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.