Atlantic Canada invests in mobile middleware

A federal government stipend to boost R&D in Atlantic Canada will see a local company accelerate its mobile software development.

The Atlantic Innovation Fund (AIF), operated by the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA),

Tuesday doled out up to $155 million to businesses in the area. Consilient Technologies Corp., based in St. John’s, Nfld., received $1.7 million to pursue its research in middleware applications.

The software, called Wrap (wireless rapid application deployment) is designed to make enterprise and desktop applications work effectively on a portable wireless device by stripping them down to the essentials. “”You go through the desktop application and pick out all the critical functions for the field. That is the only part that is loaded onto the wireless device,”” explained Trevor Adey, president of Consilient.

Adey recognizes the shortcomings of the current portable device market — limited bandwidth, screen size and memory — but the number of mobile workers is increasing regardless of these limitations, he said. Another problem is the lack of a uniform mobile telephony standard in Canada and incomplete coverage, but by developing Java-based middleware that is device- and protocol-agnostic Adey aims to make these transitions invisible. “”This gap creates a great opportunity for Consiliant to provide that application that worked on the desktop to work in the exact same way through the utilization of middleware in all of those myriad of wireless environments,”” he said.

The first version of the software is in beta testing with customers, said Adey. Additional releases are scheduled over the next two years. It could be at least that long before the market takes off, according to one analyst. Most portable applications are geared towards sales, said Brian Platts of Toronto-based Sone Associates Inc., and are frequently custom developed. If mobile expands into other areas of business, as Adey believes it will, then the market will become more viable, but it will take time.

“”There’s been a lot of predictions on mobile data. Every year it’s, ‘It’s going to take off,’ but it never has,”” said Platts. “”The bottom line seems to be that companies who need it and want it will pay any reasonable price to get it, but there aren’t that many.””

Through private investment, Consilient increased its AIF fund to $2.7 million and has brought on local partners to help develop Wrap. Dalhousie University in Halifax and Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., will supply artificial intelligence research to improve the software interface. Colabnet, another St. John’s company, is also working on personal digital assistant (PDA) middleware and will contribute to the project.

Consilient will own any intellectual property that results from the colloboration, but Adey said he’s effectively subsidizing university research into artificial intelligence. Keith Sheppard, president of Colabnet, isn’t concerned either. The work is giving him some insight into the future of the market, he said, and he’s already had some success developing a wireless solution for the health-care industry.

Consilient was one of 47 projects selected by the AIF for funding on Tuesday. “”We’re looking to improve the region’s capacity to commercialize R&D or projects that strengthen innovation . . . by encouraging partnership,”” said Debbie Corey, director of communications, policy and programs for ACOA. “”There are growth sectors in the region that have been identified.”” IT and biotechnology are among those areas, but the fund is also designed to bolster other areas of industry such as energy, she added.

“”Their hope, I think, is that we’ll develop technology that is sold in the United States and around the world, and build organizations in Atlantic Canada,”” said Adey.

“”A lot of individuals think of Atlantic Canada as an area that gets a lot of handouts from the government . . . Obviously that’s not the case here,”” he added. “”This type of funding is the building block of the knowledge-based economy.””

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