Mobile business applications need work

Experts say the building blocks needed to translate enterprise apps to handheld devices are coming along slowly

The process of mobilizing enterprise business applications remains in its early stages, but software makers, device manufacturers, and customers are all currently working to foster increased wireless adoption.

Beyond wireless e-mail and specialized field force applications used in vertical markets such as overnight shipping, experts concede that the push to translate enterprise applications to the handheld goes slowly.

Large companies in the United States have not embraced mobile business applications on a wider scale because of immaturity in the software and device platforms available to them, according to industry analysts.

However, wireless market watchers concede that many of the building blocks necessary to further advance enterprise mobility and the use of handheld business applications are currently being put into place.

"Once you go beyond the e-mail and inventory management type applications, things start breaking down," said Avi Greengart, analyst with Current Analysis, based in Sterling, Va. "There are a lot of people trying it out on a small scale, and vendors are building the next generation of mobile enterprise suites, but there's a big hole in the market in terms of the potential versus the reality."

The problem with many of today's mobile business applications is that they remain watered-down versions of desktop enterprise tools that have merely been re-architected to operate on a small screen, experts contend.

Until software makers and device manufacturers can get their products to align more seamlessly, enterprises will struggle to find the right platforms to push wireless use beyond e-mail, said Maribel Lopez, an analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research.

"The current set of business applications are still unfriendly in terms of asking end users to click through multiple screens to complete tasks that can be done with a single click on a PC," said Lopez. "The software makers are still trying to translate desktop products to the handheld, and it requires a lot of massaging; until vendors build more mobile applications from scratch and improve usability, I think many customers will hold off on wider adoption."

Despite failing to be won over by the current wave of mobile business apps, many U.S. companies are formalizing the use of wireless devices and planning for a future that involves wireless enterprise systems, the analysts said.

Customers see wireless as a significant opportunity to create new business opportunities and want to ensure that they have control over use of wireless devices and applications, rather than have end users carry tools into the workplace that they find useful in their personal lives.

Finding a way to prove the bottom-line value for wider mobile applications usage is often as big of a challenge for IT decision makers as dealing with any shortcomings of the technologies themselves, the industry watchers maintain.

"No one has been able to prove the return on investment of mobilizing accounting or human resources applications. Mobilizing some types of workflows may make sense, but the larger business case hasn't been made for a lot of desktop enterprise systems," said Greengart.

"In some cases, adoption is being held back because SAP, Salesforce.com, and Oracle haven't effectively mobilized their applications," added the analyst. "But in a lot of cases the immediate benefits of moving these platforms to the mobile device still haven't been found."

Vendors of mobile business systems agree that most large U.S. companies are still in the process of developing business plans for greater wireless applications adoption, but they contend the work is being done today as people seek ways to streamline their operations, cut IT costs, and secure themselves against ad hoc use of handheld technologies by individual employees.

Security and systems management concerns created by the trend of employees bringing smartphone devices into work are among the issues that are forcing enterprises to accelerate mobility plans, said Lior Nir, director of product marketing for the enterprise mobility group at handheld maker Nokia, based in Espoo, Finland.

"The $20 billion question is what the timeframe will be for when enterprises feel the cost and security pressure and say they need to adopt mobility into business processes, not just put a server in the network and give workers wireless e-mail," Nir said. "Soon it will become a bigger cost not to do so if employees are begging for it and using their own devices; we've seen great vertical applications adoption in the field force segment and believe this second wave will come as cost and security pressures weigh in."

Lir said it's unfair to blame the nascent status of adoption on enterprise applications vendors for failing to create more compelling mobile versions of their tools. Even if companies like SAP and Oracle had already perfected their wireless systems, large customers would still need time to build business cases and budget, he said.

And while Nokia has many U.S. customers who are already deploying wireless enterprise systems, many others are hard at work achieving those goals and planning rollouts over the next several years, according to Nir.

Enterprise applications makers claim that their products are increasingly ready to respond to that demand.

In mid-April, business software giant Oracle announced support for its Siebel customer relationship management (CRM) applications on Research In Motion's popular BlackBerry devices.

With such new products arriving and many customers moving past their initial pilots, wider adoption is just around the corner, said Oracle executives.

Use of specialized wireless business applications in attractive vertical markets such as manufacturing and pharmaceuticals is already taking off, with Oracle counting General Electric, Hershey's, and Novartis among its large U.S. customers. Other markets will soon follow, said Guy Waterman, senior director of CRM mobile strategy at Oracle.

"We already have hundreds of thousands of mobile CRM users in the U.S., and growth will increase as the use of mobile handsets among business users grows. We're in the midst of this process now, but there will be measurable growth over the next two years," Waterman said.

"This next generation of mobility will be pushed along as mobile becomes not a separate application from the desktop, but a component of those applications," he said. "It's something people already expect to be there, to be able to access these systems via phone. Every enterprise application will have to address that demand over the next few years."

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