Wireless Platforms Gear-up for the Revolution
By C.J. Kennedy, Thu Jul 19 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Mobile platform providers are all vying to become the de facto standard in the mobile data industry.

On June 4th, 2001, IBM announced that the new release of the WebSphere Everyplace Server supports 20 million users or 353,000 active users. The press release boasted, "This is more than six times the scalability of competitors' products." My Luu, public relations for IBM Pervasive Computing, said, "That is twice the active user scalability of NTT Docomo's platform!"

That's a big claim. In May, 2001, NTT Docomo claimed 21.7 million wireless Internet subscribers, all of whom use their platform. They are the leader in data downloads - 600,000 Japanese iMode subscribers regularly use their service to download a new cartoon character. The first 3G phones in the world were introduced by NTT Docomo on May 30th of this year.

For all IBM's confidence in their wireless platform, their announcement raises two significant questions: If the world's most advanced, most used wireless service has less scalability than IBM's latest platform; How important is scalability in comparison with a platform's speed, reliability, and a strong development community to produce applications and service?

The second question is, will these claims of reliability and speed be maintained when thousands (or millions) of subscribers, are all thirsting for 2Mbps speeds over the platform?

Just what defines a platform?

The platform market can be split into two focuses: carriers or enterprises. OpenWave offers an integrated messaging platform to carriers, which is scalable to the multi-millions of users. Other companies, like 724 Solutions, focus on a M-commerce and mobile banking platform. For them scalability and services are equally important. Companies like Microsoft and HiddenMind focus on the enterprise customer. Although scalability is important, offering applications for businesses to keep their workforces connected is the primary concern.

Goldman predicts that the market offering mobile access to enterprise systems will be $38 billion by 2005. Yankee Research predicts a worldwide market from business to consumer transactions to equal $16.7 billion. Every transaction and service will run over a platform, and the wireless infrastructure market will exceed $100 billion by 2003, predict IBM analysts.

Quantifying a platform

Ken Delaney, VP of Mobile Computing for Gartner, says, "Scalability is extremely important. This is a key test. Can a platform handle the load. If it doesn't work, who will care?"

Quantifying and comparing a wireless platform is easy to do by looking at a platform's scalability. For Microsoft, focusing on the enterprise market, the ability to have mobile devices sync with software like Microsoft Exchange behind the corporate firewall is the strength of their Mobile Information Server. They have tested their platform to allow Internet browsing for 5.5 million users over a system and 50,000 active users. Recall that IBM puts numbers at 20 million users and 353,000 active.

The dark horse in this competition is 724 Solutions. In January of this year they acquired Tantau's impressive platform, with 18 unique patents. During the same month they announced that their platform passed tests to support 10 million users and 10,000 users a second.

Mike Mennel, their VP of Platform Products, says that they passed the limitations of their tests, and he is "Confident that the scalability of their platform is virtually unlimited!" To back up his claims, four out of the five largest banks in the U.S. are 724 Solutions' customers, Nokia chose the Tantau platform for their Activ Server, and BEA, the largest landline Internet platform provider, has teamed up with them for wireless solutions.

But the giant of the scalability category is truly Sun Microsystems, whose platform is used by NTT Docomo. They not only have tested their scalability to the tens of millions in the laboratory, but they have millions of actual users today (unlike most companies whose upper numbers are still based on laboratory testing).

Sun also works with 724 Solutions, OpenWave and IBM to offer their platform for their servers and applications. Craig Miller, Product Line Manager in the Wireless Business Group at Sun, says, "The single largest [IBM] Websphere UNIX Platform runs of the Sun Solaris Platform." Even one of 724 Solutions' initial investors and clients, Bank of Montreal, runs 724 Solutions' mobile banking applications over a Sun platform.

From an analyst's point of view, Ken Daleny of Gartner recommends "IBM, OpenWave, and Nokia" as carrier platforms, and "Viaphone, Aether, Briant, and 724 Solutions" as notable enterprise platforms.

What about speed?

To judge a wireless platform simply by its scalability is like judging an airplane by its size. Speed, reliability, and support are also important.

In terms of speed, judging a wireless platform is hard to do, as a lot depends on the applications being run, the carrier, and number of users at a given time. 3G promises speeds of 2-3Mbps of data to be downloaded to a mobile device, but that optimal speed is contingent on many factors.

"Once the request is made on our server, our time is very fast," says Ed Wu, Product Manager at Microsoft. "This varies on the time of day. At the start or end of a day a carrier gets more messages and the server deals with them on a first come first serve basis."

Mike Rhodin, VP of Development for Pervasive Computing at IBM, says, "It is a little of an apples and oranges comparison. But in terms of performance across the board we have the fastest transactions speed. We have been doing this for thirty-to-forty years."

Most companies are hesitant to claim any specific speed - even BEA. On July 9th, BEA proudly announced that their Web Logic Server 6.1 is up to four times as fast as the IBM Websphere Application Server 4.0 for landline Internet hook-ups. However, they have issued no claims for wireless speed in their partnership with 724 Solutions/Tantau for a mobile platform.

There are two companies making bold claims for speed. EVector and Bullant delivered their joint "Utopia" platform on March 21st 2001. They claim their platform and application server will deliver 3G applications on GPRS (2.5G) networks, increasing 2.5G speeds by multiples of 5 to 10. Bullant claims its architecture simplifies application design and implementation and cuts bandwidth and server hardware requirements. So far, seven enterprise and commercial customers are working with them, including Centennial de Puerto Rico and TheStreet.co.uk. - but no major carriers.

In terms of the mobile market's anticipated jump to 3G networks, none of the companies believe it will increase the speed of their services that the user will witness.

Mike Rhodin of IBM says, "Changes will occur. You will have a better performing network, a faster network, but companies will use it to send bigger images and more information. Your network can be lightning fast, but the applications will be slower to download."

Reliability is the cornerstone

For all the platforms reliability is paramount. A fast service is no service if it doesn't work all the time.

Mike Rhodin of IBM says, "Carriers make money by driving up usage minutes. They want to keep you on their system. BY no means do they want to lose eyeballs."

However, these platforms have little record to prove their reliability. Some platform companies offer their past experience in the Internet as assurance of their reliability but that raises as many questions as it answers.

"The fact is that Sun has solved computer problems in the Internet space," says Craig Miller of Sun Microsystems. "The same expertise and knowledge we have been working on for twenty years. Essentially if you are a carrier and you want architecture and infrastructure which is not going to crash, you are building on Sun."

But the Internet did - and still does - have problems with overloading and slowing downloads. And wireless is an environment that's still very much in the testing stage.

Will these problems be exaggerated in the future with more users and more data being used on a platform? For the analysts the issue is not clear. Ken Delaney thinks 3G will not add undue stress to the platforms. "In reality, we aren't going to see real 3G networks until 2004 or 2005," he says. "By then the servers are going to be 10 if not 20 times as powerful, and the load balancing software with prioritize, shifting route calls on to other servers."

Gary Barnet, Principal Analyst for OVUM, disagrees, "People look at the European system and think it is more sophisticated that the system here. But in Germany every afternoon when the children get out of school they send so many SMS messages the entire system slows down. You better be damn sure that when customers use the network it had better not fall down."

For every argument that platform providers have learned from their experiences, there is an example of the system's glitches. Some platforms will handle the new loads, but when wireless platforms are stretched and tested by customers, carriers, and developers, the system, like any new system, will face kinks.

Developers' forums, applications and carrier partnerships: It's who you know

Companies involved in enterprise platforms usually develop tools for the enterprises too. 724 Solutions offers their mobile banking applications over their platform. Microsoft offers their own applications too: email, behind-the-firewall services like browsing Microsoft Exchange for calendar and the to-do-list, all with real-time access.

The important step for Microsoft is not to build a large developers' forum, but to establish partnerships with carriers for their platform to run over. At this stage they have only announced Vodafone as a partner, and they are in undisclosed talks with AT&T Wireless, BT, Verizon, and Telefonica.

IBM offers it own suite of applications and services in their WebSphere Everyplace Suite, and has a developers' program. Gary Barnet of OVUM notes, "In fairness to IBM, theyıre putting in a lot of money in their development sites."

IBM has announced relationships with Agency.com, Razorfish and Luminant, software developers like MicroStrategy Inc., W-Trade Technologies, Inc. and River Run Software Group, device manufacturers, Palm, Symbian and Ericsson and telecommunications equipment manufactures Nokia and Motorola.

Sun Microsystems does not develop applications or services for their Java platform, but they have the largest developers' program of any platform company. Their two developer communities have 80 partners: JAIN, for developers of services over a network, and OSS J, for developers of wireless networks. These communities are a real strength of Sun's platform, as they read like a virtual "Who's Who" in the mobile world, including Nokia, Ericsson, BT, Motorola, IBM, Cisco, and NTT. Sun's strength will continue as the more sophisticated Java applications are designed and deployed over 3G networks.

Get ready for the initial glitches

Mobile platform providers would like to have people believe that the migration to 3G networks will be a seamless and easy transition. However, especially in terms of a platform's reliability, the transition will not be as simple as adding more servers to a system, using bigger servers, or relying on experience with earlier Internet or 2G systems.

The two leading 3G networks today have already shown significant problems: BT Telecom has shelved their 3G network for the time being because a software glitch that caused dropped calls. In Tokyo, during the first few days of iMode's 3G service, the email was interrupted due to a server snag. It was fixed within a week, but 100% of all 3G services have so far seen fundamental problems emerge.

But that's how the business grows, evolves, and improves. Let's just hope that the platform developers take note early on in the game and work together to ensure 3G develops as the killer services it's intended to be.

C.J. Kennedy is currently the senior staff writer for Unstrung.com, and has covered the mobile industry for M-Business Magazine, The Wireless Developer Network, Wireless Business & Technology, Wireless Related, and The Industry Standard.