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Mobile devices: The future of Web services? Part 1

In part one of a two-part column, Preston Gralla takes a look at Web services development for mobile phones and Nokia's push to build Web services into its smartphones this year.

You carry the computing device of tomorrow in your pocket -- your mobile phone. With each new generation of mobile phones, they become more and more like computers, and many of them already pack more power and features than personal digital assistants.

Despite this coming ubiquity of processing power, mobile devices, as of yet, have not been a target for Web services development. It's been held back by problematic form factors such as small screens and a lack of a keyboard, as well as sometimes underpowered memory and CPUs. And wireless security poses serious problems as well.

But all that is changing. As phones become true computers, and as security issues get hashed out, mobile phones will increasingly be targeted for Web services development. There are plenty of good reasons for that. Web services will allow businesses to develop applications that will enable them to sell directly to a massive audience. And Web services can also be used by enterprises to give mobile employees access to corporate applications, data and resources.

This week, we start a two-week column looking at Web services and mobile devices. In this first part, we'll look at mobile giant Nokia's plans for Web services. In the second part, we'll take a wider view of the future of Web services on mobile devices.

Nokia Bets Big on Web Services

Perhaps the biggest boost to the use of Web services on mobile devices came recently from Nokia, which announced that it would build Web services support into its entire line of smartphones by year's end. In fact, the company's Series 80 phones already contain the first version of Nokia's Web services stack for mobile devices. Series 60 support will be added later this year, along with support for all other Nokia smartphones.

Timo Skytta, director of Web services at Nokia, says that the impetus for putting Web services on Nokia phones comes from two directions in the marketplace -- from those interested in IP-based IMS (IP Multimedia System) networks where phones connect via IP protocols for messaging services, including multimedia messaging; and from those with IT backgrounds, familiar with building traditional Web services.

"We wanted to be able to provide support for both of them," Skytta says. "We wanted to make sure that people could develop new applications for phones, and would also be able to use them to connect to major, existing platforms."

The long-term benefits, believes Nokia, are significant. The gains for enterprises can be dramatic -- mobile users would be able to get access to Web services-enabled enterprise applications and data. Not only could this lead to increased productivity, but it could also lead to big savings as well, because some enterprises would be able to cut back on buying other hardware, such as PDAs and even possibly laptops, now required for mobile access to applications and data.

Consumers would gain access to a wide variety of services as well. Currently, getting information from the Internet on mobile phones is a difficult, frustrating experience. Web sites aren't built with mobile phones in mind, and so viewing and interacting with the sites is problematic. But Web services would make it far easier.

Finally, phone operators stand to reap big benefits as well, because they'll be able to charge for value-added services, and also be able to get people to use data services more, which they see as holding out significant growth potential.

Nokia's Web services framework supports SOAP, XML and other Web services standards, and is available as a native set of APIs in the Nokia 9500 Communicator and the Nokia 9300 smartphone, which include the Nokia Web services Series 80 platform. Nokia has also announced that Web services for the Series 60 will be available as a native component. Support for Symbian will follow, as will Web services support for Java developers for Series 80 devices.

What's Ahead

Making a stack available is one thing; actually having services run on top of those stacks is another thing entirely. Skytta says that as of yet, there are no large deployments of Web services running on Nokia phones. But he says that enterprises and operators have been running a number of proof of concept and pilot programs.

For example, Nokia has joined with the global shipping form TNT to create a real-time tracking Web services application delivered over mobile phones. In the pilot, TNT subcontractor field workers use Nokia 9500 Communicators to input delivery milestone information directly into TNT's back-end systems. It's done in an extremely unique way. The worker uses the phone as a bar code scanner by taking a picture of a bar code on a package. That picture is translated into a Web services message and sent securely over a VPN client in the phone into TNT's back-end system.

Skytta expects that these kinds of applications will become live beginning in 2006. Ultimately, he says, the phone will replace the PDA, and become a primary way that people interact with the Internet and consume services.

About the Author

Preston Gralla is an expert on Web services and is the author of more than 20 books, including How the Internet Works. He can be reached at preston@gralla.com.

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