Do We Need Another MS Windows for the Wireless World?

By Joseph Schwartz

There must be a high degree of frustration among businesses that are developing products and services for the wireless Internet.Many of the ideas have great potential; unfortunately, there isn't a common platform to carry them to widespread use among consumers.

At the recent Internet World Wireless show in New York City, scores of businesses highlighted new and interesting products and services.The innovations displayed at the show underscored the enormous potential of wireless Internet and data services.But the reality is that the absence of a common standard for applications developers to build upon is holding back the actual rollout of these innovations on a wider scale.

Competition is great for business, but in the U.S.wireless market today, it creates a "Tower of Babel" effect.Incompatible platforms are built on different formats; some embrace WAP, others use XML or another standard.Domestic cellular providers rely on different access modes for carrying their services: TDMA, CDMA, GSM and analog.One great application will work on one phone or network but not on another.Sure, there are other serious obstacles facing broader acceptance of wireless data such as miniature screens, limited content, the fumbling and hassles of keying in data on a WAP-enabled handheld, spotty coverage, and a lack of networks to carry these services.But the road to widespread, affordable, and successful wireless data services will be the adoption of common standards that software developers, chipset manufacturers, and handset manufacturers can use as a common, compatible platform.In other words, the wireless world needs something that will create an impact that is similar to what Microsoft had on the wired, PC world.

Another Microsoft?

Microsoft's success has made the Redmond, Washington company a popular, easy target.Journalists love to bash it, and the federal government has spent millions trying to break it up.In our opinion, the government should have been giving Microsoft awards for economic development instead of hauling it into court.

Despite its industry dominance and the many accusations of strong-arm tactics, the long-term impact of Microsoft's operating system on the wired computing market is decidedly positive: The Windows operating system provided (and still provides) software developers, PC and laptop manufacturers with a widely accepted standard upon which to build applications and products.A similar situation is needed in the wireless world.Ideally, that situation would be established through cooperation between interested industries and businesses rather than by dominance by a single company.

Many businesses realize that cooperation is the key and are taking action.For example, MasterCard understood that the huge potential of mobile commerce would never come to light unless credit card companies, banks, handset manufacturers, wireless service providers and applications developers all agreed to an open mobile commerce standard.In 1999 MasterCard cleared out a suite of offices in its corporate headquarters and invited these companies--including competitors--to create such a standard.They were successful.Working on its own, Qualcomm recently rolled out its Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless (BREW), an open standard that is designed to enable wireless developers to create applications that will work on any wireless phone.

Companies such as Qualcomm and MasterCard are on the right track, but it either will take proactive cooperation as in the MasterCard case, or an industry goliath, as in the Microsoft case, to bring this needed standard about.Hopefully, the former will occur when businesses interested in wireless data services realize that a common platform supporting interoperable applications and hardware will raise the level of the lake and float everyone's boat.

Published Friday, March 2nd, 2001

Written by Joseph Schwartz

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