SAN DIEGO The coalition of companies that make up the Mobile Wireless Internet Forum hopes to draft a reference architecture based on the Internet Protocol for cellular networks before the end of the year. Sun Microsystems, meanwhile, will roll out a fresh spin of its Jini software in June tailored to deliver data services over cellular handsets. The two efforts are part of a broad landscape of changes coming for the cellular world as it retools for the Web era, according to speakers at this week's Mobile Internet 2000 conference.
Charles Lo, a technology director for Vodafone Airtouch Plc (Newbury, England), one of the world's largest cellular network operators and a member of the coalition, said, "We need to make our networks much more economical to speed adoption of wireless data, so it's very important for us to decrease capital and operations costs." It currently costs about $3.47 to send a megabyte of data over the cellular network compared with $0.013 over wired phone lines, Lo said.
Lo also heads the architecture group of the Mobile Wireless Internet Forum (MWIF). By drafting the new IP-based design, the group hopes to accelerate the move away from cellular nets based on centralized circuit switches to an architecture of distributed Web servers linked on a broadband routed backbone.
"We are planning for a next-generation network that is IP- and server-based," Lo said. He also lobbied for an open interface between basestations and basestation controllers, which could allow a broader group of systems makers to participate in that market. With 70 percent to 80 percent of network costs in the basestation gear, "we have to make the radio subsystems more open and distributed," Lo said.
The MWIF will not develop new protocols and interfaces itself but will indicate where standards are needed in a broadly defined next-generation cellular-network architecture. Other members of the group, formed earlier this year, include Alcatel, Cisco Systems, Compaq, Ericsson, IBM, Lucent Technologies, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia, Nortel Networks, Qualcomm, Sony, Sprint PCS and Sun Microsystems.
While the coalition defines the back-end network, Sun Microsystems is preparing a version of its Jini software for cellular handsets. Although it has yet to be named, the new version of Jini will fit into 40 kbytes of RAM and be officially released at the JavaOne conference in June, said Jon C. Bostrom, manager and lead architect for consumer and embedded, at Sun.
"These are a different set of Jini protocols tuned to the low-speed, high-latency environment of the cellular network, where you need a different way to load Jini and Java services on devices," said Bostrom, who was a technology manager on the original Jini project.
In tandem with Jini for cellular, the company is porting its K-Java virtual machines to a variety of handset environments including those of the major cell-phone manufacturers. A port of K-Java to the Palm Pilot will also be announced at JavaOne, said Bostrom.
Jini is a software architecture for delivering Java-based services automatically across a range of networked devices. Bostrom said the cellular spin of Jini was the first of a family of Jini versions tailored for unique environments that would all work together.
Next up is what Bostrom called "Jini for the dot-com home," a version of the software pared down to the requirements of appliances that can be remotely controlled. A version of Jini for a smart-card environment is also in the works, Bostrom said.
"We see this as the second coming of Jini and the next big thing," Bostrom said of the cellular effort.
The Sun designer played down performance problems that continue to dog Java, noting that it would not take much processor oomph to handle the requirements of a 40-kbyte stack. However, developers at this week's Mobile Internet conference said that they still use C++ for performance-intensive tasks and reserve Java for GUIs and other projects that can make use of Java's platform independence.
"For a GUI, Java's platform independence is great, but for graphics and performance-sensitive apps, Java is terrible," said Mike Thomason, a software engineer developing mobile Internet tools at Alcatel's Plano, Texas, office. "I wish Java was as fast as C++. What I really want to do is take my Java code and compile it," Thomason said.
One dynamic that plagues mobile Internet services is a lack of data-friendly handsets; there are too many software environments and too few applications.
John Yuzdepski, vice president of product management and development at Sprint PCS (Kansas City, Mo.), complained about the dearth of phones that can handle Web services.
"This is a podunk device to use to surf the Internet," he said, holding up a cell phone, "but it is a good thin client." Yuzdepski's wish list for a data-capable cell phone includes a model that uses an open software kernel, can run Java applets, has a small external screen for reading caller ID numbers and opens into a larger PDA with a fuller display and speaker phone. LG Electronics (Seoul, South Korea) will roll out a device with many of these specifications next month, he said.
"We are still trying to figure out the integration of the Net and handsets to make it seamless, but there is no model that exists for this yet," said Donna Montgomery, vice president of Genie Internet, an Internet data unit of BT's cellular service arm.
Currently, data services ride a variety of transports for cellular, including the very popular Short Message Service (SMS) used in GSM phones, HTML, HDML from Phone.com and the emerging Wireless Application Protocol (WAP).
"SMS is a real pain," said Locke Raper, director of business development for CNN Interactive (Atlanta), which delivers mobile data via 20 operators around the world on all the various methods, with SMS accounting for about half the traffic. "As a content provider we'd much rather have a single standard."
Operators expect cramped 126-character circuit-switched SMS services to evolve to 384-kbit/second IP-based packet data methods such as General Packet Radio Services, then to 3G techniques at up to 2 Mbits/second. But few are certain of the milestones on that road.
Indeed, "the actual deployment of 3G will not occur homogeneously. Implementation timetables will vary by geographic region," Ray Jodoin, a senior analyst in the wireless group at Cahners In-Stat (Phoenix), said separately this week. That's creating a business for companies like Aether Software (Vienna, Va.), which develops proxy servers to translate HTML data from the Web into WAP data for cell phones.
Despite the problems, most speakers here were upbeat about the growth of a broad range of mobile Internet applications being deployed on Europe's GSM networks, including e-mail, e-commerce, location-based services and games.
"There is no limit in the growth of wireless data when you consider multimedia," said Lo, whose network carries 2 billion SMS messages per month. Data could be one-third of all cellular traffic by 2005, he said.
"Merchant services are the Holy Grail," said Yuzdepski. "One day airtime may be free and we will be making a percentage of transactions."