Secure Mobile Data Comes of Age

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I've just spent the day with O2 (www.o2.com), the new name for what used to be known as BT Cellnet in the U.K., Viag Interkom in Germany, Esat Digifone in Ireland and Telfort in the Netherlands.

The newly rebranded company is taking advantage of the 'Europeanization' of its various country operations to consolidate its research and development, as well as launch a number of pan-European mobile data offerings.

One of O2's first mobile data offerings, the Research in Motion (RIM - www.rim.net) Blackberry, which has been sold by various companies in North America for the last two years, has been on active sale in all four of O2's European countries since this spring. The Blackberry, in case you haven't come across the PDA- unit, is about the same size as a pocket calculator, with a 32-bit 80386 processor at its heart, driving into four megabytes of flash memory. It uses Intel embedded system technology to operate. Externally, the unit sports a full keyboard, whilst internally it supports the usual PDA range of software, including email and organizer functions.

While it sounds like a PDA such as the Psion and other units, RIM says it has designed the unit to be a wearable device on a 24-hour-a-day basis, much like a mobile phone, in fact, and it operates on a single AA alkaline battery. The advantage of the Blackberry PDA is that is has been designed for use across general packet radio service (GPRS) connections, allowing burstable mobile data speeds of around 48,000 bits per second (bps) downstream, and 24,000 bps upstream.

GPRS is an IP/packet switched overlay system to GSM, itself a network standard which was originally designed for circuit-switched (i.e. voice and data) calls. By using IP technology, the Blackberry only uses mobile network bandwidth when it is transmitting or receiving data, effectively allowing the device to operate on an always-on basis, rather like fixed line DSL connections.

When the Blackberry was first shown to the European press just over a year ago by BT Wireless, it relied on the basic GSM encryption standard for its security. The GSM encryption standard is a 32-bit technology that has been proven as being crackable across the airwaves using suitable, albeit expensive, equipment. The good news is that the Blackberry system being sold commercially by O2 in Europe now supports triple-DES encryption as a standard function, effectively extending the secure VPN that exists from the client company to the GSM carrier, onto the mobile device itself. Alongside the support for triple-DES is the fact that the Blackberry has now been awarded FIPS 140-1 certification by the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) in the U.S., meaning that it can be used without too many worries by U.S. agencies.

The Blackberry's ascent to fame has been spectacular as, along with its North American and European rollout, it is now being sold in Asia, as well as by Telstra in Australia. The Blackberry, however, was designed for use by mobile staff within a company, who require access to the company LAN's resources. What about users who simply want a mobile PDA with wireless and voice capabilities?

Enter the O2 XDA, a PocketPC (Windows CE) device with integral GPRS and GSM voice/data functionality, which has just started shipping in all of O2's European markets. The XDA, which Microsoft launched as a reference model late last year, is a cellular-enabled PocketPC that builds on Compaq's success with its iPaq PocketPC device over the last year or so.

The dual-band XDA is a GPRS-enabled PocketPC similar to the Compaq iPaq, except that its functions are specifically designed to use the high-speed mobile Internet. The PDA weighs in at just 200 grams and, thanks to a lithium polymer battery, supports 150 hours on standby and 3.5 hours of talktime. The color screen on the XDA supports 240 x 320 pixel resolution - not that fantastic compared to desktop PC standards, but pretty good for a PDA-sized device.

Unlike Palm operating system-driven devices, such as the Palm and Handspring Visor series, the XDA runs familiar desktop applications such as Internet Explorer, MS-Outlook, MS-Word and Excel, docking the unit with the user's home or office PC using the supplied PC/USB cradle. Because the XDA is essentially a GSM/GPRS-enabled PocketPC all-in-one device, it supports pretty well the same encryption technology as seen on a desktop PC, including secure sockets layer (SSL) for web surfing. It also allows users to install a variety of VPN/encryption applications running under PocketPC/Windows CE.

Microsoft, meanwhile, is preparing a new version of its PocketPC operating system, which, according to O2's R&D staff, will be wireless-friendly from the ground up, meaning that it has been specifically designed for use across wireless/cellular networks. Although Microsoft remains coy on what functions the revised operating system will support, it's almost certain that all the standard software found under the PocketPC will support encryption technology at the operating system layer. This is good news for anyone used to using a Windows 32-bit environment across the Internet, as it means that users will have access to a raft of applications on the move, and which support the secure transmission of data across GSM/GPRS connections.

During its press demonstration day in mid-June, O2 showed off what this writer thinks will be the 'killer application' for wireless-enabled PocketPC devices - streamed TV programming. Thanks to a joint initiative between Microsoft and a number of TV companies in the U.S. and Europe, it's now possible to stream live TV programming using a 20,000 bps data feed across the mobile Internet, to a PocketPC device. The results are quite watchable, and, thanks to a PocketPC device's ability to buffer that data for several tens of seconds - to compensate for GPRS signal dropouts - users will be able to watch a variety of TV programs while on the move.

At the moment, in Europe, it's only possible to watch Sky News and Irish TV programming using XDA, but a number of TV stations are developing their own streamed programming. It's also possible to watch a variety of recorded TV- programming on the XDA device - much of this programming is already available on the desktop, but the ability to watch it on the go will be highly appealing to end users. It's also possible to watch this type of programming on other PocketPC devices, such as Compaq's iPaq, of course, but this requires the use of a GSM/GPRS-enabled mobile phone. The XDA, however, is a self-contained unit that does it all.

With the wireless-enabled version of the PocketPC operating system coming shortly, it's likely that streamed programming across the mobile Internet will also have an encryption option, meaning that people can't tap into your streamed audio-visual feed. There will be other wireless-enabled PDAs like the XDA, of course, but O2 seems to have stolen the march on the competition. And, thanks to parallel developments by Microsoft and other software companies, the mobile security issues inherent to accessing the mobile Internet, seem to have been addressed.

Oh, and like the Blackberry, the XDA can also function as a regular mobile phone for when voice calls really are necessary.

Steve Gold is news editor for SC Magazine and Infosecurity News (www.scmagazine.com & www.infosecnews.com).
 

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