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Start-up helps bring Web to handhelds

A start-up called Proxinet will later this month join the growing ranks of companies working to give handheld devices the ability to view content from the Web.

A start-up called Proxinet will later this month join the growing ranks of companies working to give handheld devices the ability to view content from the Web.

The DemoMobile 99 conference starting April 11 will mark the official debut of Proxinet and its software, which is used to translate Web content for viewing on devices from 3Com and on Windows CE devices.

Proxinet's technology translates Web content on the fly and thus can be used for live Web surfing without having to hook up to a PC, said Proxinet's chief technology officer, Elan Amir. A wireless modem and associated service are needed, in addition to software that can be downloaded for free and installed on the device.

Other companies already offer the ability to browse Web content on handhelds. AvantGo, for instance, enables Palm OS users to do just that. AvantGo reformats some Web content to make it easier to view on handhelds. Content is downloaded to a handheld via a PC link.

Proxinet is entering into a market that is expected to be quite lucrative. Market researcher International Data Corporation predicts that by 2002, there will be more than 55 million handheld and notebook-style information appliance devices.

With these numbers in mind, manufacturers, portal companies, and service providers are all looking for ways to enhance products with Internet access, and will turn to companies such as Proxinet for help. Some of the services they are envisioning include offering a traveler information about stores, concerts, and ticket reservations through a handheld device, and perhaps targeted sales information, said wireless analyst Alan Reiter, editor of Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing.

Making wireless e-commerce a reality won't be easy, though. "What you're trying to do is shoehorn information designed for a relatively wide pipe into a system that's connected by something more like a straw," Reiter said.

Instead of waiting for wireless service providers to up the ante with the huge investments needed to increase the pipeline to handhelds, Proxinet is aiming to streamline the process. Its server-based software works to maintain the look and feel of the original page while reducing the amount of bandwidth needed to send graphical images to handhelds. If a user needs to see an image such as a map, for instance, the technology will allow him to first view a simplified, lower resolution version. He can later download a higher resolution image, Amir said.

Proxinet won't be alone in trying to solve the problem. Oracle said it is working on a similar plan with its "Project Panama," and Microsoft is looking to enhance the value of its MSN service by offering its Web-based content to handhelds, as well.

Several smaller companies such as Spyglass, Online Anywhere, and Roku either have or are working on bringing out technology for enabling similar services, Reiter said.

Unwired Planet and the Wireless Access Protocol (WAP) it has devised for wireless devices represents another take on the problem. Devices such as cell phones with "lightweight" browsers could get content from Web sites--if they are re-written in the WAP language, called Wireless Markup Language (WML). Amir said Proxinet is a member of the WAP Forum, and is looking to be able to translate Web content to WML.

Overcoming limitations
But while the technological underpinnings for new services are developing, questions remain about how soon a large consumer market will develop. One factor inhibiting growth is the design of handhelds--most weren't designed with wireless capabilities in mind, although that situation is slowly changing. For instance, the Palm VII due later this year will incorporate wireless connectivity into the device.

Also, wireless data service has geographic limitations. The result is that most companies in this arena will initially have to focus on services for enterprise applications--such as delivering updated pricing or inventory information to their sales force.

"We want to play in the volume consumer space, but we need availability of service, like how cell phone service is [now] widely available," said Proxinet president and chief executive Ed Snyder.

Proxinet isn't waiting, in any case. Snyder said the company is working on deals with all of the big wireless service providers in the U.S., and hopes to have some deals announced by the end of the second quarter.

Software for Palm OS and Windows CE devices is currently available on the company's Web site.