The Wooly World of Wireless App Developers
By Heidi Kriz, Wed Aug 15 00:00:00 GMT 2001

What are the challenges faced by the often unsung heroes of the wireless industry today?

Application developers are not like you and me. They are the bridge between a wish list for what we want, and imagine, technology can do for us, and the practical reality of making that happen.

These days, in the eye of the storm of the wireless tornado, the developer's life is a good life - but it can be a hard life. Many of their business-side counterparts are promising the moon, stars and Jupiter's rings to their customers - and they expect the developers to easily reach up and pluck the planets from the firmament, making everyone's wireless dreams come true.

In fact, there can be a world of difference - and a lot of developer grief - between what the wireless industry promises and what developers can deliver.

It's not the Internet, stupid!

"One of the biggest misperceptions floating around in the wireless industry is that wireless is just the Internet all over again, but on a new device, instead of the PC," says Carles Ferreiro, program leader for mobile communications at the consulting firm Frost and Sullivan.

"Wireless marketers don't think about whether the original Internet experience - the culture and the technological foundations - are truly translatable. So they make grand predictions for this or that wild advancement - which they claim is just around the corner - and this is very frustrating for the actual developers."

Peter Buhl, a partner in Nokia Venture Partners, a division of the Nokia which is an early stage venture fund for wireless concepts, couldn't agree more.

"In fact, one of the biggest challenges for wireless applications developers is that it is not the Internet," says Buhl.

"With wireless, in order to develop appropriate applications, you need an access to and understanding of wireless subscribers. And for that, you need access to the carriers. There are so many more layers that make up the wireless industry, that you have to contend with," he points out.

"That early Internet 'shareware', open standard culture just isn't there, what with all these big corporate players, combined with the carriers - all of them interested in developing complex, proprietary standards and software - not open - out of a sense of competition with each other.

"Problem is, to some degree it's self-defeating logic: it's thwarting the advancement of the wireless industry, by fractionalizing it," says Buhl.

"The Internet's relationship and development with the PC had a kind of inexorable momentum," says Miroslav Wiesner, a wireless app developer and Director of User Experience for Opengrid, a wireless company.

"Sure, there were fits and starts along the way. But nothing like the practical hurdles we are facing with developing in wireless" he sighs.

Grope back in your mind to the flickeringly-lit, early days of the Internet, You know, a whole ten years ago. Well, remember the Internet browser wars? How everyone said they would short out the lightning-fast penetration of the Internet? Or at least kill the touchy-feely, big-hearted, shareware feel of the early Internet culture?

Well, all of that turned out to be mostly alarmist concern. Would that were the case for wireless.

"The biggest problem wireless faces today - the issue of standardization, is a real threat to the industry, says Wiesner.

"You remember the browser wars? Standardization is browser wars to the power of ten!" he says.

"We pray for standardization!" he laughs, but only semi-facetiously.

The global reality

Interestingly, wireless application developers in Europe and Asia are not really facing this same problem.

Nokia's Buhl points to Japan as an example of how the wireless industry has had a different evolution.

"Look at the wild success of DoCoMo's i-mode," says Buhl.

"I-mode is a first-generation, packet based phone that created a platform on which anybody develop an application - which leaves it wide open for developers," he says.

Also, in both Europe and in Asia, the profile of the average wireless user is generally younger than in the States - and development of specific wireless apps are based on an intimate understanding of that constituency.

"The US cellular wireless industry is still really confused about who their constituency is and what they will want. That makes for conservative choices and an anxious inclination to be 'proprietary'," observes Frost and Sullivan analyst Carles Ferreiro.

But, as Wiesner from Opengird points out, in the area of handheld wireless computers, the issues are experienced globally.

"With handheld computer wireless, as opposed to handset wireless, there is even more of a 'proxy relationship,' more gateways between the various components of a network that are supposed to link up somehow. This is a persistent challenge around the world," says Wiesner.

Coping techniques

So, given these chilly conditions, what can wireless app developers do to help address their frustrations?

One of the most important things might just be a shift in expectations.

"I don't think we can reasonably expect total interoperability," says Wiesner.

"There's an expectation of an eventual level of automation of services that I think is unreasonable. The industry will have to learn to accommodate the fact that some services will be manual, not automated, and highly personalized to different, specific constituencies," he says.

In fact, he says, that's really the point to the successful future of the wireless industry.

"We must get to know the respective habits and desires of our customers and offer services accordingly, not look for just one big "killer app," he says.

The most successful markets, like Japan's i-mode, did just that.

Another useful shift in gears would be to encourage more of a communication and integration within wireless corporations between the business side and the developer side - instead of developers just chasing the tail of the promises business departments make.

"There must be a balance between the two, with all constituents being geared towards one specific goal," Wiesner says.

"The experiences in Japan and Europe have taught us the most successful approach is cooperative, not fractionalizing competitive, in the industry - and services that are very in tune with the habits of a service providers' constituency."

Ferreiro agrees. "Future apps that are being hyped right now, especially the high bandwidth ones like streaming video are not likely the ones to catch fire," he says.

"Again, it's been simples services that reflect the culture of the user, that take off. Like SMS in Europe. Those are the ones to bank on."

Heidi Kriz is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Wired, Red Herring, and PC Computing.