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Mobile Web services: Theory vs. reality

In this first part first of a two-part article about mobile Web services, we'll look at the current state of mobile Web services and where they're headed in the future.

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Web services and wireless (including WiFi as well as mobile phones and PDAs) are two of today's hottest technologies. It makes sense to combine them to offer wireless access to Web services, thus providing new services to consumers and enabling employees to access Web services-based applications and data wherever they are.

That's the theory, anyway. How does the reality compare to the theory? In this first part of a two-part article about mobile Web services, we'll look at the current state of mobile Web services and where they're headed in the future.

Where we stand today
If you're looking for full-blown enterprise Web services being delivered to people's cell phones today, don't bother -- you're not going to find them, say analysts and observers. Technology and hardware limitations, as well as a lack of standards, have so far proved to be too much of a roadblock to full-fledged implementation.

"We're not seeing companies taking full-blown Web services built for server-to-server connections and deploying them to devices across a cell phone network," says Carl Zetie, analyst with Forrester Research. "It's naÏve to think that you can do that today."

David Clarke, Senior Vice President of Products for Web services vendor Cape Clear, concurs and questions whether doing it would even be desirable.

"It's not obvious that you're going to benefit from loading the additional protocol stacks required for Web services onto mobile devices," he says. "It would be a major undertaking to support those additional stacks."

In fact, Zetie says, it might not even be possible to do it today, due to the limited processing power of cell phones and the unreliability of cell phone networks.

"When you implement a Web service, you assume that you have a reliable connection, that you have a fat pipe and a lot of processing power on the other end. The requests and replies could be very large and complex and require a lot of processing and parsing. But none of these assumptions hold true with a cell phone over a cell phone network," he notes.

However, that's not to say that mobile phones can't be used for accessing Web services -- they're being used in a variety of creative ways. An increasingly common architecture involves using a gateway or proxy server (for example, a WAP server) to act as a mediator between the cell phone and a Web service. In this design, the gateway takes the Web service or information sent by the Web service, makes it more compact so it can be delivered by the low-speed cell phone network and reformats it so that it can be easily displayed on the cell phone's limited screen, using the cell phone's limited processing power. Then it sends the information to the cell phone user. When the cell phone user interacts with the Web service, the gateway does everything in reverse: It takes information sent by the cell phone and reformats it so that it can be understood by the Web service and sends it along. The gateway can also cache information so that if the cell phone is out of a service area and its user makes a request, or sends information back to the Web service, it will automatically make that request or send information when the cell phone returns to a service area.

Cape Clear's Clarke says that his company's Cape Clear Data Interchange can be used to build this kind of architecture, by transforming data sources into XML schema and vice versa.

Forrester's Zetie notes that those with AT&T Smartphones can get location information and driving information from Microsoft's www.mappoint.com site in this way (Mappoint uses Web services to deliver information.)

Similarly, mobile network providers have been using Web services as a way to allow content providers to access mobile network services such as authentication and billing services, says Neil Macehiter, Research Director for software infrastructure topics for the Ovum consulting company. Again, the Web services are not used by cell phone users, but rather are used between the network provider and content provider. The Orange mobile phone network in Europe lets third-party content providers upload information about ring tones and wallpapers to sell on its network, says Clarke. The actual ring tones and wallpapers are not delivered to cell phones via Web services, but rather via traditional cellular means.

Where we're going
All this doesn't mean that Web services won't eventually be delivered directly wirelessly in the future, though. Forrester's Zetie says, "It's inevitable that things will change. Sooner or later we'll have standard middleware delivering mobile Web services." And Macehiter adds that, "Ultimately we'll see Web services on client devices like cell phones. We're just not at the stage where it's a business imperative yet."

He doesn't expect that to happen this year, but believes that by sometime in 2005 "we may see the emergence of Web services on mobile devices."

Before that can happen in a widespread way, however, a set of standards have to be agreed upon. The Open Mobile Alliance OMA at www.openmobilealliance.com is working on those standards, although none are ready. And big industry players like Microsoft and IBM have to get involved as well and they've already started work seriously. That's what we'll look at in the next column -- what IBM and Microsoft are doing with mobile Web services and what it means to the technology's future.

Continues in Part Two

For related Articles and Commentary:

About the Author

Preston Gralla, a well-known technology expert, is the author of more than 20 books, including "How the Internet Works," which has been translated into 14 languages and sold several hundred thousand copies worldwide. He is an expert on Web services and the author of a major research and white paper for the Software and Information Industry Association on the topic. Gralla was the founding managing editor of PC Week, a founding editor and then editor and editorial director of PC/Computing, and an executive editor for ZDNet and CNet. He has written about technology for more than 15 years for many major magazines and newspapers, including PC Magazine, Computerworld, CIO Magazine, eWeek and its forerunner PC Week, PC/Computing, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Dallas Morning News among others. As a well-known technology guru, he appears frequently on TV and radio shows and networks, including CNN, MSNBC, ABC World News Now, the CBS Early Show, PBS's All Things Considered and others. He has won a number of awards for his writing, including from the Computer Press Association for the Best Feature in a Computer Publication. He can be reached at preston@gralla.com.

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