IBM puts mobility in Sphere of influence

IBM Corp. is betting that the more popular PDAs, laptops and smart phones become in the workplace, the more businesses will be challenged to find ways of supporting them.

Last month, IBM launched WebSphere Everyplace Access, an addition to its WebSphere software line that lets companies provide business apps and access to information on mobile devices across different networks, including GSM and CDMA. According to IBM, WebSphere Everyplace Access offers services to build, deploy, manage and extend existing e-business and core applications to handhelds.

Everyplace Access comes as part of IBM’s pervasive computing initiative, which was developed to focus on three segments of the mobile industry: devices, service providers and the enterprise. According to Letina Connelly, Everyplace Access is the company’s first launch into the enterprise space.

“If you look at the mobile employee’s…information needs, they tend to want access to more than one application throughout the day,” said Connelly, director of pervasive enterprise strategy for IBM in New York. “The objective is how do you increase the time that they spend on core activities like selling? [Everyplace Access] can behave in the simplest form when implemented, meaning you could use it just to deliver e-mail to a mobile device, or you can deliver a much more comprehensive set of applications to an end user.”

Connelly said that Everyplace Access comes with a server, client piece and a tool kit for building new applications. The product works on a Windows platform, with plans to expand into Unix and Linux platforms. The client piece is software that sits on the device and has capabilities for device management and can store information in a queue in case of a lost connection. There is also a database for inventory purposes and security features such as cryptography.

Connelly said that historically, in order to deploy an application onto a mobile device, businesses would have to virtually hard-code that application onto the device’s operating system. International Data Corp.’s Kevin Burden agreed and said that the enterprise had to rely on makers of mobile middleware in order to deploy applications. However, he added that going through these providers often posed risks, as it resulted in having no single point of contact.

“You can get it done, but whose neck are you going to strangle when something goes wrong?” the Framingham, Mass.-based analyst offered. “What is the guarantee that these companies are going to be around in a couple of years? What [the enterprise] really wants is an IBM or a Compaq because they know they are reliable and will be around for a while.”

Burden, who handles the device side of IDC’s research, said that WebSphere Everyplace Access customers know they will get good service from IBM. However, he noted that the problem within the enterprise is justifying the use of mobile devices as more than personal productivity tools.

“We don’t see any real need to support these devices until these things become business tools,” Burden said. “That is also a reason why the enterprise adoption of handhelds has really yet to take off. There are other issues…but there is the wonder whether these things will ever be more than just glorified contact managers.”

Toronto Dominion Bank in Toronto concurred with Burden. Although TD has been an IBM customer and is using WebSphere Portal to combine its retail, banking and brokerage sites onto a single portal, referred to as the self-service portal, it has no intention of focusing on its mobile workforce needs now.