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Hypewatch: Cracking the Transcode

  • March 14, 2001
  • By David Fox
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February brought us a day for lovers, a day for dead presidents, and a day for groundhogs, but also a whole lot of days of hype. Here in New York, one of the biggest events was Internet World Wireless. The show floor contained a few companies that streamed video over cell phones, a few bigwig wireless phone makers and service providers such as Sprint, Microsoft, and Ericsson, and about a billion "transcoding" companies — some of whom are doing their thing in Java. Unfortunately, there were hardly any people walking about actually witnessing this. Tumbleweed blew up and down the Javitz Center aisles. Booth-dwellers were so desperate for fresh meat that some resorted to kidnapping. I'm sure I'm not the only one who misses the good old days of last-year when it was all about who had the best sushi at their parties, not about trying to sell actual products.

Transcoding, by the way, is the idea of taking Web content or other data and repurposing it for every cell phone under the sun. A noble task, to be sure. But does anyone really care? Most cell phones still have screens that are too small, data service that is too expensive, and are a pain to type on or interact with. Also, transcoding is fine for simple text or plain images. But does anyone honestly think they will be able to take a complicated multiplayer game full of animations and sounds and different sprites and find some scheme to easily scale it to any screen, any wireless network, and any presentation language?

But let's not be cynical. Let's assume that one day soon millions of users will have cell phones and will want to use them the same way one uses the Internet — as a platform for research, data transfer, commerce, and entertainment. Why not? I mean, if the bandwidth gets fast enough (lots of hype here) and there's an easier user interface (hype abounds here too), and phone makers hone in on one good standard (Java 2 Micro Edition, perhaps?), then it's easy to see the wireless market becoming behemoth.


"Since so many companies seem to be doing the exact same transcoding thingie, the only sure bet is that not all of them are going to survive."

But for the time being, since so many companies seem to be doing the exact same transcoding thingie, the only sure bet is that not all of them are going to survive. Especially poignant is the fact that there are several well-regarded open-source solutions out there that use XSL or a similar technology to convert XML data into pretty much any format. For example, Morphis is a set of Java Servlets that creates a framework for, ahem, "transcoding, transformation, translation, and aggregation" — according to its FAQ. Basically, it quickly converts good ol' XML into HTML or WML, on the fly.

Also, many application servers are adding the ability to transcode right out of the box. For example, Lutris's popular Enhydra suite is an open-source application server that handles JSP, Servlets, and XML applications right out of the bag. Soon to come is an enterprise edition that will handle Enterprise Java Beans (EJBs).

Sure, setting up open-source software can be a lot of frustration and hard work. But so is setting up any shrinkwrapped package that promises to work "seamlessly" with all your content and other data. So for moderate-size sites looking to transcode to wireless devices, my advi



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