The Mobile Access Puzzle

In an ideal world, employees carrying handheld computers would have persistent wireless connections with access to a full range of corporate applications and data.

That’s a nice dream.

But if you want to give mobile workers access to enterprise applications and data, focus on high-value applications and keep the scope small and well defined. IT professionals who have implemented such projects kept their focus narrow – and all were forced to make compromises when matching their business needs with today’s technology.

At financial services firm Equitable Distributors Inc., for example, that meant providing the nationwide field sales staff with both wireless and dial-up access to its customer relationship management (CRM) software and building a thick client to ensure continuous access to applications and data on its Pocket PCs when wireless coverage is spotty.

By contrast, the city of Glendale, Calif., used a thin client for wireless access to a back-office building inspection application but is reassessing the design due to coverage problems in the nearby foothills. “Right now, if there’s no signal, you’re dead in the water,” says chief engineer Neville Pereria.

Jim Lindner, president and CEO of Mitchell International, a San Diego-based provider of software and electronic-business systems for the insurance and automotive-repair industries, says users found the small displays on handheld devices inadequate. Insurance adjusters need access to parts information and diagrams, so Lindner gave them notebook computers with wireless modems.

Despite a few curves in the road, however, all three organizations consider their mobile computing projects a success. Here’s how they pulled it off.

Brokers Going for CRM

New York-based Equitable, a subsidiary of The Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, sells annuities and other financial products through brokers and other intermediaries. “Our biggest challenge is differentiating ourselves in a very crowded and increasingly commoditized market,” says CEO Patrick Miller, so equipping field sales people with up-to-date information that they can take to client meetings has high value.

Equitable’s home-grown Web-enabled CRM system, which includes a calendar, contact management and activity reports, initially wasn’t accessible to remote users. The new system, currently in pilot, enables salespeople with Compaq Computer Corp. iPaq 3650 Pocket PCs to update brokers on current business activity and to e-mail or fax product quotes and brochures on the spot.

Salespeople can work off-line, dial in or connect over a cellular network using an Aircard wireless modem from Sierra Wireless Inc. in Richmond, B.C. Equitable uses an HTTP connection over a wireless network and the Internet to its CRM system via a wireless application gateway. Virtual private network software from Certicom Corp. in Hayward, Calif., provides connection security.

CIO Eric Jansen says Equitable built its Web-based CRM application in-house in Java and SQL Server 2000 but turned to San Diego-based Wireless Knowledge Inc. to build the client software using Embedded Visual Basic and SQL Server 2000 CE. A Wireless Knowledge Echo gateway server buffers sessions to smooth over connection drop-outs, compresses transmissions to accelerate performance and provides filtered views of accounts and data so everything fits on the screen – and within the iPaq’s 32MB of storage. That’s enough space to accommodate sales data on about 500 brokers, Jansen says, adding that compression is used to store more data. The gateway software also links mobile users to the company’s Lotus Notes e-mail system.

Jansen emphasizes the importance of starting with a narrowly focused application. “It was very important that we deliver a function set that our folks could digest,” he says. “We want them comfortable with the device, with a small set of applications. We want to walk before we can run.”

Equitable is still deploying the system to 110 field salespeople, and Jansen says user acceptance has been an issue. “Getting the user community to keep pace with it as they do their jobs has been a challenge,” Jansen says.

It’s too early to calculate payback, but Jansen says he already sees benefits in terms of being able to link activity into the management reporting structure. Miller declined to give budget specifics but says, “The budget for this project was tightly managed relative to what we were trying to accomplish.”

Gateways For Inspections

The Glendale, Calif., city government automated its building inspection system so that more than 20 inspectors and engineers could review and update permits in the field, eliminating the need to travel to the office to update records. The system has paid for itself in improved productivity since its launch in January, Pereria says. But he’s had his share of problems getting set up.

Permit data currently resides in an Oracle Corp. database connected to an application server from Kiva, a wholly owned subsidiary of Accela Inc. in San Francisco, that serves up forms and screens to in-house users running Oracle client software. For remote access, Pereria wanted the low maintenance of a thin client, so Kiva added a Macromedia ColdFusion server that replicates the forms for Web browser access. He then gave users the choice of a Pocket PC from Compaq or Hewlett-Packard Co. or a Fujitsu Ltd. LifeBook B Series touch-screen subnotebook with wireless cellular modems.

With wireless throughput over the AT&T Wireless Services Inc. network at an “extremely slow” 9.6Kbps, Pereria decided to strip the forms down to the minimum data and field names needed to do the job. Inspectors liked the system, but Pereria became a victim of his own success when users wanted full access to the data. When he complied, page-load times increased to more than 35 seconds.

Pereria decided to add a wireless gateway from InfoWave Software Inc. in Bellevue, Wash., which reduced communication overhead and compressed the data. He also added “connector” software to the gateway to support access to the city’s Microsoft Exchange e-mail system. Throughput improved to 48Kbps and page-load times dropped to two seconds, he says.

That solved, Pereria soon discovered that even within a relatively small geographic area like Glendale, wireless coverage can be spotty. “Up in the foothills and canyons, I get no coverage,” he says. Because the system has no off-line support, inspectors must use paper in those areas.

Pereria’s options are limited. Kiva partnered with AvantGo Inc. in Hayward, Calif., to offer a system that caches pages and lets users update them off-line. But that vendor supports only Windows CE and Wireless Application Protocol devices, and most inspectors have opted for larger-screen Fujitsu notebooks that run Windows 98. Pereria says he hopes AvantGo will develop a custom work-around.

Outside the foothills, Pereria says, the system works well. He expects to recover the hardware and software cost of setting up the mobile infrastructure – at about US$1,800 per user plus US$2,300 per Fujitsu notebook and US$1,100 per Pocket PC – in time savings from reduced travel and elimination of redundant data entry. But, he cautions, IT professionals should do their homework before embarking on a mobile computing project. “Know what technology is out there…and know what works for your discipline,” he says.

Making Claims

More than 40,000 insurance adjusters, claims adjusters and appraisers use data from Mitchell International to write up estimates and authorize payment for auto insurance claims. A new thick-client wireless application, developed by San Diego-based mobile integrator Stellcom Inc., lets adjusters access that data and complete claims at the time they inspect the vehicle.

Mitchell considered using Pocket PCs, but the need to display diagrams and allow user feedback meant using at least a 7-in. screen. Adjusters carry heavy-duty notebooks such as Panasonic Toughbook models from Matsushita Electric Corporation of America. Initially, Mitchell used wireless modem PC cards to connect to San Jose-based Metricom Inc.’s Ricochet wireless data network. The always-on modems let Mitchell push new assignments and data down to the adjusters. “Our clients have seen 20 per cent to 25 per cent productivity increases by not having to go to the office to pick up assignments and being able to upload and download information on a real-time basis,” says Lindner. About 100 of its 10,000 users are involved in the initial pilot.

Claim document sizes of 1MB and the intermittent nature of wireless connections initially presented a problem. “I think our biggest challenge was handling the connections and line drops,” says Lindner. To handle this, Stellcom created middleware that optimizes connections and restarts an interrupted transmission where it left off.

But Metricom’s recent filing for bankruptcy protection forced Mitchell to use slower cellular networks and Cingular Wireless’ data network services, which don’t support continuous connectivity and make large file transfers more troublesome.

With Metricom, the biggest issue was coverage, Lindner says. Now it may be bandwidth. “Metricom going away leaves a major hole,” says Stellcom’s Chief Technology Officer Larry Mittag, noting that the throughput was better than that of other wireless networks.

New 3G wireless technologies will fill the gap, but Mittag doesn’t expect to see them before the end of next year. So, like many other organizations, Mitchell will have to wait for the technology to catch up with its needs.

The pieces for a corporate mobile computing architecture are starting to fall into place, but practitioners and analysts agree that the technology is still immature.

Successful projects require an understanding of the technology’s capabilities and a focused objective, says Mittag. “If you don’t come in with a clear business idea that will present clear measurable ROI, then you will end up with a technology that looks neat but doesn’t do much for the business,” he says.

Middleware Goes Mobile

One way to provide wireless access to corporate data is to put client software on a Palm device or Pocket PC, and install a synchronization server that connects directly to back-end systems, such as a DB2 or a Oracle database using Open Database Connectivity or other standard protocols.

However, these systems typically support only one mobile device type and one back-end application. Another approach – using a Web application server and providing browser access – requires re-creating Web pages to fit the screens of different mobile devices.

A wireless gateway, such as Infowave Software Inc.’s Wireless Business Engine or IBM’s EveryPlace Suite, solves these problems by acting as a middleware layer between back-end applications and mobile devices, and it can serve as a single control point for mobile access to multiple applications.

Most vendors offer interfaces for a wide variety of mobile devices and a few common back-end applications, such as e-mail. These gateways typically offer one or more of the following features: