Mobile business apps middleware catches on

Industry experts maintain that many business applications vendors are still struggling to successfully port their tools to mobile handsets. But some software makers claim that by partnering with wireless specialists to develop their systems, they are selling more licenses to end-users today.

While larger business applications companies, including SAP and, have gone the route of internally developing mobile versions of their existing products, others, such as enterprise software vendors NetSuite and SugarCRM, are finding it makes more sense to partner with third-party wireless applications providers.

In addition to the cost savings and reduced time to market that working with such partners allows — versus architecting their own wireless applications or acquiring firms that can do so, as in the case of — advocates of the emerging middleware model for mobile business applications claim the approach results in far more mature wireless services for customers.

“We originally approached wireless development internally ourselves, and we’ve developed a lightweight client that can work in almost any browser. But we found that by enlisting a partner that is focused completely on mobile applications we could create something much more compelling,” said John Roberts, chief executive of SugarCRM, in Cupertino, Calf.

“Mobilizing a product seems like a straightforward process, but the truth is that understanding the way that a user navigates the handheld application, what needs to be in there and what is most useful, involves a lot more work than taking a traditional application and pushing it to a different form factor,” Roberts said.

To get its business applications onto smaller screens faster and more effectively, SugarCRM enlisted the help of iEnterprises, a Murray Hill, N.J.-based provider of wireless tools that has long specialized in pushing CRM systems to wireless devices. The company currently offers handheld iterations of CRM products made by IBM’s Lotus division, SugarCRM, NetSuite, and Microsoft, along with its own applications.

At the core of iEnterprises’ strategy is its own Mobile CRM software module, which it also sells as a stand-alone product. Having spent years developing the right mix of features and formats for pushing business applications such as sales force automation (SFA) tools to mobile devices, the company claims it is accelerating the pace with which its partners can offer wireless applications to their customers.

“Everyone in business software is trying to build a mobile module, but many vendors are finding creating that is harder than they thought, and that using something like our module makes a lot more sense,” said Phil Sheehy vice president of wireless solutions at iEnterprises.

“Because of the form factor of today’s devices, the limited memory and bandwidth constraints of the network, it’s very important and challenging to get the right mix of features into the applications themselves,” Sheehy said. “The tools have to have enough utility to be useful, but the temptation for many is to try and cram too much into the program, which has resulted in a lot of products that end-users have found too cumbersome or awkward.”

Industry analysts continue to criticize the functionality of many mobile business applications for exactly those reasons.

“It’s going to take years for enterprise applications to become mobile because these were largely designed for the PC within certain parameters, which doesn’t port well to the handheld,” said Maribel Lopez, analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research.

“Everybody wants mobile business applications but there’s still a lot of massaging of the applications themselves that needs to happen before more customers will be ready to increase investment.”

Even those companies building the mobile devices agree that the middleware model for mobile business applications seems to make a lot of sense.

Among the device companies iEnterprises is partnered with is Research In Motion, maker of the BlackBerry handhelds that have become arguably the most popular wireless business device in North America.

“Companies like this that serve in the middleware role are bringing a lot of value to the market by allowing existing CRM companies and their customers to tap into mobility and pull in data from back-end systems,” said Tyler Lessard, director of independent software vendor (ISV) alliances at RIM.

“These companies have already spent a lot of time focused on making sure that CRM or other business applications work on a BlackBerry in the same way that popular mobile applications such as e-mail do,” he said. “The larger applications vendors tend to offer a Web-based interface that can be used on the mobile device, but many customers are already looking for something richer that can store data locally; these customers are looking to middleware vendors to help.”

The middleware model is becoming so pervasive that some applications vendors have moved to acquire providers of the technologies, including, which had previously worked with iEnterprises before buying Sendia, a provider of similar mobile products, for US$15 million in April 2007.

In addition to building wireless versions of its own hosted SFA tools, has also committed to using Sendia’s technologies to build mobile iterations of all the custom applications built by its partners under its AppExchange development program. Customers agree that the middleware-bred mobile systems are getting the job done well.

Alan Tamny, national account manager for retail loss prevention specialists Checkpoint Systems, said that his company has been using iEnterprises’ Lotus Notes CRM tools, along several other applications developed by the company, for several years with impressive results. Part of the lure of the applications is that they have been specifically tailored to work on the BlackBerry devices that Checkpoint has passed out to its workers, the executive said.

“The ultimate endorsement is how well the applications get adopted by salespeople out in the field, as these types of workers won’t use something like this unless they really see a benefit. The response has been really strong as these systems have worked so well,” Tamny said.

“We had to have something that was supported on BlackBerry — that was probably the biggest driver of going with iEnterprises. But the information fits on the small screen really well and the synchronization with back-end systems works great, which is our biggest concern,” he said. “Now our salespeople can truly have constant connectivity, which is a huge advantage in terms of them not having to replicate information into multiple address books and keeping data up-to-date without needing to sit down at a PC.”

Officials with Vettro, another mobile applications middleware player, said that many Fortune 1000 customers are approaching the firm in hopes of getting more advanced handheld technologies into workers’ hands.

Rather than building complete wireless applications or versions of other vendors’ products, such as iEnterprises, the New York-based company sells its Vettro 360 platform directly to customers, who use it to create their own mobile applications, including field force automation programs.

Large applications vendors and end-user firms may someday have the ability to build and support their own mobile applications, but company officials contend that there will likely always be a demand for middleware specialists that can help build and deliver the systems.

“There’s room for a lot of different types of players. It would be too simplistic to ever consider that one type of mobile applications provider or one model will take over. It really comes down to how much you’re trying to do, and how core your mobile strategy is,” said JiYoung Kim, vice president of marketing at Vettro.

“The market is already evolving quickly,” Kim said. “We started out building applications that largely shielded our customers from the complexity of mobility, but things have already begun to move more into customization and tailoring applications to whatever type of interface a customer needs to best configure their mobile devices for end-users

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