Start-up ViaFone.com Gives Sites a WAP

Company offers fast installation of wireless application support for Web sites

Getting a wireless application up and running quickly is the specialty of application service provider (ASP) ViaFone.com Inc. in Redwood City, Calif. And speed was what John McDowall, chief technology officer at Santa Clara, Calif.-based mySimon Inc., wanted.

MySimon is a buying guide for Internet shoppers - what to buy and where to buy it online. It has a large Web site that dishes out this information on demand. The flaw in that design, explains McDowall, is "the vast majority of the users are not at their PC when they make a buying decision."

Fast Action

McDowall wanted a wireless application that would put mySimon information on cell phones and handhelds, serving those shoppers who are standing in the middle of Baby Gap wondering, "Hmmm, can I get rompers for less on the Internet?" And he wanted it fast.

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ViaFone Inc.

Location: 2000 Bridge Parkway, Suite 203, Redwood City, Calif. 94065

Telephone: (650) 413-5550

Web: www.viafone.com

The technology: Wireless application service provider and development platform

Why it's worth watching: The service is fast to implement and works with many wireless services, back-end systems and data connections.

Company officers: Bernard Desarnauts, CEO and co-founder; Josh Stein, vice president of business development and co-founder; Fernando Ruarte, vice president of engineering and co-founder

Milestones: September 1999: Founded; May 2000: ASP launched; Sept. 2000: Development product released as beta

Employees: 62; 105% annual growth rate projected

Burn money: $11 million from Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Partech International Inc., plus angel funding

Products/pricing: ViaFone OneBridge Mobility Platform (in beta); starts at $100,000

Services/pricing: ViaFone Mobile Application Server; starts at $150,000 per year

Customers: mySimon.com, CDnow Online Inc., Ticketmaster Online-Citysearch Inc.

Partner: iXL Inc.

Red flags for IT: With so much competition, will ViaFone be a survivor? Are enough customers demanding wireless to justify the cost?

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ViaFone delivered in five weeks, McDowall says. A Web address, http://wap.mysimon. com, sends visitors to ViaFone's servers. ViaFone caches the main pages of mySimon.com and the site's hierarchy. When queries come, it sends an HTTP request to mySimon, accepts XML data in return, then converts it into an appropriate format for the user's wireless device. ViaFone includes support for BlackBerry handhelds from Waterloo, Ontario-based Research In Motion Ltd. and Palm OS handhelds.

Wireless applications have a strong future. International Data Corp. (IDC) in Framingham, Mass., projects a 93.7% compound annual growth in the use of smart phones. Also, by year's end, all digital phones shipping will support the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), according to IDC.

ViaFone CEO Bernard Desarnauts says what made mySimon's five-week time frame possible is that ViaFone has an integrated set of development tools and delivery services that understand the ins and outs of various mobile device interfaces and wireless bandwidth considerations as well as how to communicate with back-end business applications like enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management packages.

ViaFone is set up so that someone with knowledge of only markup languages can design a wireless application, says Desarnauts. "We want to minimize the resources to build, deploy and maintain wireless applications," he says.

An advantage that ViaFone delivers, says Ken Smiley, a senior industry analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., is that it's technology-agnostic. The company is willing to work with all carriers, all types of connections and all kinds of enterprise systems. "I think that is an advantage long term in that market space," he says.

Possible Problems

One potential pitfall for ViaFone, Smiley says, is that the task of mobilizing enterprise applications is difficult.

"I don't believe that it's as easy, quick or inexpensive as people are led to believe by the marketing hype," he cautions.

That's led a lot of potential customers for ViaFone to wait for leading vendors to emerge with a proven product. The bad news for ViaFone is that it needs big clients to prove that its approach works and to pump some needed practical experience into the company.

Although ViaFone's client list contains some well-known names, not all of them are currently fully committed to wireless. McDowall describes his company's project, which accounts for less than 5% of the site's traffic, as an experiment.

"We want to get into this space, understand the technology and understand what users like and don't like," he says.

ViaFone has released a beta version of a software development kit, OneBridge Mobility Platform, that lets companies build and host their own mobile-enabled Web sites.

Smiley says a two-pronged approach - development platform and ASP - is a good move because customers want different things. But for a small company like ViaFone, maintaining growth and momentum on two fronts may be difficult, he warns.

The company expects revenue from OneBridge to grow to 80% of sales, says Desarnauts. Currently, all revenue comes from ViaFone's hosted services, which were launched in May. While ViaFone declined to provide actual revenue numbers, Desarnauts projects revenue this year in the seven-figure range.

The Buzz: State of the Market

Join the Crowd

Analysts say the big job for ViaFone is distinguishing itself from the dozens of other vendors claiming to have a wireless application product or service. Carl Zetie, an analyst at Giga Information Group, says that in addition to vendors like ViaFone that come at the problem from the wireless end of things, ASPs are adding wireless capabilities to their offerings, hoping to capture that emerging business.

Giga analyst Ken Smiley says he sees two approaches being offered by vendors. One is content aggregation, in which data is sent between back-end stores and the mobile device. In this situation, content is static. A much harder problem is mobilizing applications so that mobile devices interact with back ends the same way that desktops do, by building mobile applications that change data and perform transactions.

Companies are pretty clear on the types of applications they want to mobilize, says Smiley. At the top of the list is the backbone of corporate communications: e-mail, contacts and scheduling. Next comes sales-force automation and inventory tracking, followed by help desk or customer service applications.

It's far too early to tell if ViaFone can pull ahead of the competition, says Smiley. "They could make a name for themselves, or they could fade away," he says. Not only is that true of ViaFone, he adds, but also of anyone else in this new field.

AvantGo Inc.

San Mateo, Calif.

www.avantgo.com

AvantGo is adopting the same dual-pronged approach as ViaFone - both internal development tools and a hosted service. It also has more than 1,000 partners that have built channels that feed information to wireless devices.

Everypath Inc.

Santa Clara, Calif.

www.everypath.com

Purely a hosted service, Everypath acts as a middleman between a Web site and wireless devices, essentially replicating the customer's Web site for mobile users. It supports transactions such as purchasing goods and auctions.

NetMorf Inc.

Boston

www.netmorf.com

SiteMorfer is an XML-based development and server platform for e-commerce that focuses more on integration with back-end corporate databases.

Johnson is a freelance writer in Seattle.

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