Wireless Application Protocol Solutions - 01 Feb 2001

Untethered access to Exchange Server data

In what amounts to a mere blip on the corporate timeline, email has evolved from a novelty to a necessity. From corporate managers to mail clerks, everyone has come to depend on email and the growing list of features that groupware applications (e.g., Microsoft Exchange Server) offer. A natural outgrowth of our dependence on these messaging platforms is an increasing need to stay connected to them, regardless of time or location.

Providing this connectivity presents a considerable challenge for IT staff who must forge a secure, manageable, and cost-effective solution that also offers the flexibility and accessibility users require. Many traditional remote access solutions rely on the speed of wired networks for satisfactory performance, which, in turn, limits flexibility. However, remote access solutions tailored for wireless networks can provide users with nearly infinite flexibility. To survey the current wireless products, I looked at three vendors’ Wireless Application Protocol (WAP)-based solutions as well as the vendors’ enhanced features that give mobile workers untethered access to Exchange Server data. A basic understanding of WAP will help you appreciate these products’ offerings.

WAP 101

Simply put, WAP is a protocol stack. More specifically, WAP is a standards-based communication-protocol suite and application environment for wireless communication. WAP is streamlined for devices such as Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and mobile phones that offer limited RAM, ROM, processor speed, and displays. In addition, it works well in low-bandwidth, high-latency wireless networks. The WAP Forum has published WAP specifications at http://www.wapforum.org.

A simple WAP implementation includes a WAP browser (aka a microbrowser), a WAP gateway, and a WAP content provider. The WAP browser resides on a handheld device such as a mobile phone or PDA. The WAP gateway usually resides on your wireless service provider’s network and provides access to another network, such as the Internet. The WAP content provider can be any server that renders information in Wireless Markup Language (WML) that the server transmits to the microbrowser. Figure 1 illustrates this configuration.

The three products I tested employ a WAP solution similar to the architecture that Figure 1 shows, in which the WAP content provider is the interface to a back-end Exchange Server. As such, the WAP content provider acts as a proxy for mobile users accessing their Exchange Server mailbox. To gain a better understanding of WAP, you can map the components of the WAP protocol suite to their Web-based cousins.

WML and HTML. WML is a tag-based, XML-compliant, streamlined language for use with microbrowsers on wireless devices. To accommodate the inherent latency of wireless networks, WML documents (aka cards) support only basic formatting. The WML author combines the cards into decks as large as 1400 bytes for transmission in one burst. WML also supports limited scripting capabilities with WMLScript, which is similar in function to JavaScript in HTML. WMLScript economizes on network transmissions by having the client perform tasks locally.

WML was derived in part from Handheld Device Markup Language (HDML). However, HDML came to market too early to incorporate XML, so vendors have left HDML behind in favor of the more forward-looking WML. The two languages are compatible; however, their differences can cause minor anomalies depending on the manufacturer and version of your microbrowser.

WSP and WTP and HTTP. The Wireless Session Protocol (WSP) implements WAP’s session-level services. The Wireless Transaction Protocol (WTP) is a liaison between the WSP and lower-level protocols, repackaging data much like HTTP does, as well as managing transmissions and acknowledgements.

WTLS and SSL. The Wireless Transport Layer Security (WTLS) protocol provides encryption and decryption services for WAP similar to those that Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) provides for HTTP. Although WAP’s built-in security is functional, it raises concern among those implementing WAP solutions because it forces them to depend on the security implementation that their wireless carrier provides. For example, when I use my WAP phone to access the Sprint PCS Wireless Web, all transmissions between Sprint’s WAP gateway and my phone use WTLS and RC4 128-bit encryption. During translation to HTTP over SSL (HTTPS—assuming I’m using SSL to communicate with a secure Web site), the carrier’s WAP gateway briefly decrypts transmissions that go through the gateway and out to the Internet. Although this translation takes place on a secure server on the carrier’s premises, some IT managers reject security implementations that they don’t directly control. You can move the translation security gap to the security of your private network by purchasing a WAP gateway on which encrypted traffic will flow unimpeded from users’ WAP devices. However, although hosting a WAP gateway provides a more stringent security model, this setup presents its own complications.

WDP and UPD and TCP. Just as TCP and UDP help hide the intricacies of the network and data link layers from the rest of the protocol stack, the Wireless Datagram Protocol (WDP) hides the details of the wireless network. WDP works with the wireless network types available in WAP devices. For example, if your carrier is AT&T, you’ll use the company’s packet-switched Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) network. Sprint uses a circuit-switched Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) network. And Verizon’s circuit-switched Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) network uses Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA). WDP handles the intricacies of these different networks and makes the details invisible to the other WAP layers as well as to the end user. Table 1 outlines the leading wireless transmission technologies.

The Future of WAP

WAP is currently the standard for wireless communication in many parts of the world. In Japan, WAP has a legitimate competitor, NTT DoCoMo’s i-Mode, but the real threat to WAP’s existence is evolution. XML will probably evolve into the next Internet standard, displacing WML as the solution for content encoding. High-speed third-generation wireless networks and new devices will emerge, providing opportunities that enhanced protocol standards can best exploit. However, in the 2- to 4-year interim, WAP will continue to serve mobile users well. In addition, WAP’s XML roots will help it develop to meet the evolving needs of wireless applications.

Testing Basic WAP Solutions

Because of my background, I always look at a solution from two sides: the end user’s experience, which is concerned mainly with a product’s features and functionality; and the administrator’s experience, which includes cost considerations, ease of deployment, supportability, and security. In reviewing wireless solutions, I looked at how each of the selected products performs in these areas.

Using a WAP phone to send and receive email takes some getting used to. Before I tested the products in this review, I’d never used a WAP browser to access email. I’ve used Outlook Web Access (OWA) quite a bit and am familiar with the quirks and limitations of a browser interface to my Exchange Server mailbox. However, my experience didn’t prepare me for viewing email on the tiny display of a telephone or the challenge of entering text on a numeric keypad. I quickly learned the value of URL bookmarks, telephones that provide Text on 9 Keys (T9) predictive typing, and brief replies.

Mobile users want as much functionality as a WAP phone can offer. Thus, access to the most important of, if not all of, their mailbox folders is essential. Another key feature is the integration of contact information. For example, users want to be able to search for and initiate calls and email messages to persons in their Contacts folder or on the Exchange Server’s Global Address List (GAL). Infowave Software’s Exchange Connector to a Web Phone (ECWP), the WAP component of its Wireless Business Engine 3.5, lets you access the Microsoft Outlook Inbox, Calendar, Contacts, and Tasks with a WAP Browser. I could use this solution to search the contact list and initiate a call or email message. The Wireless Business Engine’s Task options, which Figure 2 shows, were full-featured and user-friendly. Wireless Knowledge’s Workstyle Server 3.0 for Exchange 5.5 provides similar telephone integration as well as access to the GAL. This solution also lets you navigate to folders within your Inbox, Deleted Items, and Sent Items but doesn’t offer access to Tasks. UltiVerse Technologies’ UltiWAP and FreeVerse also provide access to the Inbox, Calendar, Contacts, Tasks, GAL, Deleted Items, and Sent Items, and let you easily sort and search mailbox contents on the fly.

The value of each of the solutions from Infowave, Wireless Knowledge, and UltiVerse will depend on your mobile users’ habits. Access to the GAL is a necessity for a full-featured WAP solution, but the more mailbox access, the better.

Beyond Basic WAP

Although you can find hard-core WAP phone users who have become adept at reading their email on tiny displays and typing responses on numeric keypads, WAP phones are, at best, a temporary means to bridge the connectivity gap created when users are away from their offices. For most, the value of this bridge is dubious. Thus, the wireless access industry has developed some interesting ways to work around the limitations of a WAP phone.

Composing email. One of the first problems you encounter with a WAP phone is how to make composing an email message easier. One approach to this problem is to choose a WAP device that provides a more friendly means of inputting text. WAP browsers are available for both Palm and Win32 devices, such as Pocket PCs. With the proper add-ons, such as a wireless modem or a phone card kit that lets you use your cell phone as a wireless modem, you can use a handheld device to access the WAP proxy server and use a touch keyboard or character recognizer to enter text.

So how does this approach make composing an email message easier? Using character recognition, such as the service a Palm device provides, you can basically write freehand using Palm's Graffiti alphabet, and the device recognizes the characters as you write them. After you master the skill, writing in Graffiti is much faster and easier than using a numeric keypad. A touch keyboard lets you use a stylus to tap out messages on a miniature keyboard. Neither or these methods are easier to use than a full-sized PC keyboard, but they’re huge improvements over a numeric keypad. A numeric keypad must represent the entire alphabet on nine keys, so you must cycle through the options each key represents to reach the letter you want. For example, you must press the 7 key four times to enter an S. Typing a simple sentence in this way is tedious at best. Therefore, using a touch keyboard or character recognizer greatly improves the usability of a WAP device.

Another technology that is just emerging is the multifunction phone. These new-generation phones integrate PDA functionality that includes PDA-style text entry. Other phones include slide-on minikeyboard attachments that closely resemble the keypad on Research in Motion (RIM) BlackBerry device.

A simple way to easily respond to an email message is to have a list of preconfigured responses that you can use a couple of keystrokes to select. Workstyle Server provides this functionality by maintaining a list of responses as part of each user’s data, that it stores in an SQL database. Workstyle Server lets you define as many as 20 customized responses. From the response menu on my phone, I could choose a predefined response or select from recent responses I’d already typed. Figure 3 shows the Workstyle Server response menu choices as they appear on a Phone.com browser. Infowave also provides configurable responses and a recent response list, although Wireless Business Engine doesn’t store these responses in an SQL database. Instead, it stores them in a hidden folder in users’ mailboxes, eliminating the need for an additional database engine.

UltiVerse took a completely different approach by offering a hybrid solution for remote access that combines the functionality of its WAP-based proxy server, UltiWAP, and its hosted telephony services, FreeVerse. The marriage of these two solutions offers a clever workaround to the physical limitations of entering text on a WAP phone. The UltiWAP server acts as a proxy to Exchange Server databases. It also functions as a client to FreeVerse, augmenting UltiWAP’s basic functionality by giving you the ability to append your recorded voice responses (i.e., .wav files) to emails. I accessed this service from the voice response menu on my WAP phone, which provided the option to immediately call FreeVerse and record a response or enter a callback number that FreeVerse would use to call me. The latter option is useful if you’re using a WAP browser on a nontelephone device, such as a PDA. I chose to call immediately, and connected to the FreeVerse telephony server. After I connected from my phone, I recorded a message and sent it to the recipient. This solution worked well most of the time, but several times I couldn’t connect or the recording process failed.

Configuring notifications. Constant accessibility makes a cell phone compelling for mobile users. As long as you have a decent battery and don’t stray too far into the boonies, people can reach you. Most wireless carriers use Short Message Service (SMS) to augment WAP phone functionality so that you can also use your phone as a pager. An important feature of a WAP solution is the ability to leverage a phone’s paging functionality to notify you when an important email message arrives. Thus, you benefit from having many configurable rules that define when your phone pages you.

Workstyle Server lets administrators create a notification mailbox that will send SMTP messages to mobile users according to configurable rules. As a client, I could access a user Web page on the Workstyle Server system and set up rules so that meeting requests and email from certain addresses would send a notification to my phone through my carrier’s messaging service. I quickly became very attached to this feature.

To provide end-user notification functionality, Infowave offers a notification service that uses a notification engine running on top of Microsoft Message Queue Server (MSMQ) and SQL. Aside from the need to install MSMQ on a server in your network (preferably in the same domain as your mail server), the implementation and overall functionality were similar to that of Workstyle Server. I could access my user profile Web page to configure notifications. Infowave also offers the ability to turn notifications on or off from my WAP phone.

UltiVerse’s UltiWAP solution is more lightweight than the other two solutions. It consists of a thin layer of Active Server Pages (ASP) that uses OWA functionality to operate. Thus, it doesn’t offer any notification services.

Dealing with attachments. An obvious limitation of using a WAP phone as a mail client is the inability to read or download attachments. Proponents of WAP-based solutions rightfully argue that the WAP protocol stack and WAP devices aren’t designed for the heavy work of transporting and displaying attachments. Nonetheless, when you’re on the road, being able to handle an important attachment is a useful capability. The attachment solutions offered by the three vendors I looked at are all unique in function and will appeal to a wide range of mobile users.

UltiVerse extends the functionality of its FreeVerse solution to let you fax or read attachments. You can fax .doc, .rft, .txt, .bmp, .gif, and .jpg attachments, and you can read Microsoft Word 2000 documents. As Figure 4 shows, the Inbox view on my WAP phone displays an uppercase E, V, or A to the left of each message. E denotes standard email, V stands for voice attachment (this designation appears for any .wav file), and A represents attachment. To see attachment options, I simply viewed the message that contained the attachment and selected the Action menu. From there, I chose either the fax or text attachment option. Faxing attachments generally worked well, although on at least one occasion my document became hung up in a queue at the UltiVerse site and I had to call the support staff. On a few occasions, my attempt to fax a document resulted in a terse Error message with no explanation on the WAP phone display. After repeated attempts, I usually achieved a successful fax transmission, but the process often ended with FreeVerse sending multiple faxes of the same attachment. This shortcoming became a problem when duplicate faxes continued to arrive every few minutes. I also unsuccessfully tried faxing a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet attachment, but FreeVerse doesn’t currently support this format.

I was very interested in testing the text translation of attachments, but I wasn’t able to get this functionality to work. I consulted with UltiVerse’s technical support staff, and they assured me that the product’s text-translation features worked. Nonetheless, we didn’t succeed in displaying even the simplest Word document on the screen of my WAP phone. This shortcoming was disappointing because the ability to view attachments on a WAP device is a considerable benefit for mobile users, even if they have to view attachments in pieces on a small WAP phone screen.

Infowave’s attachment solution uses an elaborate client server model, which includes a Win32 client that runs on a standard or Pocket PC with Microsoft Outlook or Pocket Inbox. The server side uses the Wireless Business Engine to provide the back-end functionality. Although using Outlook over WAN links to access an Exchange Server isn’t new, getting the same access with reasonable reliability, speed, and security over wireless links is. Most traditional Internet protocols stumble on high-latency wireless networks. Infowave addressed this challenge by using UDP as its primary communications protocol between the Wireless Business Engines and the company’s Win32 client. UDP is better suited than TCP for the interruptions and pauses that punctuate wireless connections; thus, it provides higher reliability. To optimize speed, Infowave uses data compression. The company’s compression algorithms can pack two to five times more data in a single transmission than a standard uncompressed transmission can hold. The net result is a reliable end-to-end solution that can support the performance requirements of full-featured mail clients such as Outlook.

In the Lab, I set up a PCMCIA CDPD Sierra Wireless AirCard and swapped it between my laptop and a Compaq iPAQ that had a PCMCIA adapter sleeve. I installed Infowave’s Win32 client on both devices. I used the AirCard to set up a new connection and specified that I was using a CDPD network. Then, I set up Pocket Inbox to use this connection. On my laptop, the setup process was similar. For my Outlook client, I configured the Infowave for Exchange service, then configured a profile to use offline folders. Infowave uses offline folders to store on the remote client email messages from your Exchange Server system. In this way, Outlook behaves much like an IMAP4 or POP3 client, downloading mail upon connection. The only exception is a configurable threshold for the size of email messages that you want to download. If a message is larger than the size limit, an icon appears next to the standard message header that indicates the message is oversized and gives you the option of manually downloading it to your device. On the Exchange Server system, the software moves messages you’ve downloaded out of your Inbox to a special Infowave folder, separating the messages you’ve downloaded from the ones still in your Inbox and easing synchronization when you return to the office. This configuration is typical for message handling, but provides several options for customizing the client to meet your needs.

Infowave’s solution would appeal to mobile users that don’t like the limitations of WAP and don’t mind carrying a Pocket PC or laptop. Using these devices and the Infowave client, you can emulate your office experience without wires. Thus, you will be able to download and access attachments almost as if you were at your desk.

If you don’t need all the functionality of a standard Outlook client but would like more options than a WAP phone provides, Workstyle Server might be for you. Workstyle Server, which works with Microsoft IIS, is simply a Web site that serves WML or HTML pages as appropriate for the connected browser. This setup is similar to OWA, except that you don’t have all the OWA features or access to as many of your mailbox folders. However, Wireless Knowledge was quick to point out that its Web-based content is an efficient alternative to OWA. For the sake of performance, I agree. I used both OWA and Workstyle Server on my laptop with a wireless modem and used Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 5.0 to access my mailbox. The simple Workstyle Server HTML pages were considerably faster over the slow link than the more complex pages that OWA served up. Although the Workstyle Server didn’t provide the rich environment that OWA provides, I could use Wireless Knowledge’s solution to retrieve my email attachments and respond to email without using a numeric keypad. If I had access to a faster link, I would choose OWA simply because I need to access and work with all my mailbox folders. However, Workstyle Server has a performance edge over slow links, which is important when you’re wireless.

I liked using the Workstyle Server’s brower-based solution to access my primary mailbox folders quickly and efficiently. This solution will appeal to users who like the simplicity and convenience of a Web browser-based client to augment their WAP device.

From an Administrator’s Point of View

No discussion of remote access is complete without a hard look at security. Many administrators are already familiar with the rigors of securing Web servers and providing mobile users with secure remote access. The good news is that you can implement many of the wireless solutions on the market with little modification to your current network and without learning a lot of new technology. The bad news for some is that most WAP solutions require you to have a certain degree of trust in your wireless carrier and the encryption technology that WAP’s WTLS layer uses. The products available in today’s wireless market offer solutions that will fit even the most stringent security models.

All the WAP-based solutions I looked at use identical means to connect through a wireless carrier. WTLS encrypts the data passing over the link between the WAP phone and the wireless carrier’s WAP gateway. The strength of the encryption depends on what encryption method your wireless carrier implements; 128-bit RSA encryption is common. The encryption method you use between the WAP gateway and your WAP proxy depends on your implementation. As I previously mentioned, a brief gap exists in which the data isn’t encrypted as it is translated on the WAP gateway. After the data reaches the WAP proxy server on your site, each of the three products I tested handle authentication differently.

Workstyle Server uses an SQL database to store user information (e.g., username, mailbox alias) and end-user information (e.g., preconfigured email responses). Both the user and end-user information is important for administering Workstyle Server users, and it’s part of the authentication exchange between the Workstyle Server, Microsoft SQL Server, and Exchange Server systems. Figure 5 illustrates a typical Workstyle Server configuration and authentication process in which a mobile user named Kim uses her WAP phone to log on. Kim accesses the Workstyle Server system by entering its URL on her phone. Her phone then prompts her to log on to the Workstyle Server system using a username and password, which a WTLS wireless transmission sends across the carrier’s network to the carrier’s WAP gateway, which converts and re-encrypts the transmission using SSL. (If you don’t implement SSL on your Workstyle Server system, user credentials will be clear in text when they exit the WAP gateway.) The credentials arrive at the Workstyle Server, which passes Kim’s username to the SQL Server system, which attempts to correctly match it with her mailbox alias. The SQL Server system returns the mailbox alias that corresponds to Kim’s username to the Workstyle Server system. Workstyle Server then makes a Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) call to the Exchange Server system to open Kim’s mailbox and retrieve her encrypted password, which Workstyle Server stores as a custom attribute. Workstyle Server compares the returned custom attribute data with the password that Kim provided. If the data and password match, the server uses the Workstyle Server account to create a Messaging API (MAPI) session over RPC with the Exchange Server for Kim.

This authentication process is more complicated than standard NT LAN Manager (NTLM) authentication and requires additional administrative overhead. In addition, it causes a flood of pesky messages in the event logs that state the Workstyle Server account that logged on to a user’s mailbox isn’t the primary Windows account. However, this authentication process is comforting to security-conscious administrators who don’t want users passing their NT domain credentials over public networks.

UltiVerse’s logon authentication process is partly based on your configuration of OWA and IIS (usually basic authentication through SSL). The other part of the authentication process involves communication with the UltiVerse site in which UltiVerse’s authentication server checks your username against a database of registered users. If you’re not registered, you can’t log on. This communications link requires security. To provide this security, UltiVerse encrypts data in a VPN session between your site and UltiVerse’s site. UltiVerse generates an encryption key from a site ID that the company gives you when you purchase the product and a password that you supply when you install it. To ensure the identity of a user accessing the UltiVerse telephony server (i.e., accessing the FreeVerse server), the UltiWAP Server uses the site ID and a user’s mailbox alias as part of the authentication process. Figure 6 illustrates the architecture of UltiVerse’s hosted telephony services and WAP proxy server solution.

UltiVerse’s model of moving corporate data to a third-party site for processing doesn’t fit every organization’s security model. Many IT departments shy away from hosted solutions because of concerns about a foreign network over which they have no control for storing corporate data. In response to these concerns, UltiVerse claims that all interactions with its telephony server are done without compromising corporate security practices. The telephony server doesn’t permanently store voice annotations, faxed attachments, and interpreted attachments; it stores them on disk only long enough to complete transmission to your corporate Exchange Server system or WAP device. Although this security model isn’t for everyone, many organizations will recognize it as an option for implementing telephony services without a costly investment in equipment and expertise.

Infowave’s Wireless Business Engine and ECWP use a basic authentication process similar to UltiVerse’s solution. Although it doesn’t explicitly use OWA components, Infowave’s authentication process requires Outlook 2000 DLLs to enable the same type of Collaboration Data Objects (CDO) operations that OWA uses for authentication. For an additional layer of security, Infowave lets you require a PIN as part of the authentication process. In addition, Infowave employs device identification, which recognizes the device a user uses to access his or her mailbox and prevents other devices from using the user’s account. This feature caused problems. If I used a WAP phone to connect to my mailbox, I had to reset my user profile to let me use a different device, such as a laptop.

Wireless access with Infowave’s Win32 client provides the type of security that is attractive to even the most cautious administrator because it bypasses the WAP gateway. It doesn’t even use WAP; instead it uses UDP with integrated 168-bit elliptical curve cryptography (ECC) public-key encryption to secure an end-to-end channel between the Win32 client and the Wireless Business Engine server. Although RSA cryptography is the most common technology used on the Internet, ECC is well suited for wireless networks because it passes less data in the authentication process and requires fewer CPU cycles. Thus, you achieve a secure end-to-end channel that accommodates wireless network latencies and less powerful portable devices. Figure 7 illustrates the architecture of an Infowave solution.

IT departments can’t afford to overlook the security impact of the many portable devices their organizations support. Many companies are still struggling with curbing the risks of storing sensitive corporate data on laptops, much less PDAs and Pocket PCs. Wirelessly enabling these devices creates a free flow of information between a mobile user and your corporate intranet, increasing the possibility that sensitive information ends up on a fairly vulnerable device. Many organizations will need to modify their security policies and practices to address this reality.

The Cost of Wireless Business

Many factors contribute to the overall cost of implementing a wireless solution. Although many organizations first consider the base cost of the product, this price is usually the least expensive aspect of deploying a new application in your enterprise. The cost in hours devoted to deployment, training, and ongoing support usually eclipses the purchase price. Wireless solutions also introduce monthly costs of wireless services and possibly the expense of new devices, depending on what your mobile clients currently use for remote access.

The good news about a WAP-only solution is that it’s fairly easy to install and deploy. You don’t have to install client software, and if your mobile users already have WAP-enabled telephones, you won’t need to purchase new devices. However, to add wireless Web service, you’ll have to wade through the myriad of options that wireless carriers provide to determine the most cost-effective plan. The major carriers offer many packages, from per-minute airtime charges to unlimited wireless Web access.

Using a WAP phone to get your email doesn’t require much training, but you should provide some guidance to end users or you’ll be overrun with support calls. All the WAP menus I used were fairly intuitive, but each solution had enough quirks that I had a few problems. For example, I needed a while to distinguish the WAP menu items from the telephone menu items. On several occasions, I chose Home, only to find myself at the telephone’s home rather than the root of my mailbox.

All the WAP products I reviewed were straightforward to install and didn’t require extraordinary equipment. A decent Web server inserted into your corporate link to the Internet covers the majority of what you need to get up and running. A few wireless solutions require additional software, such as SQL Server and MSMQ, but these won’t break the bank.

Organizations that support many mobile users will need to plan carefully to be sure they correctly scale their wireless solutions. UltiVerse scaled as well as OWA, and Infowave and Wireless Knowledge offer even more flexibility by supporting clustered configurations and distributed services.

Supporting WAP solutions for your mobile users will be an extra burden to your IT staff if you’re not already supporting clients with a traditional remote access solution. Regardless of the means that mobile users use to connect to your intranet, you’ll pay a support cost for extending your network. However, I don’t think supporting a WAP solution is unusually difficult or problematic. I would much rather support a mobile user with a WAP phone than a user with a laptop. However, WAP limitations will require most mobile users to carry both.

The actual cost of wireless solutions varies. Of the three solutions I looked at, two have a subscription-based model. UltiVerse doesn’t sell its UltiWAP solution as a separate component from the company’s FreeVerse telephony solution. The package costs $19.95 per user per month. Wireless Knowledge charges an annual fee of $119.95 per user for its WAP and Web solution. This price is predicated on a minimum of 50 users. As an additional offering, organizations that purchase Workstyle Server get a free license upgrade to Microsoft Mobile Information Server when Microsoft releases it this year. For more information about Mobile Information Server, see the sidebar "Microsoft Mobile Information Server."

Infowave uses the traditional per-seat pricing model, offering its ECWP WAP-only solution for an economical $60 per seat. This price doesn’t include a maintenance fee to cover technical support and upgrade protection, which is a variable percentage based on the number of seats you purchase. Infowave’s Wireless Business Engine, which includes Win32 and WAP client access, costs $150 per seat.

Although the cost of Infowave’s solution is fairly modest, the company’s client/server solution has the potential to be much more costly to deploy and support. You’ll need to set aside more time for planning, deployment, end-user training, and support. Unless you already actively support Pocket PCs, deploying this solution will be tantamount to adding another computer for every mobile user in your organization. The cost of this solution will depend on what devices mobile users are currently using and the level of support you provide for them. If you decide to support every PDA and Pocket PC that has crept into your organization, your support costs will definitely increase.

A Final Assessment

For those who are looking to adopt a wireless solution for your mobile users, several vendors in addition to those I reviewed offer solutions. For example, ThinAirApps, Fenestrae, VirtualTek, Linq Systems, and Infinite Technologies also offer wireless solutions. Before you select a solution, you’ll need to carefully assess your current and future needs as well as your budget. These vendors all provide basic WAP functionality, but their differences become apparent when you compare how each vendor expands upon the basic WAP feature set.

As with many projects of this nature, the devil is in the details. You must make decisions about wireless carriers, their coverage maps (wireless Web access isn't available in analog service areas), and the cost of their plans. You’ll need to decide which devices to deploy, whether you’ll support every PDA and Pocket PC in your organization, and whether your security model lets users store corporate data on these devices. Finally, you’ll need to establish a plan for deploying your solution as well as for training your IT staff and end users. The task list for a wireless solution is similar to a plan for deploying or upgrading a traditional wired network. Thus, success will depend as much on your preparation as on your choice of a solution.

The wireless revolution is real. As the technology improves, offering increased bandwidth, more functional devices, and improved coverage, wireless access to your corporate intranet will become as common as wired connections. However, as with all new technologies, you must suffer through a period of maturation in which functionality doesn’t always meet expectations. WAP solutions are a perfect example. Getting your email on a WAP phone is convenient, but hardly a rich experience. For this reason, mobile users haven’t been rushing to adopt WAP solutions. Judging by how vendors have augmented their basic WAP offerings, I think the industry is recognizing the reluctance of mobile users to embrace WAP solutions. The creativity displayed by vendors attempting to provide a more complete wireless experience is a window into the bright future of wireless solutions.

Wireless Business Engine 3.5
Contact: Infowave Software * 604-473-3700 or 800-463-6928
Web: http://www.infowave.com
Price: Wireless Business Engine with full Exchange Connector is $150 per seat. Wireless Business Engine with only Exchange Connector to Web Phone is $60 per seat.

Workstyle Server 3.0 for Exchange 5.5
Contact: Wireless Knowledge * 858-882-6400 or 800-656-6400
Web: http://www.wirelessknowledge.com
Price: Annual subscription rate is $119.95 per user

UltiWAP and FreeVerse
Contact: UltiVerse Technologies * 781-890-2770
Web: http://www.ultiverse.com
Price: Monthly subscription rate starts at $19.95 per user
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