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REVIEW: The Action Engine Framework
Posted by Arne Hess - on Thursday, 08.08.02 - 21:49:00 CET under 08 - Reviews - Viewed 7381x
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Two weeks ago I was contacted by Action Engine after I posted my first preview of the o2 Action Engine service. Martin Levy from Action Engine asked me if I would like to have a conversation with Craig Eisler, CEO of Action Engine, to get a better view what Action Engine is today and what it could do in the future. So I took the opportunity - for sure - because since my first tests of Action Engine I was really amazed about the possibilities and I felt that this is the kind of wireless service Pocket PC will need to improve the wireless data experience. The point I see on Pocket PCs is that there is no real additional online benefit beside Web and E-Mail. My needs of a wireless Internet are different from my needs of the Internet at home, and even if the Pocket Internet Explorer is very powerful for such a small device, it has some weaknesses. Here - from my point of view - Action Engine comes into the game.

But please let me first explain the wireless or mobile Internet the way I - Arne Hess - see it: From my point of view "Mobile Internet" is the wrong term as it is part of the "Wireless Internet". What are the differences?

To me Wireless Internet means I can access Internet services like the Web, E-Mail, or others wherever I am.
Mobile Internet on the other hand is access the Internet on the move. Typical Mobile Internet applications are SMS and WAP. I can use these services on the phone even if I am walking. I don't surf the web while I walk. The web isn't designed for access on the move.

The Wireless Internet is the "Portable Internet". This means that I can take a device with me and use it at another location to access the Internet wirelessly. I can carry my Pocket PC or Notebook with me and and use it for Internet access at airports, beer gardens, or wherever I sit. Even the home of my girlfriend could be Portable Internet enabled. If she doesn't have Internet access, I can bring the internet with me in my pocket.

And here Action Engine steps into the game. Its service is closer to WAP than to Web. That doesn't mean that I am limited in running services like I am with WAP. It takes the strengths of WAP and optimizes for mobile devices. This is clever as mobile devices like Pocket PCs and Smartphones need different user interfaces than the Desktop PC with DSL access and a twenty inch monitor. This means that the information I request and the transmitted data is reduced to the minimum, which makes Action Engine on mobile devices with wireless access more attractive for the end user than the regular Web access. Accessing the same kind of information with Action Engine is cheaper than getting the same information through the Web. Because the Action Engine UI is different from the typical text-only Web UI, I can use it even as a Wireless Internet service, not only as a Portable Internet.

Right from the beginning, Action Engine was designed for wireless access by mobile devices. Currently the Action Engine client is available for Pocket PCs and Smartphones, but could be also integrated on the Symbian platform. On the backend a Web front-end enables me to configure the settings from the Desktop PC.
The idea behind Action Engine is that some static information can be stored on the device for each application. I can select Airports right from my Pocket PC and only use airtime when I make a request. This reduces the number of steps as well as the amount of transmitted data. In addition reducing time spent online, Action Engine uses compression. On the Action Engine server the proper feedback is generated and sent to the client. The Action Engine server is fed data by external content providers.

Craig, CEO of Action Engine, took the time to show me Action Engine in its full flavor. While we were talking on the phone he demonstrated Action Engine over the Web. I was impressed by the possibilities it offers.

In Redmond, where Action Engine is located, they have a working system, so I was able to use Action Engine like an o2 customer will use it in the future: booking flights, searching for restaurants or ordering accessories for the Pocket PC.

My Action Engine UI and Functionality
Action Engine comes with its own user interface which is similar to the programs folder. From here I can start every application. This UI is dynamic and can be updated to add more services later.

By tapping an icon, the service opens (still offline) and I get a new menu. From here I can select what kind of information/action I want to get. Let's say searching/booking a flight:

As the screenshots above show, I can search for a new flight or - and this is interesting - can select a previous route. Action Engine keeps my previous requests stored which means I can access often used information easily.
Because I am still offline, I don't have to hurry. Even if I don't use GPRS. This is a big advantage of using Action Engine. The service provider does have to keep the supporting application information up to date, otherwise I wouldn't be able to access some locations. I must also synchronize Action Engine. This can be done automatically if my Pocket PC is connected with ActiveSync.

Action Engine can define different layouts for each menu. This means that a flight search could look completely different than a car rental search. The graphic above shows how I selected a flight from JFK to Los Angeles LAX. While I've selected JFK as a new departure airport, I've used the previously selected Los Angeles airport as the destination.
On the bottom of each screen I get the information of my previously selected choices as hyperlinks. Tapping this link enables me to select a different item. That's convenient if I made a wrong selection. With this status, I am always up to date.

Now I review the entire request before sending. Until now I have been offline. Tapping the send button connects the Action Engine client with the Action Engine server.

On the Web I am used to waiting for results. Action Engine also makes me wait, but displays data I might be interested in.

Because Action Engine knows where I am going, it gives me - in this example - weather information for California. Only a small amount of data has to be transferred to my Pocket PC because the forecast images are already stored as part of the Weather application. Action Engine can also give me different information like news from the region or tips for my trip. This can also depend on my predefined settings.

When the requested information is available I get my flight information. Now I can book or reserve the flight immediately. It is important to note that I am offline again.
This information is linked with another useful Action Engine service. I can send the current information as an E-Mail to someone who will pick me up later from the airport.

Action Engine Web Interface
As I've mentioned before, the Action Engine service also includes a Web interface where I can configure some parameters like preferred airlines or others. This depends on how the service provider offers the Action Engine service.

Action Update
Action Engine is also remote device management at its finest. It can check my Pocket PC for installed applications and services and is able to provide me with additional applications as updates. It's similar to the way Windows XP updates over the Internet. However, here I can select what service I want to update and which application I want to add.

After starting Action Update, it connects with the Action Engine server to verify what I've already downloaded and what is available.

Here I get a wide selection of categories. This can be anything - critical Pocket PC updates, Pocket PC Phone Edition ring tones, games, pictures, and even applications. Additional categories can be added.

Adding a service is easy. I simply open a program on the Pocket PC by tapping the category and selecting the application.

As shown in the ring tone download screenshots above, Action Update guides me through the whole process. I don't have to leave Action Update to switch to the File Explorer to install the download. Everything is integrated. And again, everything except the download is done offline, reducing expensive online charges.

The Future of Action Engine
After the demonstration, Craig and I discussed integration into mobile networks for Location Based Services as well as the target customer for Action Engine. We also discussed how developers can work with Action Engine.

Although it is designed for wireless networks, Action Engine can be hosted virtually anywhere. Unlike typical GSM components like SMSCs or MSSCs, it Doesn't need to be integrated into the GSM/GPRS framework of an operator. This means fast and easy implementation that could even be outsourced to a managed services provider like HP. It also has interfaces necessary to integrate future network services like Location Based/Dependent Services. With this the operator could improve the user experience of Action Engine by automating many of the choices. With this service enhancement Action Engine becomes even more interesting for both the operator and the customer.

Action Engine isn't focused on mobile operators only. Because it is still TCP/IP based, mobile portals like MSN and Yahoo! can to provide any services they like.
It is also network independent which means it runs on the 2/2.5G as well as W-LAN networks. Even Bluetooth is possible. This makes Action Engine even more attractive.

Action Engine plans to release an SDK soon which includes the whole Action Engine backend for development. However, because Action Engine doesn't work as the content aggregator by itself, I contact any content providers I want to work with myself.
Action Engine doesn't plan to release a public commercial service today as it is focusing on the B2B environment - not in B2C.

Final Conclusion

Action Engine is the kind of wireless service for Pocket PC and Smartphone I have waited a long time for. WAP is a little too reduced for Pocket PCs, and in most cases the Web is not really usable on Pocket PCs. What I've missed was something in between like Action Engine. Hosting the application on the Pocket PC reduces the transmitted bits and bytes and makes using online services more cost attractive. This also uses the strength of Pocket PCs (their powerful CPUs) for hosting the application and just uses the wireless link for small results transmissions.
The UI is easy to use and intuitive. Even "Joe User", who uses Action Engine for the first time will be able to find what he is looking for the first time. Combining services like providing the weather on the arrival airport is pretty impressive while it cuts the waiting time for the results, unlike waiting for results in a conventional Web browser. As personalization grows, all kinds of information can be delivered in future, from target advertisements to the latest information relevant to you. This makes the data more informative and interactive.

I'm happy to see that first operators like mmO2 have already signed agreements with Action Engine. I hope to see more networks implementing Action Engine soon. It drives the Wireless Internet in the right direction and combines the concepts of the Mobile and Portable Internet. All together, Action Engine is an amazing development I will use regular - for sure - if it is implemented on my network operator backend.

See also my interview with Craig Eisler here.

Cheers ~ Arne

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