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Oracle hands out Web access to handhelds

Oracle is using its database software roots to bring Web access to cell phones, personal digital assistants, and other handheld devices.

    Oracle is using its database software roots to bring Web access to cell phones, personal digital assistants, and other handheld devices.

    The database giant today previewed Project Panama, software that translates information on Web sites, fits the data into the tiny screens of mobile devices, and lets users do everything on the Net from checking news, weather, and stock reports, to buying goods and services.

    Oracle is jumping into the competitve Web-enabled cell phone market, which is expected to boom in the next few years.

    Sun today announced deals with NTT Docomo, a Japanese wireless services company with 23 million subscribers, and Symbian, a company that's working on next-generation software for smart phones and handheld devices.

    "The wireless device market is exploding like crazy. If you marry the markets together, you can triple the number of users on the Internet," said Denise Lahey, Oracle's vice president of mobile and embedded products.

    The technology--based on the Oracle 8i database and application server--uses Java and Extensible Markup Language (XML) to deliver Web access to the devices, and as a result, can run on all types of devices, including Microsoft Windows CE devices and 3Com's PalmPilots.

    Other competitive efforts, said Lahey, are not as all-encompassing. Microsoft and Qualcomm are working on similar technology, but they are confined to Windows CE devices, she said. AvantGo offers technology for Palm and CE devices, but not for cellphones and other handhelds yet.

    Today, handhelds are limited to static content, such as news stories downloaded from the Web, Lahey said. "We take out the graphics and pump out to the device all the dynamic content. You can do e-commerce, buy a plane ticket from a cell phone, access information live."

    As part of the software, Oracle will offer personalized portal services, allowing users to choose the information and services they want, Lahey said. Project Panama will also let corporate users access their enterprise applications on their intranets, she said. "It's great for sales people to access services when they're on the road."

    The technology is being codeveloped with Swedish telecommunications firm Telia Mobile, which is running a pilot program with cell phone maker Nokia in Gotenberg, Sweden.

    Telia has installed GPS [Global Position System] devices on Gotenberg's buses. The satellites feed live data into an Oracle database, which spits the information out to cell phone-wielding commuters, Lahey said. "Telia provided an application on the phone that tells the elderly if the bus is going to be late or where the bus is, so they don't have to stand in the freezing cold."

    The company--which demonstrated Project Panama today at the CeBit show in Hannover, Germany--will release the technology by midyear and will market it to wireless network operators, such as Cellular One and AT&T; Web and e-commerce sites; and Internet service providers.

    Lahey said Oracle will make partnership announcements within the next six months. Consumers should start seeing products in the fall.

    Oracle's technology does not require software to be installed in mobile devices. The wireless companies, such as Telia, will have to install Project Panama on their servers. All consumers will need are phones and devices that support wireless Internet access, which are coming out in the fall, she said.

    Lahey added that it will be up to the wireless companies to work with Web and e-commerce sites to customize the sites for mobile devices. For example, she said, it took a few hours for Telia to tweak a bank's Web site to fit into a mobile device.

    International Data Corporation analyst Carl Olofson said Project Panama helps Oracle's business strategy of offering more services than just back-end databases.

    "It moves them from a data server company to providing server functionality based on database technology, enabling a range of information access and management," he said. "It's proof that Oracle's server technology goes beyond the back-room database."

    Olofson said other database companies can enter the same market, especially those with XML servers, such as Object Design and Software AG. "If you have an XML server, you can indulge in this solution as well. You can manage content using XML, retrieve it and build pages on the fly," he said. "It's the underlying technology. All they have to do is develop the specific functionality."

    Sybase, which is concentrating on the mobile market, is taking a different approach, he added. Sybase wants its small databases embedded in mobile devices, so it can sync-up with the main database on the corporate network.