OnStar takes Voice XML for drive

GM unit prepares for mobile content delivery


Delivering Web content to a mobile device will get a new spin this fall.

At last week's Ninth Annual World Wide Web Conference here, OnStar Inc. detailed plans to use XML-based voice files to deliver weather forecasts, news, sports scores and stock updates to wireless phones that are being built into 30 models of cars made by Detroit-based General Motors Corp.

Drivers will be able to simply press a button, tell the car what they want and wait for the car to talk back via automated voice response.

But what goes on behind the scenes with OnStar's revamped architecture and XML work may be of more interest to the growing number of U.S. companies trying to repurpose their Web content and applications for Internet-enabled mobile devices.

An OnStar subscriber's request for a weather forecast or sports score will be translated by voice-recognition software into an XML-tagged data request. The request will be matched to a profile the user stored, and content will be retrieved from an outside Web site that the Troy, Mich.-based GM subsidiary has partnered with. The XML-tagged data is then translated to Voice XML.

"For those who don't want a happy, smiley face at the other end of the phone, it really is an alternative platform," said OnStar CIO Bruce Radloff, noting that the company also hopes the automated system will help slow the increase in its call center advisers.

Since fall 1996, OnStar advisers have been offering directions, suggesting restaurants, finding gas stations and providing emergency services to subscribers who press a button that activates a cellular telephone call to a person.

As early as mid-1997, OnStar recognized that it didn't want to be in the business of aggregating all the content for its subscribers. So as staffers considered partnering with outside companies to get the information, they explored technical changes that would help deliver a wider range of content to the call center advisers.

"We weren't thinking about the car and the mobile devices," Radloff recalled. "It was just an attempt to standardize our data and standardize with the data of the other enterprises we wanted to pull data from."

That was no small order for a company accustomed to owning all of its data. Radloff said his biggest challenge was convincing upper management that an architectural shift was necessary and that it was important, in some cases, to use new and untested tools and technology.

A More Flexible System

OnStar eventually scrapped its proprietary client/server architecture in favor of a more flexible multitier system that relies on distributed objects. Part and parcel was separating the presentation layer from any content stored in its databases. Staffers spent eight months coding XML tags into the data and testing their work, according to Radloff.

"It was painful," he said.

Egbert-Jan Sol, vice president of technology at LM Ericsson in Stockholm, agreed. He said it will be hard work, and in some cases companies will have to completely redesign and rethink content to make it more suitable for small-screen devices.

Radloff said OnStar opted for XML to steer clear of the raging battles over competing application development models from Microsoft Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc.

The irony is that the decision would later bring an unplanned bonus: the ability to more easily deliver content to cell phones, handhelds or any device they would like.

Now that it has pure XML content at the back end, OnStar won't have to make wholesale rewrites every time it wants to deliver content to a new device. Instead, the company's programmers write a new XML style sheet to specify how the content should be delivered to the device.

Many experts and consultants at last week's World Wide Web Conference recommended separating content from the presentation layer to prepare for delivering information to a range of devices.

"The layered approach is nice and clean and allows for multipurposing," said Murray Maloney, a consultant and member of the conference committee. "Anybody who knows what they're doing is using this model."

Contacted in the U.S., Daryl Plummer, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said, "If they've decided they're going to (deliver Web content to devices) as their strategy, 85% to 90% have committed to doing it the way GM is doing it. They've made a commitment to XML and XSL (Extensible Stylesheet Language)."

But Plummer added that most companies aren't using either yet. "Corporations have a few people who understand and are excited about it, but they haven't started to convert their content because they're waiting for products."

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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