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M x N The geometric challenge of wireless application deployment

M x N The geometric challenge of wireless application deployment

nteroperability is currently the hottest topic in the wireless application space, and rightly so: many of the early promises and exciting ambitions of the industry have been frustrated by reality.

More and more developers are realizing that the true challenge of deployment is in making applications work - and work well - across the wide range of devices and gateway platforms available.

M - The Devices
The challenge of adapting applications for different client devices is an obvious one. Wireless devices have a wide variation in characteristics:

  1. Physical (such as screen sizes, navigation keys)
  2. Cosmetic (such as browser image and formatting support)
  3. Usability (navigation mapings, input mechanism)
  4. Compliance (protocol version, optional standards supported, proprietary extensions)
Add to these the fact that many devices still feature immature browser software, and that there are more than a few "undocumented features" on most phones that experienced developers certainly have to get to know and love...

One final, and not insignificant challenge for developers is that of simply keeping up with the huge number of devices that are being released by a variety of manufacturers. For example, in the UK alone there are now at least 20 WAP devices (some with critical sub versions), but most developers would be hard pushed to name more than 12, and even fewer will have directly experienced more than, say, six of those. And of course, new devices are being released at an increasingly rapid rate.

The Gateways
Often overlooked is the impact that different gateway platforms have on the performance and stability of a wireless application. In a crowded gateway product marketplace, manufacturers have tended to differentiate their products with features and characteristics that often provide unpredictability for the developer.

These include, in a WAP context:

  1. Parsing and validating - some gateways interpret XML and WML rules strictly; others intelligently tolerate developer errors.
  2. Compilation - certain gateways compile well at the expense of performance, while others compile less efficiently. This causes problems on devices with page size limits. Our studies show a 40% difference in compilation efficiency on widely available gateway products.
  3. HTTP header manipulation - gateways act on behalf of WAP devices to retrieve content from the WAP Server. Often, the headers used to do so vary greatly from the device's original request, making the predictability of what will arrive at the developer's application fairly low.
  4. Translation and transcoding - high-end WAP gateways are able to convert various non-WAP content types (such as HTML and HDML) in order to get the content to the device. Applications also need to be developed, however, to cater to the cases when such gateway features are not available.
Solution: Solving the M x N challenge
In theory, a developer has to be confident that an application works across all devices and gateways - an awesome deployment and test surface of M x N.

Additionally, developers new to the wireless world are often bringing previous Web experience. This is a help and a hindrance: while an understanding of the client/server Web model is certainly very useful, WAP deployment is far more unforgiving. Both at the development and testing stage, a well-prepared and realistic approach is vital.

Successful wireless developers will use a variety of proactive approaches to solve these problems. These include:

  • A micro-channel approach to development - while macro-channel development (Web, WAP, iTV) is a well-known application requirement, developers can reuse some of those techniques to implement WAP "microchannels," the fine-tuning of content for different device and gateway combinations. Developers can use such tools as XML and XSLT, or may even choose to develop different presentation logic for generic groups of devices.
  • Reliance on transcoding - brave developers may choose to leave the device-specific tuning of content to a transcoding entity that is able to take generic content and adapt it for the known target device. Transcoding may occur in or on either side of the gateway, or even on the application server itself. While often not appropriate for complex content, this approach provides a rapid solution.
  • Increased focus on testing - developers are beginning to realize that WAP application testing is not a challenge to take lightly. Developers and IT managers need to factor increased testing into their wireless development plans as compared to the "Web application" testing phases. We have noted successful developers devoting over 30% of their development projects to device testing, and turning to outsourced solutions provides a cost-effective alternative. Manual testing on physical devices also provides a vital analysis of the sites' usability.
  • Capability and Preference Information (CPI) - WAP 1.2 features a mechanism that allows devices and gateways to announce their own capabilities and characteristics to the application via the UAPROF (User Agent Profile) structure. While this allows developers to proactively adapt content for devices, it relies on an assumption that the UAPROF information from the device is itself reliable. In the early days of WAP 1.2, this will take some time to stabilize.
Summary
Our mantra at my own company, Encerca, is that "WML is easy; deploying a mobile Internet service is hard." The success of the industry relies on consumers and enterprises being able to use compelling, stable applications - and it's partly through developers and application providers learning the challenges of interoperability that those promises made will be delivered upon.

More Stories By James Pearce

James Pearce is VP Technology, Argogroup (Guildford, UK)

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