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CodePoint = M-Commerce Success?

CodePoint = M-Commerce Success?

Many blame WAP, a lack of 3G bandwidth, or both, for the m-commerce woes we've all experienced or heard about. But what every consumer wants, sooner or later, every consumer gets. In this case, some of us may be getting a truly user-friendly m-commerce solution as soon as this fall.

Anyone for acronyms? First we had WAP, a genuine industry term, which stands for Wireless Application Protocol. Shortly after WAP something HAPPENED, my term for Hunt And Peck Poses E-Nightmare, Ends Data Downloads. Since then we have been experiencing the McFAD, or Mobile Commerce Fades Out and Dies, while in the background, jeers of WAP is CRAP! are heard echoing across the wireless landscape. CRAP of course, is not an acronym, though I had considered Can't Really Apply Protocol as a possible option.

Enter CodePoint
CodePoint is neither an acronym nor a bottleneck. It is, however, an enabling software application with the potential to turn m-commerce dreams into waking realities. CodePoint software will make its market debut fourth quarter 2002 in Japan on cellphones with built-in digital cameras. If accepted by the masses, CodePoint software could be the long-awaited last puzzle piece in the m-commerce business model. How can one little piece of software do all this? In the words of Graham F. Paxton, president and CEO of International Wireless, "If you want to use a PC to get into Amazon.com to order a Harry Potter book, you've got 27 keystrokes. If you want to get to the same position on a mobile handset, it's 54 keystrokes. If you want to get to the same position in the URL to order that book using the enabling software of CodePoint, it's one click of a button."

CodePoint enables digital cameras (in this application, those installed in newer model mobile phones) to read bar codes. Instead of typing in URLs by hand on a miniscule keypad, you take a snapshot of a bar code that then leads you to the URL associated with the bar code. This process cuts the time it takes to request the URL to practically nothing.

Once you download the URL you can place your order for, let's say, tickets to the concert advertised, with the printed bar code. This is the ordering URL by the way. With your electronic financial account information on the same device, you can be ready to order, not ready to wait and click and surf some more until you get to order.

There were several challenges for CodePoint technology to overcome in order to read bar codes with the kind of cameras used in cellphones as well as in the kind of environment that we're talking about. End users aren't machines. Consumers aren't used to using bar code scanners, which traditionally must be held at a precise distance and angle from the bar code. These end users probably don't care to exercise such a high level of precision just to use the device.

After all, this isn't supposed to be work; this is supposed to be wireless shopping. In actual practice, consumers may end up pointing and clicking the cellphone/camera from all sorts of angles or in a variety of unfavorable conditions, making the captured image hard to decode. There are focus, lighting, and rotation issues in the user experience that can't be escaped. According to Kevin Wells, senior vice president, CodePoint group at International Wireless, the CodePoint software has leapt all these hurdles.

CodePoint software meets these challenges because it is the end product of core decoding algorithms that were years in development. The result is decoding software optimized to work in consumer cameras under rigorous conditions. Where most consumer grade cameras are meant to take pictures in focus within a certain distance, CodePoint software works with the same kind of hardware to achieve focal lengths that range beyond these traditional parameters.

CodePoint additionally compensates for lighting variables and eliminates high levels of battery power consumption (common in laser-based scanners). CodePoint also scans efficiently despite the low resolution in the quality of lenses that are involved; this enables precise imaging at the sub-pixel level. This is what helps CodePoint to decode bar code images that have been captured at unpredictable angles and distances, and in different lighting, all while adapting to mass-market digital cameras of the kind that are already commonly appearing on handsets in Asia.

Bring in the Bandwidth
As CodePoint's first release is scheduled in Japan Q4 2002, CodePoint-equipped camera-phones will have all the 3G-download speed they need. By the time the technology reaches the U.S., we, too, will probably be sufficiently equipped with 3G to enjoy CodePoint-enabled m-commerce transactions. Actually an additional selling point, 3G, which has faced several business roadblocks especially in the U.S., is inevitable. 3G can grow with CodePoint if not lay a path in front of it.

Granting M-Commerce Wishes
In addition to speed and ease of use, CodePoint enables the several transitions that m-commerce has been promising, one being the appearance of e-wallets.

The market is ripe to turn cellphones and PDAs into credit cards and wallets. Mobile phones and PDAs can make purchases. Consumers can be billed through the mobile phone or to a credit card linked with the mobile phone. When the device that stores your electronic account information is the device that makes the purchases, you have a solid m-commerce business model.

According to Paxton, that's the response they are getting from the industry. "...Many organizations are really beginning to see the power that it [CodePoint] brings in terms of making mobile communications that involve data much, much more of a reality than they've historically been," he says.

Sober Realism Supports IW's Claims
According to Declan Lonergan, director of Wireless Research & Consulting, EMEA (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa), the Yankee Group, "International Wireless's solution does depend on a high penetration of mobile devices featuring built-in cameras. This will take time to become a reality in Europe, but over time, we do believe it will happen. Overall we see the solution complementing existing technologies to facilitate a more acceptable user experience of m-commerce, and therefore helping to overcome some of the negative perceptions that have hindered the acceptance and growth of WAP services." It will take time, but there is no reason to believe CodePoint won't succeed.

Product Evolution = Mobile Data Revolution?
What about the evolutionary cycle for this product? When asked if this type of barcode reading could expand from m-commerce to general content surfing, Paxton replied, "I think that's very much a reality, yes. It's like all of these things, everything has a take-up period. Take SMS messaging, for example - as you know that's now a very, very big phenomenon in Europe, but less so here in the U.S. If we look at what's happening in Japan where things are different still, the culture of people using mobile devices, primarily because of DoCoMo and i-mode, is a lot more sophisticated than it is in other parts of the world, but as we know, that sophistication gradually spreads around the globe anyway."

What Might Stop CodePoint?
If anything can stop CodePoint, it will be consumer rejection of the CodePoint process of doing m-commerce. People are either going to like this solution or not. The good news is we won't have to wait long for the answer. Keep an eye on how the product fares in Japan this winter and through 2003. This should be a good indicator, if not a validator, of CodePoint's potential.

The Wisdom of Modular

Though J2ME is proliferating across mobile devices, International Wireless goes one better by making CodePoint software modular. CodePoint will support not only Java, Symbian, and all the current major PDA operating systems, but also any custom OS environment. The intent is to be portable across all platforms. The modular programming approach is common among forward-thinking applications developers.

From sounding great to being great - how will they make the trip?

Paxton puts the business sell ahead of the technical sell to bring CodePoint to market dominance. By first demonstrating what the software can do for a company's profitability, you'll then beg the question, how does it work? This is better than telling businesses how it works before they have a good, bottom-line reason to care. How's this approach working? "I've been in the business for many years and I've never known so many people [to be] interested in a piece of software within the mobile world," says Paxton.

More Stories By David Geer

David Geer is a contributing writer to WBT, a journalist, and a computer technician. He graduated from Lake Erie College in 1993 with a BA in psychology and has worked in the computer industry and in the media since 1998.

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