Middleware Emerges for the Wireless Web

FRAMINGHAM (03/10/2000) - For companies planning to send Web content to the growing number of wireless devices, new middleware products are emerging that should make the job somewhat easier.

Analysts predict that the products - such as the WebSphere Everyplace Suite IBM Corp. plans to announce today - will help companies tackle the challenge of delivering condensed versions of Web pages to small-screen devices.

"The bottom line is you want to avoid the situation where you author the content multiple times" for mobile phones, PalmPilots and PCs, said analyst Mike Gilpin at Cambridge, Mass.-based Giga Information Group Inc.

Companies can use a "transcoder" to translate and restructure data from the Internet programming language HTML to the Wireless Markup Language (WML) for display in devices.

But products alone can't solve the problem. Architecture also plays a key role.

Analysts said firms that separate applications into distinct layers - for data access, business logic and presentation - will find a smoother path to the wireless frontier.

In an ideal situation, a company can use at least some of the same business logic for wired and wireless applications, then create multiple presentation interfaces to a wide range of devices such as cell phones, PalmPilots and PCs, said Carl Zetie, an analyst at Giga. The business logic often resides in middle-tier application servers that link Web clients to back-end databases.

"The ones that face a big challenge are [companies] that took short cuts to get to three-tier architectures," Zetie said. "They're going to have to do a lot of rework on their middle-tier [business] logic to separate out the layers."

San Francisco-based online retailer Macys.com should be one of the lucky ones.

It has no imminent plans to delve into the wireless arena, but it chose a component-based, multitier architecture "because we knew that there would be emerging technologies that would require a very flexible environment," said Jaake Jacobson, vice president of Internet technology at Macys.com.

WebSphere Everyplace Suite, which is due in the second half of this year, aims to transform and compress data, serve as the Wireless Application Protocol gateway, synchronize data between the device and the database, and manage devices and subscribers, IBM officials said.

Other key vendors that provide some of those functions include Oracle Corp. and San Mateo, Calif.-based AvantGo Inc. But before products became available, some pioneer users had to team up with consultants to build wireless Web applications.

Growing Your Own

Sabre Business Travel Solutions (BTS), a division of Sabre Inc. in Fort Worth, Texas, worked with IBM and Finland-based Nokia Corp. on a homegrown system that employs XML to tag data before it's converted to WML. The system lets customers check flight information and gates from their cell phones.

But Peter Stevens, a vice president at Sabre BTS, said he'd prefer to avoid homegrown systems in the future.

"If I'm going to exist in a world where I have to rapidly develop two interfaces - Web and wireless - and also deal with the legacy environment of the agent on the phone, I'm going to need tools that help me design wireless Web interfaces faster," Stevens said.

Staff writer Bob Brewin contributed to this story.

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