Devices trying for a comeback

Remember a few years ago when the wireless mobile enterprise was the next big thing?

That particular taxi crashed and burned. The mobile revolution became something of a joke. “I think what stopped this stuff before was the economics didn’t make sense,” said Danny Shader, CEO of Good Technology Inc., a mobile enterprise software provider. “People won’t spend US$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. Carriers are in the process of rolling out dial-up-speed — and faster — wireless data services. As for security, Waterloo, Ont.-based Research In Motion Ltd. (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,” said 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.

Those with an eye on the bottom line have a right to remain skeptical. 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.

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 said. “If you can knock out 20 per cent 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 said.

Why has IT embraced RIM? Because for some time the company had “the only secure device,” said 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?”

As Palm has ebbed, Pocket PCs have flowed into the enterprise. Meanwhile, sales of Hewlett-Packard Co. 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.

Gartner’s Kort expects a mobile wireless wave to start hitting Pocket PCs as soon as this summer.

However, “If you want to have real ROI and success deploying the technology, e-mail is not the mechanism,” said Dennis Gaughan, a research director at AMR Research Inc. You need enterprise software to make mobile workers more productive, he said, 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,” said 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 Corp.’s WebSphere MicroEnvironment, a J2ME run-time environment, although the new operating systems will also run apps written for previous Palm OS versions. And unlike previous versions of the Palm OS, Cobalt will support schema-based databases.

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, said Microsoft understands that development for mobile devices should “be a seamless part of the app-dev process.”

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.