Coffee shop toys: The future of wireless Web apps

Web services push forward from the enterprise to your home workshop

It's the ideal coffee shop toy for music lovers: A wireless media player that connects directly to an online music service. Besides the usual playback capabilities, the device's built-in Wi-Fi enables you to play Internet radio. If you hear a song you like, you can press a button to download it, the album the track is from or a mix of similar songs.

Wireless devices that integrate seamlessly with Web services are starting to be available. Earlier this year, SanDisk Corp. released its Wi-Fi-enabled Sansa Connect media player, which connects to the Yahoo Music subscription service. More recently, Apple Inc. released the iPod Touch, which connects to its iTunes store.

Many believe that the high visibility of Apple's player will lead to more wireless devices that connect directly to Web services. And it's easy to imagine how these need not just be media devices: Why not tiny wireless devices to perform financial transactions or to provide access to enterprise-based applications such as sales force automation?

Analysts believe we are close to a harmonic convergence of sorts in terms of small devices that interact with specific Web-based applications and services. In particular, widespread wireless access is becoming available via cellular 3G, Wi-Fi and, soon, mobile WiMax. In addition, processors for small devices are becoming more powerful, and displays are becoming more viewable.

"There's huge potential here," said David Mowrey, who, as director of product management at Yahoo Inc., worked with SanDisk to develop the Sansa Connect. "But there are a lot of challenges."

Been there, done that

Enterprises have deployed mobile applications for quite a while, noted Derek Kerton, an analyst at Kerton Group, a telecommunications consulting firm.

Mobile e-mail was the first widely adopted mobile Internet application for enterprises. While BlackBerries are the best-known e-mail devices, virtually all smart phones and many less-powerful cell phones now can send and receive mail.

Beyond that, organizations are increasingly giving mobile users access to core business applications via cell phones, smart phones and other handhelds, a trend that Kerton said will continue as mobile devices and software keep improving.

However, dedicating specific devices to access corporate data in the same way the iPod Touch connects to the iTunes store doesn't make sense for many enterprises, Kerton said. That's because most business users already have devices such as smart phones that can connect to the Internet. The big problem in the enterprise is figuring out how best to access that data, he added.

"Say you have an app for the Palm OS that ties into inventory levels and it works well," Kerton said. "But if you use the Web, it doesn't work so well all the time because you have different devices with different platforms and browsers." Because of that, it's often simpler for many enterprises to build their own applications for use on mobile devices such as smart phones, he said.

New ideas, new opportunities

For consumers, though, the simplicity of Web service-centric devices is attractive, Kerton said.

"To a lot of consumers, it's not an Internet device," Kerton said. "It's 'Hey, I get my pictures or my music while I'm away.' It does one thing and it's well thought-out."

In particular, these devices can be simple to use because they don't require knowledge of the Internet or even of the Web service to which they connect. For instance, there is no specific option on the Sansa Connect to connect to the Internet. Rather, if you want to get music from the Yahoo Music service, you simply select "Get More Music." The device then automatically connects via a Wi-Fi network, shows available music and downloads the music you request.

Kerton said there are many other potential examples of devices tuned to work with online services. For instance, he said he soon expects to see more wireless digital cameras that connect to photo storage and printing services. He also recently spoke with a start-up that wants to develop low-cost location services for power tools.

"It's aimed at, say, blue-collar workers with expensive drills," he said. "You put a chip in the drill and, if the guy loses it, he can launch an application [or device] and find it."

Forrester Research Inc. analyst James McQuivey said people will eventually expect this sort of seamless connectivity to Web services. However, he stressed that developers must avoid trying to make the experience of using these devices comparable to the desktop experience. That's particularly true because desktop connection speeds tend to be faster, and using a desktop browser is simpler than using a browser on a small device.

"If you're comparing the device to your PC, you may be disappointed," McQuivey said. "But if you compare it, maybe, to your portable CD player, it's a vast improvement."

The challenges

Small devices integrated with Web services face several broad challenges before they succeed, the experts say. The first challenge is technical.

"The most obvious challenges are screen real estate and the lack of a full keyboard," Yahoo's Mowrey said. "Generally, data input is a real challenge." The next kind of challenge is writing the actual application.

"It's not easy to port a Web application to a small device," Mowrey said. "And the apps generally don't port well from device to device. It's difficult to develop a Web application for one kind of mobile phone, then move it to the Sansa Connect, the iPhone or another type of phone."

Another complicating factor is the variety of widely used connection methods. Do you build the device for Wi-Fi, which is fast but not ubiquitous, or for 3G, which is more ubiquitous but not as fast? A device designed for one type of network would have different characteristics than a device designed for another. For instance, a device that isn't always connected would need more ability to download and store more information than a device that is always connected.

Ideally, devices could connect to all types of networks, but that won't happen for a while, Forrester's McQuivey said.

"Imagine a device that negotiates connectivity among two or three alternatives, like Wi-Fi, WiMax and 3G," he said. "It's a matter of engineering and cost. It's not going to happen soon, but why wouldn't it happen in five years so that the device works in a coffee shop, in a cab and at home?"

That leads to the next challenge: finding the right balance for the device both for the vendor and the user. At the heart of that challenge is defining what, specifically, the device must do.

"Does it make sense to, say, trade stocks on your Sansa Connect?" Mowrey asked. "We could do it, but where do you draw the line?"

As a result, users inevitably will have to choose between devices that do a few things well, such as a device focused on connecting to a music service, or devices that do many things, but not as well, Mowrey said.

"There are always trade-offs," Mowrey said. "For instance, phones typically don't have enough storage capacity to be great MP3 players, and [phone] batteries are challenging. If users use their phone to watch a video for five hours on a plane, when they get off the plane, the battery is dead."

The final challenge relates to how service providers price mobile access. Specifically, 3G access covers large areas, but the way cellular operators charge for it -- typically a flat rate of $60 a month -- discourages its use in small, narrowly focused devices, Kerton said.

"Some devices don't use much bandwidth, and some are bandwidth-hungry like a video camera," Kerton said. "We need [cellular] carriers to start offering different rate and service packages. "Instead of AT&T charging $60 a month, they could flip it around and go to a company like [Global Positioning System vendor] Garmin, and that company could resell the minutes to their customers. As a consumer, let me pay a buck or two a month for some devices, and then I'll pay [AT&T] $40 a month to connect my laptop."

Kerton said the cellular carriers have so far expressed little willingness to operate that way. But he was confident that such issues will be worked out over time.

"We're still in the early stages," Kerton said. "The Sansa Connect works well, and the iPod [Touch] works well, but we'll see a lot of devices that don't work so well. And we need carriers to offer different rates and service packages. But we'll hiccup through the process, and in five years, we'll be walking around in a cloud, and there will be bits and bytes available anytime you want."

David Haskin is a contributing editor specializing in mobile and wireless issues.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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