3Com eyes WAP for use in Palm devices
(IDG) -- 3Com Corp. is exploring an emerging technology called the Wireless Access Protocol for possible use in its Palm computer, a move that would bring new Web browsing capabilities to the popular handheld device, analysts and sources familiar with the matter said this week.
Moving to WAP would be a significant step for 3Com, which has invested heavily to develop a text-based technology called "Web Clipping" for its wireless Palm VII, which was launched in May in the New York area. But analysts said the momentum growing behind WAP might not leave 3Com with any choice but to switch to WAP.
Web Clipping allows mobile users to download short bursts of text information from Web sites that have tailored content for 3Com's technology. Web Clipping doesn't allow users to surf the Web at large, but downloads information to "query applications" offered by more than 60 firms, including United Airlines, The Weather Channel, ETrade Group Inc. and The Wall Street Journal. The list of content and service providers using Web Clipping is growing, and users can download new query applications from Palm's Web site, 3Com said.
In contrast, WAP provides a set of open standards that allow mobile devices like cell phones, pagers and handheld computers to browse content on the Web. Sites, however, must be reformatted to support a programming language called Wireless Markup Language which supports both text and bitmap images.
WAP still is an emerging technology, but the industry momentum behind it, combined with its potential to offer users greater freedom to surf the Internet, may force 3Com to make a transition from Web Clipping to WAP, analysts said.
"I think they would be foolish not to support WAP. They're trying to push Web Clipping as a metaphor for surfing the Web, but I don't think they'll be that successful," said Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing research with market analyst firm Gartner Group Inc. in San Jose, California.
Dulaney characterized 3Com's apparent reluctance to move to WAP as "a touch of Microsoft-itis."
"I think it's stupid for them to wait," he said. "They ought to be in the middle of things. They're obviously waiting, but what they're waiting for I don't know."
3Com denies it has any plans to move away from its proprietary technology, although the company acknowledges that WAP is on its radar screen.
"We're certainly looking at WAP and find it very interesting, but we don't have any imminent plans" to use the technology, Tammy Medanich, product marketing manager with 3Com's Palm Computing division, said in a recent interview.
But two sources close to the matter told IDG News Service that 3Com has already begun talks with the WAP Forum, an industry group formed to promote the technology. Other industry sources have indicated to Gartner Group's Dulaney that 3Com will move to the new technology sooner rather than later, Dulaney said.
The world's largest handset makers, including L.M. Ericsson Telephone Co., Nokia Corp. and Motorola Inc., all have announced plans to ship WAP-enabled phones late this year or early in 2000. Telecom carriers AT&T Corp., France Telecom SA and Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp. (NTT) are also backing the effort, along with IT heavyweights like Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp.
"For 3Com to take on Microsoft and all the other players would be suicide in my opinion," Dulaney said.
3Com maintains that Web Clipping has proved popular among its early customers. What's more, the company notes, content for the Palm VII is available now, whereas companies are only just beginning to think about retooling their Web content for WAP.
Web Clipping is "fast and efficient" at downloading snippets of information, said Jill House, a research analyst with International Data Corp.'s smart handheld devices group. Still, she characterized the technology as an "interim solution" to providing mobile users with wireless Web access.
Like Dulaney, House believes 3Com will be forced to yield to the market impetus building up behind WAP. IDC expects shipments of WAP-enabled products to increase rapidly, soaring from almost zero today to close to 10 million by 2003. About 5 million Palm OS-based devices will ship in the same year, up from an estimated 2.9 million in 1999, House said.
"(WAP is) a strong technology with a lot of interest from the industry. Given both those factors, it would be very surprising if 3Com were not considering it" for use in the Palm, she said.
Officials with the WAP Forum declined to comment on whether any discussions with 3Com are underway, but said 3Com's membership to the Forum would be of great value.
"Our principal goal is to create one worldwide standard that all wireless handheld devices work on for Internet access and browsing, and it would be a huge accomplishment to have 3Com join," said Chuck Parrish, who recently completed his tenure as chairman of the WAP Forum. Parrish is also executive vice president with Phone.com Inc., which makes client and server software for WAP devices.
One major benefit of having a single standard among wireless providers would be to enable content developers to write their content once and have it understood by all devices, Parrish said.
Why aren't more PDAs wireless?
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