Extension Ag Update
May/June 2003
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Navigating U of I's Wireless Websites


John Schmitz, 217-244-2291, jschmitz@uiuc.edu, Writer, Debra Levey Larson, 217-244-2880, dlarson@uiuc.edu

Although we can't quite throw away our extension cords yet, the day is coming sooner than ever imagined. More and more websites are now also accessible without a standard electrical outlet in sight on Internet-ready cell phones and palm devices. Several popular University of Illinois websites have recently joined the list of wireless sites. The portal to the U of I College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences wireless websites is mobile.aces.uiuc.edu

The interactive web version of the Illinois Agronomy Handbook is one of the sites now accessible via wireless devices. The website includes the full text of all of the chapters along with the interactive features like calculators and databases. Although the Agronomy Handbook has been online for four years, it has only been in the past two years that mobile access to selected handbook resources has been developed, allowing users to access text and data and make calculations in the field.

"Users can query climate data, convert units, and calculate replanting benefits. It's like a mobile cyberfarm," said John Schmitz, U of I computer specialist. "Any cell phone that is ‘wireless web-ready’ can access the site using the phone’s micro-browser, a small version of Netscape or Explorer. Access for PDAs like the PocketPC is also being developed."

The Nutritional Analysis Tool (NAT), originally developed by U of I professor Jim Painter, is also accessible on Internet-ready cell phones. "It's a natural for wireless. It's like having your own personal nutrition advisor with you wherever you go," said Schmitz. "Nutrition facts are key to a healthy lifestyle but often we don't have access to the facts when they're needed. Wireless NAT provides the facts to us on the go when decisions are actually being made like what to eat and how much to eat -- whether we're standing in the aisle at the grocery store or in line at a fast food restaurant." Schmitz said that web server statistics show that the original web-based NAT site is the number one outreach website on the U of I campus.

Taking a website to the wireless level has its challenges. "Creating content for the wireless web using special protocols called WAP & WML is like programming basic html web pages in the 'frontier days' of the web almost ten years ago," said Schmitz. He explained that programming standards for wireless web are not uniform, making it difficult to write code that works on all devices. Rural access is another issue; cell phone towers may be ubiquitous on the American landscape but not digital ones and the cost of mobile devices and connectivity is yet another issue.

"Greater ease of use is needed, too. While PDAs are relatively easy to use, cell phone browsers are still awkward to use," he said. "While we will continue to develop our wireless websites for cell phone access, we plan to focus on development on PDA and related mobile devices. These devices offer several advantages over cell phones since they have larger screens, true operating systems and processors, and wireless Ethernet access to the true web. Given these features, we will be able to better reproduce the features of the Agronomy Handbook and the Nutritional Analysis Tool for access by mobile devices."

Schmitz says that someday a wireless outreach service for the University of Illinois will make a mobile digital library of documents, tools and data available to 3G devices (third generation). "It's the cutting edge of wireless cell phone technology and is already being deployed in Europe and Japan." It offers users much higher speed internet access from your device, enabling the range of content and services that depend on higher bandwidth like video conferencing with speeds that can reach up to 384 kps. "Down the road will be the 5G standard that will take us even closer to those handheld devices that the Star Trek crew carried."