The return of the mobile enterprise

Faster wireless service, bulletproof security, and better hardware pave the way for a mobile comeback

Remember a few years ago when the wireless mobile enterprise was the next big thing? High-speed 3G bandwidth would hover in the air everywhere, enabling you to whip out a wireless PDA and turn the backseat of a taxicab into a rolling office with seamless access to enterprise apps.

That particular taxi crashed and burned. Carriers never delivered fast bandwidth, sensible people raised security alarms, and the cost of developing and deploying mobile apps proved absurdly high compared to the potential payback. The mobile revolution became something of a joke -- supplanted by the more modest goal of providing Wi-Fi network access across the corporate campus. "I think what stopped this stuff before was the economics didn't make sense," says Danny Shader, CEO of Good Technology, a mobile enterprise software provider. "People won't spend $20,000 to $30,000 a user to get mobile. They're just not going to do that."

Yet Shader and others believe the stage is now set for a mobile comeback. Although ubiquitous 3G remains an indeterminate number of years off, carriers are in the process of rolling out dial-up-speed -- and faster -- wireless data services. As for security, Research In Motion (RIM) and Good Technology have developed security solutions, primarily for e-mail, that ease enterprise worries. Meanwhile, enterprise server software vendors have gobbled up mobile app servers and development tools, folding them into the stack and reducing development and deployment costs.

The hardware has improved, too. "The convergence of better processors, better displays, and better operating systems is allowing enterprise applications to become more acceptable for use on PDAs," says Todd Kort, a principal analyst at Gartner Dataquest, who believes there's a bright future for a new, more powerful generation of smart-phone devices. Kort thinks a dramatic uptake in enterprise mobility may occur later this year, after a new Palm operating system, a more efficient Intel CPU for handhelds, and mobile enterprise software for the Microsoft's Windows Mobile platforms arrive this summer.

Those with an eye on the bottom line have a right to remain skeptical, even though many companies have already deployed wireless e-mail for executives, most often using RIM devices. And of course, vertical industries have been quietly rolling out field apps on wireless PDAs for years. Much can be learned from those experiences when searching for secure, cost-effective ways to respond to business-side requests for wireless mobility. To justify the cost of devices, secure connections, airtime minutes, and enterprise apps adapted to tiny screens, the plan of action must be carefully crafted.

E-mail Paves the Way

The no-brainer enterprise app is the same as it has been for a few years: e-mail. "E-mail has become such a  time-consuming part of our lives," Gartner's Kort says. "If you can knock out 20 percent of that e-mail when you otherwise would have been idle, that's a considerable time savings." Up until now, the biggest beneficiary of this trend has been RIM, which Kort characterizes as "on a roll." The company sold as many devices in the first quarter of this year as it did in all of 2002, Kort says.

Why has IT embraced RIM? Because for some time the company had "the only secure device," says David MacFarlane, vice president of business development at Idokorro, a small mobile enterprise app-dev house. "The first thing our customers ask is: Is it secure? The BlackBerry has the BlackBerry Enterprise Server for secure e-mail." This security provides end-to-end encryption and compression between the device and RIM's server, which enterprises deploy inside the firewall.

RIM's principal competitor is Good Technology, which offers a similar security scheme in its GoodLink mobile messaging software (so similar, the companies sued each other, settling last March). GoodLink works with Palm, Pocket PC, and RIM devices. Both RIM's and Good's solutions can withstand frequent disconnections, a fact of life for mobile wireless data communication through carrier networks -- and a showstopper if an enterprise tried using a conventional VPN.

Palm lacks a comparable security model, which may be one reason why the company -- which once owned the enterprise space by default -- has experienced declining enterprise sales in the last couple of years, according to Gartner's Kort. PalmSource will address this deficiency with its new Cobalt operating system (already in the hands of OEMs) that enables enterprises to "plug in" security solutions, such as a licensed version of RIM's secure server. Cobalt will also be the first multitasking Palm OS, resulting in a much more attractive application environment.

As Palm has ebbed, Pocket PCs have flowed into the enterprise. Meanwhile, sales of Hewlett-Packard iPaqs are double what they were a year ago, according to Gartner. Because Microsoft lacked a compelling carrier-based solution, the main attraction has been the capability to run Windows Mobile and Pocket versions of Word, Excel, and Outlook. According to Ed Suwanjindar, lead product manager of the mobile and embedded devices group at Microsoft, the "core, killer app" for Pocket PCs has been Outlook synchronization.

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Gartner's Kort expects a mobile wireless wave to start hitting Pocket PCs as soon as this summer. For one thing, Windows Mobile for Pocket PC 2003, which has just begun shipping on devices in the US, will be the first version to support "meaningful [e-mail] push capability for cellular networks," according to Good Technology's Shader. Just as significant, Good will begin shipping its GoodLink 3.0 secure wireless messaging solution for that new Windows Mobile version this month.

Adam Zawel, The Yankee Group director of wireless/mobile enterprise and commerce, adds that Exchange 2003 is "built from the ground up with wireless in mind. The thorny problems surrounding mobile computing are handled in the design of the application itself." The combination of Microsoft's application support and Good's security may well open the floodgates to e-mail everywhere for Pocket PCs from HP, Dell, Toshiba, and others.

Picking the Right Mobile Platform

Putting a secure messaging pipe in place was more than a software development challenge for RIM and Good. Both also had to cut deals with carriers, which involved "a lot of legwork and butt-kissing," according to Gartner's Kort. Now that the basics are in place, he says, e-mail is just the beginning. "Then you build upon that and start getting in behind the firewall and getting your applications."

"If you want to have real ROI and success deploying the technology, e-mail is not the mechanism," asserts Dennis Gaughan, a research director at AMR Research. You need enterprise software to make mobile workers more productive, he says, although up until now the action has mainly been in vertical applications.

Palm devices, of course, have long been surrounded by a vibrant development community, with the applications primarily commercial and focused on stand-alone clients. "Quite frankly, up until we got to the latest version, Cobalt, even though we put good fundamentals in place, gaps were filled by third parties and licensees," says John Cook, product marketing manager at PalmSource, the software company resulting from the Palm breakup. "You had to be more of a systems integrator if you were trying to build more enterprise apps on Palm OS devices."

Cobalt will feature a licensed version of IBM's WebSphere MicroEnvironment, a J2ME run-time environment, although the new operating systems will also run apps written for previous Palm OS versions. Palm has also joined the Eclipse Java development organization and has licensed the WebSphere Studio Device Developer toolset for integration into the Palm OS platform. And unlike previous versions of the Palm OS, Cobalt will support schema-based databases. PalmSource is "trying to do more enablement for the developer community," Cook says.

Whether or not customers embrace Cobalt as an enterprise development platform, RIM appears less likely to extend much beyond e-mail in the foreseeable future, according to Gartner's Kort. The development environment uses a proprietary flavor of J2ME that requires a learning curve few enterprise developers are likely to climb in order to build apps for BlackBerrys alone. "RIM is a nightmare to develop for," Kort says. "Gartner actually recommends that enterprises not develop for that platform."

By contrast, Microsoft's efforts to integrate mobile devices into .Net development have already paid off. Enterprises are developing more apps for the Pocket PC platform than any other. Warren Wilson, a practice director at Summit Strategies, says Microsoft understands that development for mobile devices should "be a seamless part of the app-dev process." In other words, developers can port their general Windows development work into mobile apps.

Microsoft's Suwanjindar touts the company's .Net Compact Framework, which has 12 controls for mobile devices, including screen size, rendering, and menus. "It's really efficient to transfer a Windows desktop application, optimized for a small footprint," he says. Visual Studio 2005, due out next year, will make targeting small devices even easier. "It's our intent," Suwanjindar says, "that mobile development will just be development."

Learning From Experience

Until recently, enterprise mobile application development has tended to be narrowly targeted -- to specific devices and to specific applications in such areas as field service, sales-force automation, medicine, and retail delivery. Faced with slow, erratic, expensive wireless connections, enterprises have frequently opted for wire-line synchronization instead. The introduction of so-called 2.5G services such as GPRS and CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) 1X has at least brought transfer rates up to dial-up speeds, but coverage is still spotty and the airtime costs remain high.

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The result for mobile enterprise applications has been a kind of client/server architecture, where the mobile client must be fully usable in stand-alone mode, caching data for upload and downloading updates when an air or wire-line connection is available. To avoid costly one-off development projects for mobile devices, developers need to figure out how to adapt applications already deployed in the enterprise, The Yankee Group's Zawel observes. "The real challenge is to decide what needs to be on the device all the time and what's needed in real time -- and to take an existing application and separate those components," he says.

Such trade-offs manifest themselves in interesting ways. Take CooperVision, a manufacturer of contact lenses that has deployed PalmOne's Tungsten W handhelds to 70 sales reps across the country. The PDAs run a custom-built sales-force-automation application, but they're also equipped with GPRS modems for wireless cellular access so the reps can deal with e-mail while sitting in an optometrist's office waiting to make a pitch. To upload orders from the SFA application into the corporate database, however, they must synchronize their Palms through their desktop PCs.

Connected through the air or not, automating manual tasks for the first time generally yields the biggest ROI, just as with any other technology area. "In field service applications, you can automate workflow from the time the call is generated to the time the bill is sent out," says Dave Werezak, vice president of the enterprise business unit at RIM. Deployments that combine e-mail with such line-of-business functions are slowly proliferating.

"You still have to characterize it as an early-stage market," says Summit's Wilson. "But we're starting to see an increasing number of deployments of hundreds and even thousands of workers and devices scattered around different industries."

The most compelling mobile deployments pursue multiple benefits. In a pilot project at Bedford, Freeman & Worth, a textbook division of Macmillan Publishing, high-end iPaqs have landed in the hands of 12 of the company's 70 sales representatives in North America. "Before this, at the end of the day they'd go home and spend two hours responding to e-mails and requesting sample textbooks be sent to professors," notes Paul Lentz, BFW's CRM project manager. "They asked us to decrease their administrative work so they could increase their time in front of customers."

Because they have the time and the tools, Lentz says, the salespeople can submit information into a knowledge management system that all the editors can access. "This helps us in terms of being a real-time enterprise," he says. The sales reps may interact with professors who are in the forefront of their field, revealing new teaching or research methods from which the editors can benefit. "The handhelds allow them to gather information everyone knows is out there but no one internally can get their hands on. An editor might find out something about a professor at a regional sales meeting, but by then it's too late. Some other publishing company has gotten that person to write a book."

A more conventional area attracting lots of mobile development activity is wholesale distribution. Wisconsin Distributors, an Anheuser-Busch wholesaler, has rid itself of considerable paperwork with an extremely productive, nonwireless mobile app. Thirty salesmen use Toshiba handhelds running Global Beverage Group's Pocket Cooler application to track orders and inventory. Via synchronization, the Pocket Cooler application sends pertinent data to accounting and inventory-management systems, enabling warehouse workers to start preparing orders for the following day.

Craig Wardle, IT manager at Wisconsin Distributors, would like to equip the handhelds with cellular modems so that salespeople can send orders earlier and get warehouse employees compiling the bigger orders earlier. "We'd like to get the orders for large grocery stores in the middle of the day so that the warehouse crews can build the orders throughout the day rather than doing it in a mad rush starting at 5 p.m." The problem is that in his market, coverage is only a sure thing in Madison. Beyond that, "it follows the highways. If you get off the highway, your chances of a connection are less." As a result, Wisconsin Distributors' salespeople ask bar owners at various stops during the day if they can use the phone to upload information to the company database.

Do You Read Me?

Without question, in the United States, the carrier networks are the weakest link in wireless mobility. "The carriers are still struggling to figure out what the right strategy is to sell to enterprises for enterprise applications," says AMR's Gaughan. "They were focused on pushing the networks forward to 3G but have now backed off on that due to the cost of upgrading the infrastructure."

True, all the major U.S. carriers have impressive 3G pilot programs, with Verizon leading the way. But Japan and Europe remain far ahead, thanks to the United States' vast territory and various incompatible mobile networks. No one should stake their mobile plans on widely available 3G in the United States. And where it is available, the price of airtime will be high.

On the brighter side, mobile devices themselves have gotten much more powerful, often making fat, occasionally connected mobile clients a pleasure to use. Nothing illustrates how far we've come like the first Palm handhelds, which used Motorola's 68000 chip. "It served us well, but the clock speed was stuck at 16MHz," notes Gregg Zehr, PalmOne's vice president of engineering. The fastest chips for PDAs now run at 400MHz. Meanwhile, standard handheld displays have grown from 160-by-160 monochrome screens to 320-by-320 color screens.

Unfortunately, faster processors, better displays, and memory approaching desktop proportions put a drain on battery life. The greatest advance in batteries recently has been the lithium-polymer battery, which can be molded into different shapes more easily than a lithium-ion battery. And this summer Intel plans to ship its new 600MHz PXA270 Xscale chip that throttles down clock frequency during periods of inactivity -- just like laptop CPUs.

As better hardware emerges, Gartner's Kort believes that next year an armada of powerful new smart phones will arrive from the likes of HP and Dell. For mobile workers who need frequent data connections through the air, Kort predicts that clever new combinations of phone and PDA -- running the Smartphone version of Windows -- will provide a strong incentive for more enterprise mobile app dev.

Carrier coverage and pricing remain stumbling blocks. Perhaps one day seamless roaming between wide-area wireless and Wi-Fi will solve the problem. In the meantime, the other pieces of the mobile enterprise puzzle -- security, unified development, beefier handhelds, and wireless-enabled commercial software -- are falling into place.

Who will get this technology first? Workers who really need it, execs who really want it, and employees willing to pay for it. But there's little question that the age of true mobility is dawning, no matter how long it takes to reach the rest of us.

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