New Service Brings Web to the Small Screen

Despite the enormous promise of wireless access to the Web, interoperability issues hamper connectivity between Web applications supporting XML and the wireless markup language (WML). Market watcher IDC (www.idc.com) projects that 50 percent of all Web access will be performed from non-PC devices within the next three years, but only 500 out of 1.5 billion pages on the Web today are usable by small-screen appliances.

Plus, data applications for small-screened mobile devices have been scanty in quantity and static in quality, consisting mainly of Internet-delivered news headlines, weather, and sports.

To be accessible from screenphones, Web documents need to be reformulated from HTML to XML, and then from XML to WML. This can be a lengthy process.

A new service unveiled at the recent Internet World conference in Los Angeles purports to convert a Web site's content -- including applications that use transaction processing -- in only a few days' time. To date, 30 Internet companies have signed on for the service provided by Everypath Inc. (www.everypath.com) to extend existing Web-based applications to mobile platforms. Everypath expects to add corporate enterprises to its mobile roster later this year, according to Meshele Ko, director of sales at Everypath.

Major e-commerce retailers such as E-Trade Securities Inc. (www.etrade.com) and Egghead.com (www.egghead.com) are rolling out actual applications to PDAs and smartphones.

E-Trade is concentrating on delivering the ability to trade stocks online, get stock quotes, see company profiles, and track market gainers and losers from wireless Application Protocol-based (WAP) phones. At Egghead.com, Palm users will be able to buy software and bid on computer products and consumer electronics.

With WAP-based cell phones starting to become available in the US this year from major manufacturers such as Ericsson (www.ericsson.com) and Nokia Corp. (www.nokia.com), the need for WAP-enabled content will grow.

As with all things in the technology industry, separate standards are preventing a full deployment of wireless applications.

The World Wide Web Consortium's (www.w3.org) XML standard makes it possible to display content across diverse platforms. But the WAP Forum, a group of wireless phone makers and software developers, created its own WML protocol for displaying content across multivendor smartphones.

Many members of the WAP Forum also belong to the W3C. Although work is going on within the W3C to converge the two standards, at this point XML cannot be directly converted into WML. Nor can HTML be directly converted into XML, although the W3C's emerging extensible hypertext markup language (XHTML) protocol is expected to remedy this problem. Typically, though, only certain portions of a site's content are being converted to mobile display languages to accommodate the smaller real estate of handheld devices.

Everypath is hosting the mobile applications of its initial customers on its own Java-based content server. The server, which has been seven years in the making, includes a protocol conversion engine that captures information about objects on HTML pages as well as in Web databases, and stores this information as XML meta data. The server then uses a series of templates to filter the XML data, optimizing display for specific mobile environments such as WML or Palm's PQA display language.

Although most of Everypath's initial customers are business-to-consumer start-ups, there are also business-to-business clients on the list, including trading sites CheMatch.com for the chemicals industry, and MetalSite.com for the metals business.

Everypath has targeted dot-coms first because of their shorter decision-making cycles, Ko says. This summer, however, Everypath will begin to pursue the corporate enterprise market.

Upshot.com (www.upshot.com), one of Everypath's customer, provides sales force automation applications to small and midsized businesses. UpShot plans to launch user trials on WAP screenphones during the third quarter of this year, with general availability on the mobile platform to follow.

Everypath successfully prototyped a conversion of Web content into Microsoft's Windows CE environment, Ko says. Plans also call for converting Web content into Psion EPOC and RIM two-way pager formats, as well as into the W3C's emerging voice markup language (VML) for digitized speech. As a consequence, the Internet will become accessible even to users of traditional, non-cellular phones.