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September 2000

Robert Vahid Hashemian  

The Wild, Wild World Of Wireless


Go Right To: Score One For The Consumer

I am not a gadget man. Pagers, cell phones, PDAs... even wrist watches barely get my attention. A few days ago I was shown the latest MP3 gadgets by our President, Rich Tehrani and our CTO, Tom Keating. Rich's was a Sony. Tom's was a Nomad player. Both devices are true marvels of technology. They're so small, yet so powerful, with megabytes of memory to store a large number of tracks and unbelievable sound quality. I wish I could have shown more enthusiasm, but I just took a listen and said, "Good, good."

As a kid, I always looked forward to birthdays and holidays when my family dazzled me with calculators, tape recorders, radios, robots, and the like. But I think I finally figured out what killed my excitement with gadgets. It was the PC, more specifically the ability to program the PC. As a programmer and a developer, I take special interest in things I can program and customize. Most gadgets are just not programmable enough for me and hence my lack of interest.

Recently, Marc Robins (VP of publications) proudly showed me his Sprint PCS phone and the list of sites he could navigate with its built-in mini-browser. He talked about acronyms such as WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) and WML (Wireless Markup Language), which enabled these capabilities, and expressed his wish that our Web site could also be browsed "sans wires." Being a straight HTTP and HTML person, I had no idea how to go about that task. I asked him just to browse to our home page to see what would happen. When the screen displayed an error message, I was more disappointed than surprised. Why couldn't the mini-browser just show a stripped-down version of our site? Ok, I realize how precious wireless bandwidth is (at least for now), but the service could have just cut the page to a desired length and at least delivered something.

After a little more digging, I came across the concepts of WAP gateways, WML, WSP (Wireless Session Protocol), and WTP (Wireless Transaction Protocol) but decided to abandon further research until I had more time. That was a about a month ago. A couple of days ago something sparked my interest and I dove into WAP once again. This time I was determined to solve the problem once and for all. I wasn't so much interested in the gadget (that is, the handset) as I was interested in developing the page that the handset's mini-browser could pull up.

And about an hour later, I had it. A simple WML page (known as a deck in the wireless world) that printed the obligatory starter phrase, "Hello World!" Success!
WML didn't turn out to be such a big deal after all. In fact WML is a loose subset of good ol' HTML. There is even a JavaScript equivalent known as WMLScript, which is a program that runs locally on the mini-browser. One of the nasty issues with WML is its close adherence to XML that makes the language very finicky. Miss an end tag, and the mini-browser will complain to no end about the error. Such was the case when I tried to insert a break tag (<br>) in my document. Without the end tag, the mini-browser kept complaining until I caught the error and fixed it by changing the tag to <br/>. Web browsers are, of course, a more forgiving lot. The entire process of downloading a WML page to a handset's mini-browser could be explained in three steps:

  1. The mini-browser contacts the WAP Gateway using WSP/WTP;
  2. The WAP gateway contacts the site using HTTP; and
  3. The WML page (deck) is encoded and returned to the mini-browser.

With all of its promise, I have a simple gripe with WAP. Why have a new language standard (WML) when HTML could have been used all along? And don't even get me started on Palm's Web Clippings! Although, I shouldn't complain too much -- I guess that's job security for us Web guys.

I'm elated to have our site available on a mini-browser. My brain is simply brimming over with ideas! I can use COM to tie together all of our systems (yes, we are a Microsoft shop with some Linux machines scattered about) and generate dynamic decks through which I can monitor and control just about everything using my cell phone! Wait a minute; I don't have a cell phone.

To check out our page on your mini-browser go to: tmcnet.com/wap. Let me know how it works out for you. Drop me a line to rhashemian@tmcnet.com

Robert Vahid Hashemian provides us with a healthy dose of reality each month in his Reality Check column. Robert currently holds the position of Director for TMCnet.com -- your online resource for CTI, Internet telephony, and call center solutions.

[ Return To The September 2000 Table Of Contents ]

Score One For The Consumer

In my March 2000 column I griped about the pending merger between MCI WorldCom and Sprint and its unfair repercussions for the consumer. Thankfully, the merger suffered a premature death at the hands of the DoJ. Ironically, the investors weren't so jolly about the marriage either. They rewarded the MCI WorldCom stock after the merger was cancelled. Maybe WorldCom can now go back and complete its still half-baked merger with MCI. Perhaps starting with the billing departments.

[ Return To The September 2000 Table Of Contents ]

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