the major journals over the past few months. Acronyms like WAP, GPRS and 3G are constantly being batted around by technology evangelists, and barely a day goes by without the mention of some new application that promises to make your life more leisurely and common tasks more convenient. Convergence has become the mantra of the new millennium, and people are fascinated by the concept of intelligent computing that promises to simplify everyday tasks like ordering groceries or checking your bank balance.

Now, regardless of whether you're a developer working to transition to the new mobile medium, or a CEO who needs to stay abreast of the technological curve, the acronyms won't tell you anything useful. And so, we've put together this guide to forthcoming technologies in the world of mobile communications, in the hope that it will guide you through the acronym soup and help you find an answer to that very important question: what does all this mean for me, and for my business?

The Web On Your Phone

Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) was one of the first wireless technologies that gave mobile phone users some semblance of the Internet experience on their phones. For the first time, users with WAP-enabled phones could dial out to the Internet and browse through WAP-enabled Web sites. Initiated by a group of communications giants - Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson, together with Phone.com - the WAP Forum [http://www.wapforum.org] has been at the forefront of WAP and related technologies.

At its most basic, WAP can be defined as a "language" used by mobile devices to communicate with a server which is available on the mobile network. Since the server is connected to the Internet, it is possible for users to browse the Internet on their mobile phones. However, users will only be able to view Web sites that are WAP-enabled - which means that developers have to code their content in a new language, aptly titled Wireless Markup Language, or WML.

Technically, the Wireless Application Protocol is an extension of the Internet protocol, using the client-server paradigm to connect "thin" clients like mobile phones, which have limited computing power, to a central server, which does the bulk of the work. Another interesting feature of this protocol is that it can be used with any of the mobile network standards currently prevalent in different parts of the globe - something that should please all those globe-trotting executives who have been bemoaning the lack of mobile standards across continents!

Let' s take a quick look at how WAP enables a mobile user to browse the Web on a four-inch screen: first, the user has to enter all the connectivity settings and parameters on his handheld device - quite a tedious process, as there are a number of configuration parameters involved. Next, he needs to connect to his WAP gateway, usually provided by the cellular service provider. This gateway, which is connected to the Internet via a high-speed link, then fetches the content from the Internet.

This content may be regular HTML, in which case the gateway makes an attempt to convert it into WML that the phone can understand; alternatively, if the content is directly available in WML, the gateway passes the same off to the requesting user, using a "bearer" to carry the data. The bearer, which varies from network to network, can be either Short Message Service (SMS), Circuit Switched Data (CSD) or General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) - more on this last one further down.

Now, though you may have heard a lot of noise about WAP, things are not as rosy as they seem. The two biggest barriers at the moment are the relatively low penetration of WAP-enabled devices, and the small size of the display device - don't expect the WAP/WML/mobile phone combo to be as user-friendly as the Web browser you're used to on your desktop PC. Add to the list of problems the low speed in situations where SMS and CSD are used as bearers, and the lack of features like cookies and push technologies, and you can see why WAP is still to live up to the hype.

The WAP Forum hopes to tackle all these issues with the next release of the WAP specification.

2G Or Not 2G...

Mobile telephony has come a long way from the days when it carried speech within the constraints of a small geographic location - based on analog technology, this first generation is referred to as 1G technology. As communication devices became more and more compact, and digital technology began to make its presence felt in the world of communications, the primary use of mobile telephony also underwent a sea change; the second generation, or 2G, made it possible to send speech as well as other data across large distances, and also led to the emergence of a variety of competing standards for mobile transmission.

In an effort to end the standards war, the International Telecommunication Union decided that it was time for a uniform standard to prevail amongst cellular networks. This paved the way for the next generation of mobile communications, called 3G, which promises to unlock the first wave of "convergence" in the cellular industry. While the intermediate generation of mobile telephony (2.5G) has enabled higher rates of data transfer using technologies such as GPRS, it is the imminent arrival of 3G that has most technology pundits excited.

By promising speeds of up to 2 Mbps, the 3G era of cellular telephony hopes to address the speed problem and make Internet surfing on the mobile phone a pleasant experience. However, speeds that are twice or thrice that of current fixed line telephony systems are easily achievable for those who are on the move - kinda like flying on the Concorde after years of travelling by road. Since 3G is based on the same packet-switched technology that drives the Internet, it ensures that information reaches its destination irrespective of the path that the packets take - and such high speeds also make it possible to provide cellular network users with streaming audio, video and other multimedia options.

However, as with WAP, cellular networks will have to gear up for major changes in their infrastructure, and mobile phone users will need to spend a few bucks on new 3G-compatible phones. At the moment, no such phones are available - however, expect them to hit the market over the next two years as the technology matures.

The Promise Of GPRS

The prime driver towards the migration from 2G to 3G in the field of cellular telephony will be GPRS, an acronym that we've used twice already.

GPRS, or General Packet Radio Service, is another mechanism to transfer information from point A to point B within a cellular network. In this regard, it can be considered as synonymous to Short Messaging Service (SMS) or Circuit Switched Data (CSD), which are the bearers currently in use in most cellular networks. However, SMS, with its limitation of a maximum message length of 160 characters, and CSD, with its severe restrictions on the transfer speed of data (9.6 kbps) are not considered ideal bearers for the next generation of cellular services and applications, for obvious reasons.

This is where GPRS comes in.

With theoretical speeds of up to 171 kbps, and the absence of any requirement to open a separate connection for each and every transfer request - GPRS connections are "always-on" - GPRS offers advantages over both SMS and CSD. A packet-switching architecture optimizes network usage, and GPRS also supports standard Internet protocols like FTP, email and chat, thereby offering mobile phone users the ability to use many of the standard Internet services they've grown used to.

A glimpse of the capabilities that will become possible once GPRS services arrive will make your mouth water: you'll be able to browse Internet Web sites, chat with people on IRC channels, and send and receive email from your cellphone. Audio and video transmission over the cellular network will become possible, credit card payments and financial transactions can take place, and home appliances can be controlled remotely. Hopefully, by this time, they'll also have found an alternative to the tiny little numeric keypad - voice recognition, anyone?

Feeling Blue?

Thus far, we've restricted this discussion to the world of mobile telephony. However, with technology making its presence felt in every aspect of our daily lives, it won't be long before it escapes the mobile phone and finds its way into our homes. And there are a whole host of technologies out there which want you to just sit down on that couch and watch television, while your kitchen takes care of ordering the milk and microwaving the popcorn.

Among the many technologies that promise to make this dream a reality: Bluetooth, HAVi, and Jini. All three of these are based on a fundamental principle - devices should be able to communicate with each other in a flexible and seamless manner, with minimum discomfort to the user.

First on our list, Bluetooth.

Named after a Scandinavian monarch who brought unity amongst warring fiefdoms in the tenth century, Bluetooth's goal is to do the same with the jungle of proprietary network protocols that govern the linking of devices.

The entire focus of Bluetooth technology is on a square chip, a tiny radio transmitter and receiver which emits short-range signals and allows any computing device to connect with the rest of the network on an as-needed basis. The signals emitted from the chip are omni-directional (transmitted equally in all directions) and can travel through walls and other obstacles, which does away with the need to ensure that the connecting devices are aimed at each other or within each other's line of sight - one of the major drawbacks of the other wireless technology, infrared.

Since the frequency on which the chip operates is globally available, Bluetooth devices will function uniformly across the globe. Security is not an issue, as the signals are encrypted and authenticated at both ends to protect the privacy of individual users.

Even more exciting than the features, though, are the potential applications of Bluetooth technology. At last, all the different devices you possess will be able to communicate with each other in a standard fashion. No more carrying around a PalmPilot for your to-do list and a cellphone for your numbers - Bluetooth will let the two of them talk to each other and synchronize data whenever they're near each other. No more switching on the lights when you get home - your cellphone will automatically alert your home lighting system when you're driving the car into the garage. Your VCR could talk to your TV, your alarm clock could talk to your coffee maker, and your notebook computer could talk to your fax machine and printer - seamlessly and without your interference!

This is the promise of Bluetooth - and it's a very powerful one. And since the technology is backed by some of the leading communication companies - Nokia, Ericsson, IBM, Intel and Toshiba - with the support of consumer goods manufacturers all over the world, the day is not far when the promise becomes reality.

More information on Bluetooth can be found at http://www.bluetooth.com

Wiring Your Home...And Your Office

Yet another technology that is getting a lot of attention is HAVi, which stands for Home Audio/Visual Interoperability. Similar to Bluetooth, but focused on the inter-connection of home appliances, HAVi hopes to allow things like your television informing your refrigerator about an impending commercial so that it can quickly chill you another can of beer, or your home security system calling the cops when the video camera finds a face it can't recognize

HAVi is backed by eight of the world’s leading home appliance and consumer electronics companies, including big names like Sony, Panasonic, Philips and Sharp. In their own words, HAVi "is a digital AV networking initiative that provides a home networking software specification for seamless interoperability among home entertainment products".

Among HAVi's more interesting features - brand independence, since it will be widely supported by major industry players; "plug-n-play" support, so that new devices can be easily integrated into the network with a minimum of configuration and installation; and support for easy upgrades for new features.

The HAVi Web site is at http://www.havi.org

And finally, Jini, Sun Microsystems' contribution to the inter-connectivity puzzle. The company, which has long been promoting Java as a "write once, run anywhere" programming language, is now also talking up Jini, technology designed to ensure that all networked devices form a community which assembles and reassembles on-the-fly.

Consider this situation: you would like to add your notebook computer to the office LAN and use the network printer to print some documents. Under normal circumstances, you would need to locate and install the appropriate printer drivers, and then spend time configuring them for your machine.

With Jini technology, all these hassles are history. Once the notebook computer is on the network, it contacts a "lookup service" which maintains a list of all the services currently available on the network. If the laptop can offer any service to the other devices on the network, it will upload this information to the lookup service. Next, it starts searching for the print service, which would have been uploaded by the printer. Once it finds such a service, it will then automatically download an interface to the printer and start printing your documents…all without human intervention.

At least, this is the theory - however, the reality is somewhat different. Though Sun claims that this technology is lightweight, the Java Virtual Machine (the most basic component of Java technology, on which Jini is heavily reliant) needs a decent CPU to run smoothly...which can only add to the cost of building Jini-compliant devices. Another issue with Jini's reliance on Java is that integration with non-Java technologies would become extremely difficult for developers and manufacturers. At the moment, it looks like this Jini still has a way to go before it can begin fulfilling your wishes...

More information on Jini can be found at Sun Microsystems' Web site at http://www.sun.com/jini/

And that's about all we have for this article. Hopefully, you now have a clearer picture of how the wireless world is shaping up. Till next time...stay healthy!

This article was first published on 17 Aug 2000.