The Electric Kool-Aid 3G Test
By Carlo Longino, Wed Mar 06 00:00:00 GMT 2002

How can developers test 3G apps on non-existent networks?

Imagine yourself as Henry Ford for a moment - you've got a fantastic idea for this thing called a "car." You've given it an engine, nice bucket seats, a cover so the driver won't get wet, and wheels. You're ready to try it out for the first time, only there aren't any roads on which to drive. What's next?

This is how thousands of application developers must feel as they aim for that elusive 3G "killer app." Sure, you've got SDKs and basic emulators, but how can you be expected to deliver a fulfilling product that shoots data across a network when that network doesn't yet exist?

3G application testing poses this unique problem. Carriers are keen to have lots of applications in place for their mass-market launches, but programmers are building software for something that in most cases, they don't have access to. Want to test your new Windows product? No problem, just load it up on the nearest PC. Want to test your WAP site? Put it on the Net and dial that sucker up. Got a new GPRS tool? Find a handset, and you're in business.

Got your 3G app ready to go? Hold on a minute.

Although 3G networks aren't widespread, some carriers do offer developers access to their test and live networks for testing purposes, and others offer extensive developer support programs. Infrastructure manufacturers are getting in on the act, too, offering various test resources or even creating new application platforms.

Carriers' burden

The onus is clearly on carriers to give developers all the support they need in the development of 3G applications. After all, they're the ones with something to lose (namely their shirts) here. So not surprisingly, many carriers are setting up far-reaching programs to offer developers testing assistance, as well as other developmental, financial, and strategic tools.

source O2 is one such program, set up by British carrier mmO2, to engender mobile application development for existing and future networks. It offers extensive testing resources along with other technical and business expertise to help developers quickly take their product to mmO2 customers. "The aim of source O2 is to partner with developers - not just test their applications - but get them launched on the O2 networks," says mmO2's Lucy Markham.

In a facility in the famous Ealing Studios in London, source O2 has six developer "pods" - areas where developers can connect to in-building GSM, GPRS, and 3G cells, as well as BT Cellnet's real and replica GSM and GPRS networks. There's also a technical hub located in Marlow, west of London, with additional testing facilities. The hub also offers developers access to various mmO2 service platforms, the first of which allows developers to create location-based services.

In addition to test networks, source O2 has complex network simulators that let developers see how their applications respond in the most demanding situations. The simulators can adjust the level of available throughput, drop packets, lose coverage, perform handovers, and tinker with latency and jitter, all to allow the developer to see how their app performs, as well as to test and create adequate recovery measures.

The facilities, which are open to any developer, (although for a fee) are also staffed by a team of mmO2 employees with pertinent technical and commercial expertise to assist developers on both sides of the start-up equation.

But it's not all the carriers trying to buddy up so they can fill their networks - developers need their help as well. "We expect any content we will have to be attractive and time-critical enough for operators to help us test and integrate it," says John Craig of Worldzap, a company who has been an early mover in delivering video over 2G and 2.5G networks.

Worldzap tested their first product (sending German soccer highlights to PDAs) on Finnish carrier Sonera's HSCSD network, where they were provided dedicated bandwidth of around 25kbps, which Craig admits, is an unlikely situation for mass-market 3G services. He adds, though, that their relationships with UK carriers Manx Telecom (an mm02 unit with a live 3G network) and Vodafone offer 3G testing opportunities.

QA the hard way

Infrastructure and device makers are getting in on the act, too. Their motives are just as clear - it's hard to sell 3G equipment to a bankrupt carrier.

Hardware manufacturers have looked after developers through traditional support programs featuring access to software development kits (SDKs) and other tools, as well as an introduction into a community where developers can discuss their work and gather relevant news and information - Forum Nokia is one such example.

Ericsson has sprinkled "Mobility World" centers around the globe, and stocked them with test products and experts so they function like the business incubators of a few years ago. Developers can get assistance with anything from business plans to complex technical issues.

But Qualcomm has gone a step further. After exiting the handset business (sold to Japanese concern Kyocera in 2000), the company has to do all it can to maintain demand for products based on its substantial CDMA intellectual property and CDMA chipsets and designs (see Ray Hegarty's Carlo Longino is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous experience includes work for The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, and Hoover's Online.