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The Race is On to Wireless

The Race is On to Wireless

Denise Lahey is the chief executive officer of OracleMobile, a wholly owned subsidiary of Oracle Corp. In her five-year tenure at Oracle, Ms. Lahey created Oracle's mobile product strategy and then orchestrated the development of new products to fulfill that strategy. Ms. Lahey also inked strategic partnerships between Oracle and other wireless technology innovators like Motorola, Palm Computing, and Symbian. As the first employee in the division, Ms. Lahey built Oracle's Mobile Product group to over 125 people worldwide. Today she leads OracleMobile's growing team to deliver on her vision for the wireless Internet.

WBT: Tell us about OracleMobile. What do they do, and what do you do for them?

DL: I can sum it up in one sentence: we build and host wireless Web sites. Depending on what analyst you talk to, over the next three years there will be one to one and a half billion wireless devices worldwide. Think about it: it took 38 years to reach 300 million radio listeners and 15 years to reach 300 million TV viewers - and everyone thought that was amazing growth. It took five years to reach 300 million PC/Internet users. My prediction is that it will take just two years to reach 300 million wireless Internet users. That's a pretty astounding number. I think it means a couple of things: that wireless device access will exceed PC access to the Internet very quickly, and that in much of the world people will experience the Internet for the first time on a wireless device. So the race is on to wireless. Companies have spent a lot of time and money building content designed for PCs with large screens.

Now they want to leverage their investment and get all their content onto this tiny little screen. It's only black and white and can't render graphics. OracleMobile came about to build wireless applications and to host them. We have about 40-50 prebuilt applications on our OracleMobile.com site. We can build and host a wireless application for a customer such as The Industry Standard, who we're hosting right now. We've built three applications for them. One is a company information finder. If you're a sales rep, for example, and you're going on a sales call, you can look up the target company and see how they're doing. A second application is a people search: you can look up the CEO of the company you're meeting with. There's also headline news and market/industry information.

Another example of what someone can do is pick and choose from the content on our site and integrate that content into the application we build for them. A recent example of this is Evite - they do online invitations. They chose to intelligently link to our driving directions module, so we get driving directions from MapQuest. Evite now uses that content as part of their application. In this way someone can accept an invitation from their wireless device and get driving directions along with it. Our platform is incredibly powerful, and unprecedented in the industry. OracleMobile.com is really a showcase of the technology - it shows everything we can do, from linking to personalization and customization of our services.

WBT: The second part of my question, of course, is what do you do?

DL: I started at Oracle about five years ago. It took awhile to really figure out the whole mobile strategy for Oracle. We started with a tiny database product that runs on laptops, CE devices, Palm Pilots, and Web phones that enabled people to take enterprise content with them on the go. Then suddenly the whole wireless world started exploding. We worked with a carrier in Sweden called Telia, one of the largest carriers in Scandinavia, and built a product with them, IAS (Internet application server) Wireless Edition. It's a carrier-grade product that will take any information source and pump it back out to any wireless device. We shipped that in November 1999.

We've been working in wireless - and building wireless applications - for about three years now. We've learned a lot in those years. I ran that whole division, built it up, and in February 2000 I launched OracleMobile with Larry Ellison in New York. We went live with our OracleMobile.com site and have been building up partnerships and customers and content since then.

WBT: How closely do you work with Larry Ellison?

DL: I meet and talk with him pretty regularly. He has been very involved in mobile for about five years, and has been a great mentor for me. He's a great visionary and an incredibly brilliant person.

WBT: What did you do before going to Oracle?

DL: I worked at Sun Microsystems for about five years. There I focused on the multithreading and multiprocessing technologies. Multithreading is pretty much part of all operating systems and all development tools now. Back then it was early on for multithreading and multiprocessing. I built a whole toolset around that at Sun. At that point I was a manager of product managers. Before that I was a software engineer at a start-up in Cambridge, Massachusetts - it was an MIT spin-off - for six years.

WBT: Where did you go to college?

DL: The State University of New York - I got my BS in computer science.

WBT: What's your average day like at OracleMobile?

DL: Pretty hectic. I have a lot of meetings. I'm very involved with the whole development process. I make sales calls, talk to a lot of CEOs of other companies, do a lot of press briefings. I've been doing a lot of keynote speeches lately, so I've been on the road a lot.

WBT: How do you use wireless devices to help you out on those hectic days?

DL: My vision is to turn wireless devices into the remote control of your life. To do that you really have to have access to information. Right now we're stuck in this world of being a B2B or B2C. On a wireless device the difference between consumer and business information isn't really important. In fact, it makes it harder to use the device. So we're blending public Internet content with the corporate content that's behind the firewall and building mobile portals out of that.

We have a prototype for Oracle right now. We've taken Oracle's corporate directory, corporate e-mail, and our corporate calendar and blended them with all the Internet content we have on our site. We've taken the best of the Web and the best of the Oracle intranet and brought them together in one mobile portal that's customizable and personalizable. I can pick and choose what content I want at any given time on my device. I have my stock portfolio and I have my dining guide because I do a lot of customer dinners. For example, without doing any typing on the phone, I can select a restaurant out of Zagat's. Then, using what we call intelligent linking, can book a table at the restaurant, book a taxi, and get driving directions - all with almost no typing, which is a cumbersome thing to do on these devices. I can book a table with OpenTable and it automatically shows up on my corporate directory. So we've not only built a mobile portal with public content and corporate content, but we've made it personalizable and customizable.

WBT: How was the portal built? What's it all running on? Hardware and software.

DL: The cornerstone of the technology, obviously, is the Oracle database - which gives us transactions and security and scalability and reliability - everything the Oracle name stands for. It's built on top of the Oracle 8i, the flagship database product, and Oracle's IAS Wireless Edition, and on top of that different modules that we really think are crucial to a hosting platform. That includes personalization, customization, location servers, and support for all the different devices. Because we'll eventually be adding voice, we've built this very powerful module architecture on top of the core Oracle platform. And on top of that we've put these prebuilt applications - a stock application, a weather application, and the dining guide application I talked about. That gives us a lot of flexibility to deliver what our customers want. It's sort of an à la carte menu where you can pick and choose what you want as a customer. You can have us build and create your wireless site, or you can choose weather, dining guide, and stock quotes and we can build that into your application. Currently, we're running on Sun Microsystems hardware.

WBT: Tell us about the privacy and security on this portal.

DL: Different devices have different security mechanisms, all of which we support. We use SSL between our servers and the content we're going to, so the link is secure to the back-end servers of our customers. We also have all the levels of security that an Oracle database gives you. In terms of privacy, Oracle really believes in it, and we've spent a lot of time putting together a privacy policy that our customers have been very happy with.

WBT: What sort of new features are you working on for the portal? What are we going to see in the future?

DL: We're working on voice, so in addition to offering all the prebuilt services we'll be voice-enabling everything. We not only support every device that's out there, plus new and future devices, but we'll also support your voice. I think it's really important when you're in a car. As Larry likes to say, the Internet's grown up so it can walk, and now it can talk. Because you can take it with you in the car and activate it with your voice. When you're driving, you don't want to have to be typing into your phone and looking down and getting distracted, so voice is a big thing. What we provide is a combination of corporate content and public Internet content. We combine these to make easy-to-use yet powerful mobile applications that you can use, customize, and personalize.

WBT: How many people are working on an active basis on the portal? How many developers?

DL: About 50 people are actually building applications for OracleMobile right now. We're backed up, of course, by the thousands of developers at Oracle building the database products and IAS Wireless Edition.

WBT: Tell us about recent announcements you've made at OracleMobile.

DL: One is a partnership with Screaming Media, which will be a channel partner for us. We're basically a wireless ASP, so it's a whole new model for wireless ASPs to have a channel partner reselling our services. Screaming Media is a digital content aggregator and syndicator with about 1,100 Web sites that they have content on as well as 2,800 publications. They have an incredibly powerful infrastructure where they have all this content and they do very intelligent syndication of content. For example, if you're a pharmaceutical company, it'll just give you pharmaceutical news.Combining the infrastructure they have with the infrastructure of OracleMobile provides one-stop shopping from Web to wireless. You can get Web content as well as wireless content. I've already talked about Evite. Two other customers are Food.com and Lottery.com. Evite is using intelligent linking for driving directions, whereas Food.com is using our personalization and customization features. On our server you can store your favorite restaurants and your favorite meals. While you're sitting in traffic, starving, you can, with just two clicks on your phone, order food from your favorite restaurant and have it delivered to your house. It'll be there when you show up.

Lottery.com is using our personalization and customization as well as our alert notification features. For example, you can set a rule on the server that says, "Just alert me when my number is the winning number. I don't care about any other numbers." Or "Let me know when the jackpot is up over $10 million because I want to buy a ticket." Again, you can use the different features of our platform that make sense for the applications.

WBT: What sort of enhancements would you like to see in wireless devices themselves?

DL: The devices are going to evolve into having a better keyboard, like the Blackberry - I love the keyboard on the Blackberry. And a better, larger screen. A keyboard and a larger screen are going to be key to the devices of the future, I believe.

WBT: What about color screens? Do you think they're needed, not needed?

DL: Color would be nice, but it's not really needed.

WBT: Any thoughts on the future of wireless devices?

DL: I think that wireless devices will turn into the remote control of your life. You can close your garage door or turn your security system on, buy Cokes from a vending machine, etc., all through your phone. It'll really turn into your wallet. As appliances begin to be connected to the Internet, all you will need to carry around is your wireless device.

Jacob Christfort of the OracleMobile Team Talks...

OracleMobile was formed in February 2000 to build and host wireless Web sites for other businesses. Jacob Christfort, CTO and VP of product development for OracleMobile, is responsible for leading the OracleMobile development group. He spends his time trying to understand what's going on in the marketplace, particularly with regard to emerging technologies. He tracks mobile devices and networks and maps them as quickly as possible onto the OracleMobile hosted platform. This is really OracleMobile's key product -  their hosted platform. "The interesting thing is that I don't ship a product," says Jacob Christfort. "Many development VPs ship a product, with specifications and instructions and CD-ROMs and all that stuff. At OracleMobile we don't ship a product and we don't ship mobile infrastructure technology; we host it all on our servers. Perhaps that makes my life a little bit different from that of the average development VP.

"What I'm trying to do in essence is to maintain this hosted platform that our customers' wireless Web sites run through, and make sure that it's the most up-to-date and advanced platform available."We have a product called Portal-to-Go [now IAS Wireless Edition], which is a product that people can buy, install on their own servers, and use to build wireless Web sites. What we found, however, was that a lot of people were eager either to get a complete service or to be able to start developing without having to install a lot of infrastructure technology.   "That led us to the realization that we needed to come up with a hosted approach to developing applications for the many devices entering the market. It's not like the HTML world where you can just write an HTML Web site - or an HTML document, for that matter - and then be sure that it will run on all browsers. In the mobile world there's really no markup language you can write in that will work on all mobile devices. There is no standard development model.

"That's a big problem with mobile. You really don't have an application model to start with. If you want to build a mobile application that can run on any device, you have to write 10 different mobile applications for different devices, which is very inefficient. "What we focused on doing is essentially building a platform to which people can attach - I should say 'publish' - their application. Once we run those applications through our platform, which is hosted in the Oracle data center, we can deliver them to any device.

"Now what companies can do is build one application in an XML format, which is like the HTML of the mobile world. It's one XML language that will be understood, via OracleMobile, by all mobile devices. When you build an application in our XML, any mobile device no matter how different, can connect to your Web site via our hosted server and it'll work. It's really incredible. It means that you can dial in, say, via a voice gateway, which uses VoxML and voiceXML, and literally access this new mobile Web site via voice recognition. You can pick up a Web phone and connect. You can pick up a Palm Pilot or a Blackberry two-way pager and connect to the same wireless Web site that you created."No one else is really doing this today. Some people are promising that you can just take your existing HTML site and they will provide you with a transcoding server. The problem with that is that it becomes a very poor user experience because HTML was written for big screens, not mobile devices. What we have developed is, in my view, a killer approach to developing one truly mobile application model that covers all mobile devices."

OracleMobile.com is really a wireless technology showcase site. We're showing new customers what good mobile applications look like. It's available worldwide, but because we're not a B2C company we don't expect to bring this to consumers directly. We're really looking to sell our hosting services and application development services to businesses so they can build similar sites under their own brand.

"We'll serve customers in Europe. We already have customers in Latin America as well, so you'll see us going worldwide with our services. But the OracleMobile.com site is already available globally for anyone who wants to see it, though most of the content is U.S.-focused, of course. "We'll continue to add partner content to the site. What we really want to aggregate on this site is the best of the Web. We already have eTrade, eBay, Amazon, Hollywood.com, Weather Channel - all of the best-of-breed content is available. The amazing thing is that these mobile applications are not only available for people to use, but we've also made them into modules that wireless developers can combine into their own applications.

"That's why we recently launched the OracleMobile Online Studio, which is a completely online environment for developing, testing, and deploying mobile applications. It enables software developers to build the XML applications that I talked about, connect them to our platform, then actually take advantage of these modules we've already built so they can minimize their own development effort. They then deploy their applications directly to OracleMobile.com for showcasing. We don't even charge for that. "On the other hand, they can deploy it to their own private label portal, which will be built for them under their own brand. OracleMobile has gone one step further by opening up our platform to developers so they can go to the OracleMobile Online Studio. "Modules could be driving directions. For instance, if you want driving directions in your application, why redo a good driving module application when we already wrote one? You just plug it in and soon you'll be able to plug in your local weather.

"Let's say you're a fast-food chain that's building a locator to help people find the nearest store. You might want to add the driving directions feature so people can find the nearest location. Well, you can do that without writing any of it yourself. You just plot in the prebuilt module. I believe that the future model for software development is to deliver it as a hosted service over the Internet."

More Stories By Robert Diamond

Robert Diamond is the founder and editor-in-chief of BroadwayWorld.com, the premiere theater site on the net now receiving over 100,000 unique visitors a day. He is also the owner of Wisdom Digital Media - a leading designer of entertainment and technology web sites. He is also the lead producer on BroadwayWorld.com's consistently sold-out Joe's Pub concert series, and Standing Ovations benefit concerts. Diamond was also named one of the "Top thirty magazine industry executives under the age of 30" by Folio magazine. Robert holds a BS degree in information management and technology from the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University. Visit his blog at www.robertdiamond.com.

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