The return of the mobile enterprise

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

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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