Seven keeps on-the-go users in touch with e-mail

Seven Networks' software links Sprint and Cingular phones to corporate collaboration services

Most of your company's employees lose touch with each other and with your customers when they're not wired to the network. Whether they're at the airport, taking a child to the doctor, stuck in traffic, or waiting for an off-site meeting to start, they're outside the reach of corporate e-mail and collaboration systems.

The cost of a BlackBerry is easily justified for those workers who can't ever be without e-mail, and those who need such a device will use it religiously. Less dedicated users will not carry the BlackBerry everywhere they go or set it to alert them to the arrival of every new e-mail. However, almost all your workers already carry cellular phones, and they're always on. Why not use cheap, plentiful cell phones to send urgent e-mail to employees?

Using System Seven software from Seven Networks, Sprint and Cingular are helping companies do just that. For $10 per month, any Sprint or Cingular Web-enabled phone — just about every device the operators sell — can be used to securely access your company e-mail, directory, and scheduling services. Your employees and you don't have to install any server or client software, yet your company retains complete control over the provisioning and monitoring of each device. Seven Networks' solution isn't just a smart and affordable approach to mobile e-mail; it's a great model for subscription-based outsourced services.

Pay as you go

If you haven't heard of Seven Networks, don't be surprised. The company licenses its technology only to cellular operators and allows each operator to brand it as its own. In the United States, Sprint markets Seven's solution as PCS Business Connection Enterprise Edition. The service costs $10 per month, per phone. If you'd like to try Seven on a smaller scale, Sprint will add PCS Business Connection Personal Edition to any phone for just $5 per month. Cingular's Xpress Mail Network Edition is virtually identical to Sprint's Enterprise Edition service and carries the same monthly fee.

The setup is easy because all the server infrastructure is hosted by the operator. The subscribing company arranges a secure connection (typically using VPN, but other options exist) from its existing Exchange or Domino mail server to the cellular provider's operations center. The operator's staff, trained by Seven, guides IT through the process.

Once the link is activated, the operator provides the subscribing company with access to System Seven's Web-based provisioning and reporting console. To be added to the messaging system, a user’s mobile device must have a WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) browser and be set up with a rate plan that includes Internet access. The System Seven console lets a company's IT administrator add and remove users, and change their access rights.

Sprint's PCS Business Connection, Personal Edition (Cingular doesn't yet offer a comparable service) installs gateway software on an individual user's desktop PC. The gateway creates a secure tunnel through the company's firewall to Sprint's operations center. The Seven gateway accesses Notes or Exchange from the desktop and relays the data to the mobile user. Each desktop must be left on and Personal Edition connections can't be centrally managed.

The user's perspective

The typical user of Sprint's PCS Business Connection service probably carries a phone with a numeric keypad and a small monochrome dot-matrix display. To read e-mail, view contact information, or check an appointment, the user first launches the phone's WAP browser. The contents of the phone's WAP home page are set by the operator, so when PCS Business Connection is available, it appears as a home page option.

If a device hasn't previously made a Business Connection link, the Seven software authenticates the user. It then creates an AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) encryption key that is known only to the System Seven software and the device. AES is used on all data; at no point in its transmission is a message unprotected.

If the service is configured for it, a new incoming e-mail will trigger an SMS (short message service) alert to a user's device. An SMS alert is generally received within a few seconds of sending. On ordinary phones, the alert will instruct the user to use WAP to pick up her new e-mail. On Palm-enabled phones, users have the option of running Seven's rich client. A Handspring Treo 300 with Sprint's PCS Business Connection receives new messages as soon as they hit the server. Seven's Handspring client intercepts the SMS alerts and automatically grabs the incoming mail. Seven plans to offer similar clients for other devices. Seven alluded to Pocket PC, Symbian, and J2ME (Java 2 Micro Edition, a feature of many smart phones) versions of the rich client, saying that Seven's design makes it easy to adapt to new platforms.

Whether the user makes use of the WAP interface or the rich client, communication with the subscribing company's back-end servers takes place in real time. When a user deletes a message from his phone, it is immediately deleted from that user's Notes or Exchange mailbox. There is no intermediate cache, so all devices stay in sync with collaboration servers as long as they're on the air.

Frequent users will undoubtedly prefer Seven's rich client to the WAP interface. Cellular data networks impose lengthy round-trip delays, and depending on the strength of the signal, disconnections, refused connections, and lost data may be common. RIM masks these limitations with its custom client software. An interactive WAP session with a remote server makes the shortcomings of cellular data networks painfully clear. It's also not much fun to read long text messages on a tiny screen. Devices such as the Handspring Treo have larger, more readable displays, but like the BlackBerry, the Treo costs far more than a basic digital cell phone.

Operators will address problems with cellular data networks as they become more popular (and therefore more profitable). Device manufacturers are already building larger, sharper, higher-resolution displays into phones. Even though adoption in the U.S. market lags other parts of the world, text messaging will eventually be as important to mobile users as voice calls.

Seven's architecture is designed to take advantage of improvements to networks and devices. Companies that use System Seven-based services don't have to buy software upgrades or change equipment as the solution evolves. Whenever Seven updates its technology, operators will pick it up, and subscribers will reap the benefits immediately. That is probably the best argument in favor of Seven Networks' approach to mobile messaging.

Small phone displays and flaky cellular data networks present some problems, but operators and manufacturers are addressing them. Outsourcing mobile messaging to cellular operators makes a lot of sense, and as technology improves, Sprint and Cingular enterprise messaging subscribers will benefit.