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|Secrets of the wireless elite: The Netherlands know best|
The Netherlands have gone through several stages of evolution regarding wireless technology. According to Amsterdam-based wireless developer Ed Alkema, "We've seen it all."
Wireless developers will learn some of the tricks that Alkema developed for working around the early frustrations he encountered while embracing the newly introduced WAP. Developers will also gain a Netherlands perspective on i-mode. And despite Alkema and company's focus on creating robust, scalable, wireless business applications, it's a good bet that developers will be surprised when they discover what Alkema calls "the true killer wireless application."
Ed Alkema is the VP of platform integration for Amsterdam-based Bwirelezz, though his involvement in the wireless industry came out of an extraordinarily ordinary development background.
In 1995, Alkema formed Tinspark, an internet software development company, bought by Agency.com. While at Agency.com, he focused on e-commerce solutions and architecture before forming Bwirelezz approximately two years ago.
"It was the beginning of 2000 when the word was out that wireless had a big future, so some friends and myself decided to step into the wireless arena," says Alkema. "Bwirelezz is a company that builds software for businesses to make their back-end systems accessible through wireless devices. The main focus was on WAP, but now we build solutions for WAP/i-mode/SMS/J2ME."
The successful business
For the founder of a wireless company focused on relatively "dry" e-commerce solutions, Alkema happens to be in the process of creating some rather quirky wireless applications.
"Currently, I am working on a very interesting project: a wireless daily lottery," says Alkema. "The whole project is done in Java running on a Bluestone application server."
Alkema continues, "Another nice project that I'm working on is enabling Dutch veterinarians to gather and enter information wirelessly while they are out in the field."
Alkema also created a popular multi-player "Hangman" game via WAP that used SMS to alert players if they had won or lost.
Here's what's inside Alkema's wireless toolbox:
Alkema's team soon discovered that not all WAP browsers conform to the same standards, and that they needed to find a way around these browser limitations. "How do you display dynamically created images on a phone?" Alkema asked rhetorically. "A nice trick we used to show the playing cards on the phone was using a font with playing card faces and [converting] them to WBMP images. The same technique was later used to display Webcam images on the phone."
While Bwirelezz was taking shape, Alkema was committed to creating a wireless application company that revolved around e-commerce; however, Alkema was also committed to not putting all his development eggs in one basket. He would continue to embrace SMS as WAP developed.
"We didn't want to build the "simple" joke of the day and/or weather wireless application, but instead wanted to focus on wireless applications which involved transactions," explained Alkema. "A great example is the SMS lottery applications we built for an Irish company that allowed you to play the Irish lottery using a normal GSM cell phone. This application worked by allowing users to send keywords to the lottery server; the lottery server keeps your actions in session and tracks your whereabouts in the ordering process for your lottery ticket."
"With SMS, a lot more is possible than people think," offers Alkema. "I've built demo applications that translate the text you sent and then forwards it to another user." He continues, "When you send a text in the format 'en-sp,' 'phone number to send to,' or 'text to be translated,' the SMS gateway receives the message, strips out the text, sends it to the google translation Webpage, retrieves the response, and forwards the translated text to the recipient -- not a very useful app, you could say, but handy for a teenager in Spain trying to send a nice message to that Spanish girl he just met."
Developers: Know your
"Every developer wants to build apps for a broad range of devices, but all devices have their differences," admits Alkema. Another problem, he believes, is that consumers don't know what to buy anymore. "One day they buy the latest, hottest, full-color WAP 2.0-enabled telephone, and the next day they read that they should buy the super duper PDA with integrated GSM phone and J2ME support," he huffs. "Developers need to build software for these gadgets, and I think they are just as confused as the consumers."
Alkema also insists that developers should be careful not to waste too many cycles on products that will never come to market. "I, too, have spent hours developing something for the latest high-tech demo phone provided by one of the big GSM phone builders only to find out later that the thing never went into production and the people who needed to use my application were still working with the first generation WAP phones!"
Alkema refers to the Netherlands when he states that despite the fact that the number of GSM phones with WAP was "growing like crazy, nobody used them." "What's the point?" shrugs Alkema.
Don't move too fast
"I thought WAP would be a common goal by the end of 2001; I was wrong." Alkema confesses. "I now realize technology is steps ahead of what consumers really want. Your average European GSM phone user sends SMS and nothing else. The business consumer uses his PDA for his appointments and mail. He just wants a reliable, stable connection to the Internet via gprs."
And the winner for killer app
Alkema also feels that multi-player games are a great wireless application. Prying Alkema away from the subject of betting and gaming, he suggests that applications like stock trading and banking could be big for the business sector. "As long as you make these applications simple for people to use, I think any application can be a success," he adds.
Greatest success as a wireless developer
"I was too optimistic [about] how people would use their mobile devices. But I notice a change already, and I think if we can make it easier for consumers to make use of all the capabilities of their wireless gadgets, and actually offer them useful applications, things will change. We're not there yet, but I still believe wireless is the future."