Eating OS/390 Data out of the Palm of Your Hand

Just when we start to get our arms around the Web-to-host game, technology throws us another curve. Now, there’s a slew of new clients we may eventually have to reach out to – a plethora of wireless devices, from Web phones to palm-sized computers.

The current crop of wireless applications are confined to news, weather, sports, stock quotes, personal calendars and e-mail delivered over Web phones and palmtops. Plans are afoot, however, to bring business and B2B applications to the wireless set. Some surveys show about a third of IT managers plan some type of wireless deployment over the coming year, and that more than half of all Web access will be from non-PC devices within the next three years.

Not everyone will or should go wireless, however. The people that stand to gain the most from wireless Web access are those that are unable to sit down at a PC or laptop. This may include distribution warehouse workers that are able to log shipments with barcode scanners, nurses that can enter patient data right from the bedside, salespeople at client offices or insurance claims adjusters working in the field. Many of these workers still have to record their information in writing, and later manually re-enter the information into PCs, which are then loaded into host computers. These types of workers are the best candidates for wireless Web access.

Host access represents the last, and, perhaps, most challenging mile on the wireless road. The good news is that the leading host-access vendors have solutions ready to go on the market.

The bad news is that there’s a number of other components that all have to fall into place before a mainframe will seamlessly talk to a PalmPilot, much of it beyond the control of an IT manager.

"The Web-to-host suppliers are positioning themselves well for wireless. However, the infrastructure’s not in place yet," says Darcey Fowkes, analyst with Aberdeen Group. "When it comes to getting host data out to wireless devices, there’s a lot of technologies that have to be included and implemented into IT to make that all seamlessly work." Such technologies include the acceptance of new standards and protocols, new client hardware, new client operating systems and "microbrowsers," uniform signal coverage and new middleware/EAI solutions.

Taking the Lead

Leading Web-to-host vendors have already announced support for WAP (wireless access protocol), the set of standards ascribed to by Web phones and palmtop computers. The Wireless Markup Language (WML), used to create WAP pages, is a derivative of XML that is similar to HTML and is the language of wireless Internet applications. WML is optimized for compression over low-bandwidth connections, such as wireless Web access.

Eventually, wireless access will rely entirely on XML, with IP as a communication protocol, some analysts predict. In the meantime, WAP/WML and XML applications do not interoperate well. To move the data from OS/390 to a WAP-enabled Nokia phone, applications will need to be converted from HTML into XML, then from XML into WML. Reportedly, the World Wide Web Consortium and other industry groups are working to bring these standards together, but this process may take time.

In addition, linking devices to host environments will require new middle-tier services, in the form of wireless ISPs (WISPs), which include hosting functions, as well as content translation services. It is likely that many current ISPs and ASPs will add this functionality.

End user hardware is another issue with wireless devices. For example, most WAP phones function as dumb terminals, with no storage or memory capability. Signal-based access is far more unstable than access through a wire. Thus, if a user is out of range of the signal, he or she is immobilized. Obviously, this is not the situation a salesperson would want to deal with in a client’s office.

The industry has been fairly aggressive about rolling out the software that powers wireless devices. The microbrowsers that run on these devices, such as WAPMan, are easier on bandwidth, since they take on some of the processing tasks. The new Netscape 6 browser, powered by Netscape’s "Gecko" technology, is designed for multiple devices, such as Web phones or Internet appliances.

Fowkes predicts that wireless Web-to-host transactions will take place within EAI applications that pull together data from various ERP and database sources and format the data for wireless transmissions.

It’s unlikely that there will ever be direct wireless access to mainframe applications. In Web-to-host wireless access, all of the action will take place in the middle, running on UNIX or Windows NT/2000 servers, says Fowkes. As a result, there is a historic partnering between object-oriented enterprise application integration suppliers and transaction monitoring tools vendors.