OMA: Toward one Mobile Standard?
By Joachim Bamrud, Fri Jul 18 00:00:00 GMT 2003

The Open Mobile Alliance unites all leading mobile players, but can it succeed in developing widely accepted mobile standards?


With the recent creation of the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA), the mobile industry hopes it will be easier to develop common standards across networks and devices. The OMA was created in June on the basis of the merger between the 5-year-old WAP Forum and the 8-month-old Open Mobile Architecture Group. Other groups like SyncML, Wireless Village, MMS Interoperability Group and the Location Interoperability Forum are slated to merge into the OMA this fall, according to an OMA spokeswoman.

"The bigger, the more all-inclusive and the more ubiquitous, the more likely it is that the industry can achieve some sort of uniform standards," says Adam Guy, an independent U.S.-based analyst specializing in wireless technology.

"It's an interesting initiative to overcome the struggle of interests in the mobile area that characterized especially Europe and North America, where handset manufacturers, telcos and content providers have mostly followed their own interests," adds Dr. Thorsten Wickmann, managing director of Berlecon Research, a Berlin-based research firm.

Come One, Come


All in all, some 200 small and big players in the mobile area have joined the OMA. They include equipment vendors like Nokia, Motorola, Ericsson and Siemens, developers like Microsoft, Sun and Openwave, operators such as Vodafone and NTT DoCoMo and service providers ranging from Visa to DHL. Unlike the WAP Forum, Microsoft is now a leading member of the new alliance from the start - a factor which may boost the software giant's commitment to the standardization process, some analysts say.

"In the past, Microsoft has shunned several industry attempts at wireless unity - we think that Microsoft joining OMA is an encouraging sign," says Neil Mawston, a UK-based wireless analyst with Strategy Analytics.

Robert Brown, the CEO of the WAP Forum, is the new CEO of the OMA and the forum's staff of eight and California offices are now OMA staff and headquarters. The Open Mobile Architecture group had worked more informally without a full-time staff and office.

Two of the main goals of the new group are to "deliver responsive and high-quality open standards and specifications based upon market and customer requirements" and "create and promote a common industry view on an architectural framework."

Many content providers have complained about the problems in developing content across different devices and networks.

Pipe


Some analysts warn, however, that the OMA goals may be too good to be true. "It sounds like the country where there's whisky in the water and the women are nymphomaniacs," says John Strand, president of Strand Consult, a Danish consultancy to operators worldwide. "It sounds terrific, but how realistic is it in a capitalist society with significant competition?"

One key challenge, he says, will be to ensure that any open standards don't undermine the industry's research and development investments. "If open standards means that those who own intellectual property have to provide their technologies to rivals for free, the value of the mobile sector's patents will fall dramatically and there won't be any incentive for companies to research in future mobile technologies," Strand says.

But the opposite - that one company's technologies are forced on everyone else and that they have to pay royalties to that company - could also be a problem, he warns.

It is not yet clear when a common standard can be developed, but Douglas Heintzman of SyncML has said that OMA likely will come out with an overall wireless architecture blueprint by the end of the year. "I'm sure that they will be able to produce something by the end of the year, as there are plenty of things to build upon (e.g. WAP)," says Wickmann.

But having a blueprint is one thing. Getting it implemented is another, warns Mawston.

And some developers question how customer requirements for specifications will be surveyed. "Customers don't yet have requirements," says Barbara Ballard, principal user experience architect at US-based Little Springs Design, Inc. and a former wireless web developer for U.S. carrier Sprint PCS. "You can't ask them 'what do you need in a mobile standard?' The next-best source of likely customer requirements are not the marketing teams, but the usability teams."

Several OMA members have world-class usability expertise, but bringing that expertise to the table when a member company has to focus so much effort on getting business and technical needs met is politically unlikely, she says.

Cooperative Competition


The OMA also aims to be the catalyst for the consolidation of standards and work in conjunction with other existing standards organizations and groups such as IETF, 3GPP, 3GPP2, W3C and the JCP.

Such a consolidation makes sense since the mobile world already appears to have too many standardization bodies, some analysts say. "In the mobile world , we've got a bunch of organizations that aren't cooperating," says Strand. "The remaining standardization is managed by the ISO [International Organization for Standardization] in Geneva, which they've done successfully for almost 60 years."

However, Ballard says consolidated standards can actually damage the user experience and should not be a goal.

"If you truly care about the user experience, consolidated standards is a bad thing," she says. "If we believe that all future devices will look like a PC, a Nokia phone, a Palm or PocketPC PDA, or a webpad, then we can consolidate. But if you want your standards to allow for devices targeted exactly at their purpose, then a variety of standards is necessary."

Instead, interoperable standards and standards that use common components should be the goal, according to Ballard.

A fourth goal of the OMA is to establish centers of excellence for best practices and conduct interoperability testing (IOT), including multi-standard interoperability to ensure seamless user experience.

Risks


Some analysts are warning that the mere fact that there are so many members may actually be an impediment since it can potentially slow the decision-making process down.

"I fear that OMA may impede development since it will take time for so many companies to agree on which standards to reach," says Strand. "The debates may result in the process taking longer and perhaps choosing the best compromise rather than the best solution."

Mawston says the size can be both a liability and an asset. "On the one hand, 'too many cooks spoil the broth'. On the other hand, moves by so many players to standardize large segments of the mobile phone industry may lower costs and speed up time to market, providing benefits for both mobile players and end-users," he says.

Other analysts say the size is clearly a plus. "There's no point in lamenting about the slow speed of large standardization bodies, when the major motivation behind the initiative is to get everybody involved," says Wickmann.

The size of the group won't necessarily slow things down if the appropriate mechanism is in place for how it is organized - for example majority votes on certain issues rather than complete consensus, he says.

"The effectiveness of the organization depends more on the structure of the organization than the size," adds Ballard.

Different


Other challenges, analysts say, include the degree of rivalry between giants like Microsoft and Nokia. "The wireless industry... must overcome traditional rivalries if it is to succeed," warns Gartner analyst Ben Wood.

Some of the competitors of Microsoft and Nokia, in turn, may even view the OMA as a way to strengthen their position in the marketplace. "If they follow their historic paths, the infighting may very well give their rivals greater influence," says Ballard.

Added to that, comes inconsistency among the big companies, she says. "Nokia's 7110 phone rendered a table as each cell on its own line. DoCoMo usually jumps the gun in implementing a standard, to get to market earlier. Microsoft has not historically been consistent in implementing standards," Ballard says.

Another challenge is that a leading OS developer like Palm has yet to join. In addition to Microsoft, Symbian - another OS rival to Palm - has joined the OMA. Palm is currently evaluating whether to join or not, according to spokeswoman Alexa Ender.

"The Palm OS still accounts for almost 60% of worldwide handheld OSs and OMA would benefit strongly from Palm's inclusion," says Mawston.

Brown, the new CEO of OMA, has generally kept a low profile at the WAP Forum compared with his predecessor, Scott Goldman. He did not answer a list of questions from TheFeature for this article.

Strand says OMA should aim to have a higher profile - being the key public face of mobile standardization rather than that role being split by its prominent members. "They [OMA] have a lot of good points that they should share," he says.

But OMA should also learn from one of the key problems facing the WAP Forum - the over-hyping of WAP by the industry, warns Ballard. "OMA has the potential to fare better in terms of the general public, but not because of their technology, protocols, or members. It's because of their timing. 3G (XHTML Basic) web sites look a lot closer to the general public's perception of the internet," she says. "However, if the marketing folks over-hype the technology, the OMA will eventually have WAP on their faces."

The WAP Forum, by its own admission, over-promised and under-delivered in its external marketing of WAP, Mawston says.

"We sense, from speaking with several OMA players, that the WAP Forum /OMA have learnt from their past mistakes," he says. "We expect OMA to fare better than the WAP Forum but it must be careful not to bore or intimidate the general public with complex technology and acronyms."

Joachim Bamrud is an award-winning journalist with 18 years experience as a writer and editor in the United States, Europe and Latin America. Bamrud has worked for various print, broadcast and online media, including Latin Trade, Reuters and UPI.