Rolling Out the Wireless Enterprise - and Wanting It All
By David James, Mon Dec 17 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Fear of flying afflicts many businesses when they think about going mobile. Here are the basic coordinates needed for a successful flight plan.

So you want to put your business on the airwaves. You've invested millions in building elaborate databases and IT systems. You're on the Web, and maybe you're even processing transactions over the Web. Now you want to do all that wirelessly. You want your employees - wherever they are - to have immediate access to relevant company data, and you want them to continuously update the company's databanks - production figures, inventories, sales - by sending data from the field. You also want your customers to access appropriate company data from whatever mobile device and network they use, and you want them to continue to be happy, loyal customers. Yes, you want it all.

The problem is that there are dozens of different approaches to building a wireless enterprise, scores of handheld devices and network technologies, and a zillion firms offering wireless enterprise development products and services. There are software, firmware and middleware applications. There are laptops, micro browsers, two-way pagers, RIM BlackBerries, PDAs, smart phones and PC phones. There are wireless application service providers, systems integrators, content providers, portals, platforms and gateways. There are enabling services, transcoders and vertical solution providers. And - of course - there are consultants and more consultants.

What is an established hard-wired enterprise to do?

Simplify the landscape

The first step is to uncomplicate this dizzying array of wireless wonderment. To do this, it helps to view the wireless enablement landscape as three basic business models:

1. The "server-side" processing model, in which all key data, authentication and security encryption procedures are handled by computers under the direct control of the enterprise. Very little application processing occurs on the remote mobile device.

2. The "thick client" processing model, in which much of the processing takes place on the remote device. This model minimizes connection time but depends on the processing capabilities of the device.

3. The "transcoder" model, in which software on the enterprise's servers acts as a platform that automatically reformats existing Web-based content for delivery to various types of remote devices and networks.

Think ahead

The second step is to decide what types of wireless communicating the enterprise wants to do. If the enterprise can determine the type of remote mobile device used - as in the case of devices used by field employees, like FedEx or UPS employees - a server-side model or thick client model works well. If authentication and transaction security are primary considerations, a server-side model might be the better approach. If the enterprise is mostly interested in providing information to the general public over any networks or devices they choose to use, the transcoder model might be the best.

Bring in the helpers

The final step - actually the beginning of an evolutionary process - is for the enterprise to build its wireless capabilities. Large companies will often turn to outside systems integrators to provide wireless connectivity first for employees to existing proprietary databases, then later - with appropriate firewalls and access controls - connectivity for customers, suppliers and other third parties. Large companies will normally maintain their own servers and platforms. Smaller companies will often turn to wireless application service providers, who sometimes host the platforms for the enterprise's wireless resources.

Server-side security

724 Solutions Inc. of Austin, Texas, is an example of a mobile Internet solutions provider that specializes in the server-side processing model, enabling businesses to extend services via a mobile channel. It is known for providing wireless Internet infrastructure software and applications that deliver secure financial transactions. 724 Solutions typically licenses its software and applications to financial services institutions and mobile operators, or hosts the platform on behalf of such companies, delivering financial transactions to wireless devices.

According to Reuben Brooks, product marketing manager of 724 Solutions, the company's server-side approach facilitates wireless communications and transactions on virtually any network or wireless protocol. "The capability of the mobile device is largely irrelevant from the enterprise's point of view," he says. 724 Solutions supports WAP, HDML and Java technologies and will interoperate with Microsoft's .NET protocols.

Powerful devices

WolfeTech Corporation in Claremont, California, is a wireless application services provider and Internet portal that focuses on the thick client model. "Our concept is to help make small devices powerful," says Surya Jayaweera, WolfeTech's CEO. Jayaweera believes that the wireless industry is moving rapidly to provide mobile devices that operate securely and efficiently, minimizing connection time by utilizing applications installed on the devices themselves.

WolfeTech provides gateways that enable an enterprise to deliver information to its customers from the enterprise's own databases or from content providers, mostly over two-way pagers, RIM BlackBerries, PDAs and other smart wireless devices. Its PocketGenie portal provides access to an enterprise's data and information as well as Internet content and services such as news, stock quotes, email, faxing and travel information. Its WolfeStock financial services application provides extensive financial information, news, charting and research. Its Sigma platform can be used by an enterprise to build a wireless application that interfaces securely with its own corporate database.

When it comes to building wireless enterprise capabilities, Jayaweera believes that companies should currently plan for communicating with RIM-type products, such as the RIM BlackBerry, whether the enterprise is limited to employees or extended to customers. "There's not much you can do with mobile phones because they're not yet powerful enough. Most of them don't permit applications to be installed on them," he says.

Nonetheless, mobile phone manufacturers are rapidly developing smarter devices and solutions that facilitate the wireless enterprise. For example, Nokia's mPlatform Solution and its Payment Solution help companies create applications for content delivery and financial transactions over mobile phones.

Unlocking your legacies

Outercurve Technologies Inc. of Iselin, New Jersey, is a wireless application services provider that uses all three enablement approaches, with transcoding using standard Internet protocols (XML, HTTP, SSL and FTP) to format an enterprise's existing legacy systems and Web sites for delivery to chosen mobile devices. "We provide platforms and application development tool sets that enable an enterprise to quickly deploy applications, leveraging their existing infrastructure of applications and databases - on which they've already spent a lot of money - to their wireless employees and customers," says Derek Roga, Outercurve's COO.

Outercurve's AppBuilder tool set enables an enterprise's IT staff to write a transcoder application, compile it with their existing applications, and upload it to a gateway server. Its Launcher - a thick client operating system that resides on the mobile device - is a multi-platform client that organizes and executes wireless applications created with AppBuilder. Outercurve also offers professional implementation services.

Roga notes that its customers typically roll out their wireless capabilities by first connecting their workforce and then, later, by connecting their external community - customers, suppliers and service providers. "In today's expanding mobile business environment, the key to a successful wireless enterprise strategy is rapid deployment. That's where we come in," says Roga.

Clear skies

Building a wireless enterprise - and wanting it all - are two very attainable objectives. It takes a clear view of the landscape and a flight plan based on the enterprise's basic objectives. When you've reached that altitude, you are free to move about the cabin.

David James is president of Business Strategies International, a San Francisco-based consulting and venture-development firm specializing in technology business opportunities.