Killer Apps for Killer Technology
By Leander Kahney, Fri Oct 19 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Application developers have come up with some clever ways to make use of the new GPRS networks.

Raise a family of cyber sea monkeys. Build a bootlegging operation. Turn your car into a travelling nerve center. These are just some of the things you'll soon be able to do with a GPRS device.

GPRS, or General Packet Radio Service, is the technology that will make the Internet truly mobile. For the first time, GPRS allows an "always on" connection to the Net.

Sometimes known as 2.5G, GPRS is an interim step toward the much-ballyhooed 3G networks, which will be built during the next few years.

The technology is already being rolled out in large parts of Europe and Asia, and is just starting to appear in the U.S.

Overlaid on GSM networks, the technology dispenses with circuit-switched dial up calls, which suffer from a dreaded delay. Instead, the handset - be it a cell phone, a handheld or a laptop - remains in constant contact with the network. In short, it will do just about everything 3G promises, but at lower bandwidth.

The applications

GPRS is expected to herald a wide array of advanced mobile services, from news and traffic to multiplayer games and online dating. There will also be a huge range of m-commerce services, from online shopping to managing investment portfolios.

By far the most popular GPRS service is likely to be instant messaging and e-mail. Because of the always-on connection, email will be received as soon as it is sent, instead of being downloaded in batches.

And because of the higher bandwidth, instant messaging will go multimedia. Services like EMS (Enhanced Messaging System) and MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) will allow users to send messages that include photographs, video clips, sound files and cartoon emoticons showing happy faces or beer mugs.

But the number of potential services is mind-boggling.

The practical

MaviCom, for example, is testing a GPRS service to keep an eye on kids who skip school. Called Citizen One, the anti-truancy service is currently being tested in east London.

Every day, the teacher checks off the attendance register on a GPRS phone. If a pupil is missing, the parents are instantly informed via text message or e-mail to their mobile. The service also informs school administrators or social services. Plus, it can assign homework to the absent child.

Batmap is using GPRS to create interactive maps that allow online communities to see the whereabouts of other members of the group, depending, of course, on whether they want to be tracked or not. The technology is also being put to use for location-sensitive business directories. The company hopes to sell the technology to companies like car rental firms and courier services.

There are scores of companies busy developing online communities, like Rabbit-on, a pop culture gossip forum aimed at young British women.

GPRS is also ideally suited to telematics - information services for vehicles - as well as connected multimedia devices like video cameras.

BT Cellnet has built a concept car that uses GPRS to surf the Net and send and recieve e-mail.

Envisioned for mobile workers, the Chrysler PT Cruiser features a PC under the driver's seat and a wireless LAN that stretches a couple of hundred yards from the vehicle.

Mobile workers may also take advantage of new GPRS phones that run Microsoft's PocketPC/Smartphone platform - Mitsubishi's Trium Mondo, for example - which can synchronize Word and Excel files, as well as download and play MP3s and greyscale video.

Meanwhile, Ericsson's new T39 phone can wirelessly synchronize office calendars via SyncML. Any changes made to the office are instantly updated on the phone.

Later this year, Sony will introduce a pair of cameras that can send video clips via a GPRS handset.

The DCR-PC120 and DCR-IP7 feature built-in web browsers and Bluetooth connectivity, which can be used to e-mail movies via a GPRS phone.

The Fun

Musiwap plans to make people's personal music collections - sitting on their home PCs - available to their GPRS handsets. Plus, the company wants to deliver news and song clips, sell CDs and concert tickets, and develop online fan forums.

But perhaps the most popular GPRS services will be games.

Remember the adverts in American comic books that promised a family of underwater sea monkeys? Well, they turned out to be brine shrimp, but Motorola and Creature Labs, a U.K. games publisher, propose cyber sea monkeys that live in a virtual fish tank accessed via a GPRS handset.

The first in a series of games for GPRS devices, Sea-Monkey will encourage players to nurture their virtual pets, feeding them and providing a nice clean tank. In order to keep their cyber pets alive, players must clean out the tank and provide oxygen-releasing plants.

The more time spent with the virtual pets, the more bonus plants or food is awarded. Naturally, the virtual tank resides on the carriers' servers.

Eidos, publisher of the Tob Raider series, is developing Gangsters, a massively multiplayer game in which players organize gangs and battle for control of prohibition-era rackets.

Even more ambitious is Digital Bridges' Star Trek: Prime Directive, a space exploration game set in a detailed online galaxy that is designed for thousands of simultaneous players.

Both are currently WAP games, but GPRS' faster downloads and easier billing is expected to broaden the games' appeal.

Riot-E (company showroom), a Nordic wireless games company, is planning a series of interactive wireless games based on The Lord of the Rings. Wireless gaming is expected to become so popular in fact, that Motorola, Siemens, Ericsson and Nokia this summer formed the Mobile Gaming Interoperability Forum to agree on standards for wireless games.

Add color screens and Java, both due later this year, and GPRS gaming may really take off.

It's GPRS Week on TheFeature! Get up to speed on GPRS rollouts, devices, applications and services all week right here.

Originally from the U.K., Leander Kahney now lives in San Francisco and is a reporter for Wired News as well as TheFeature.