Unwired Business
By Valerie Thompson, Sun May 06 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Call it extending the corporate information system. Call it wireless-wide-area networking. Call it mobile B2B, or call it B2E. Whatever you call it, you better make sure you also call it an emerging market.

Last week Palm acquired Extended Systems, a software vendor that enables businesses to connect workers to the Intranet or Internet via handhelds no matter what kind of hardware or operating system they're using. It's just one more indication that the mobile enterprise market is heating up.

Palm says that this acquisition will put it ahead of competition in the enterprise market, and helps it to fulfill the dream of delivering an end-to-end mobile service infrastructure for the enterprise. Add to this, the increasing number of strategic partnership announcements between other up and coming mobile enterprise software developers and mobile communications heavyweights, such as Motorola, Nokia, and Sun, plus Psion's snagging Teklogix last year and you've got the makings of a market ready for growth.

The healthy growth of in revenues (not the stock price) of vendors of mobile enterprise application software also gives credence to this claim. While many other segments of the high tech sector are downgrading their 2001 revenues, the likes of Maconomy (Copenhagen), mBrane (Redwood Shores), Aether Systems (Ownings Mills), Symbol Technologies (Holtsville), and AvantGo (San Mateo) are bucking the trend, making their numbers and predicting 100 percent growth rates or more, in some cases.

So what is the mobile enterprise applications market? Some call it extending the corporate information system to mobile devices. Some say itís wireless-wide-area networking. Still others call it mobile B2B or B2E, for business-to-employee. Itís a market that is gaining momentum, primarily in the financial service sector but it is spreading to other services, manufacturing, and industrial sectors too.

Some analysts believe that the corporate world will lead the widespread adoption of mobile data applications and the consumer space will quickly follow. Researchers at Analysys (Cambridge) think the business market is bigger. In a report entitled, Mobile Portals and ASPs, the analysts say that in addition to advertising and commission revenues, applications targeted at individuals, many of which will be offered through portals, could generate additional revenues of 1.8 billion dollars by 2005. Business-focused services could generate 2.1 billion dollars in revenues by the same time.

Widespread take up of applications by enterprise in Europe beyond wireless email or personal productivity tools for Road Warriors today, as in right now is still in the future.

TheFeature contacted a baker's dozen of the leading vendors of software targeted at the corporate mobile applications market in Europe and US, looking for real examples of productivity-enhancing solutions or paradigm-busting implementations. Results suggest that it's still early days, much earlier than the press releases and product announcements would suggest.

The good news is that there are a number of applications and solutions that offer real benefits and a compelling return on investment to corporate Europe. Some of the reasons that enterprise has for deploying an Internet application might surprise you. A number of corporations want to get rid of the portable computer, the basic platform for mobile computing and replace it with something lighter, cheaper, and easier to use, such as a new PDA equipped with a wireless modem or a smart-phone.

Another reason for enabling mobile applications is the good old paperless office or paperless delivery-van argument. It's a lot cheaper than it used to be to deploy a company wide solution enabling access to order tracking systems or sales catalogues now that connected PDAs have become consumer items.

The bad news is that multinational organizations and companies planning to deploy mobile apps are facing a fragmented supplier market.

In the past, whenever a new productivity suite of tools emerged, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) tools or groupware or knowledge management application emerged, the solutions came from a handful of firms who quickly established themselves on a limited number of computing platforms.

But the mobile enterprise software market is lacking crisp, clear market leaders - no signs of any gorillas yet. The thing is, corporate IT managers and network manager like to work with gorillas, unless they can be convinced that the benefits are so great, it's worth taking a chance on a startup company's product.

Research by Gartner Group (Stamford) backs up these assertions. By 2002, Gartner predicts there will be 75 percent fewer vendors in the Wireless Application Gateway market. Many will be acquired. The rest will fail due to various causes, such as poor technical foundations, ineffective market strategy, or lack of capital.

"Many of the vendors in this market have ample technical vision but are undercapitalized. In many cases, market strategies are unstable and tend to be driven by who comes knocking at the door," says Bob Egan, vice president and research director for Gartner.

Improvement required

Niche mobile data vendors, such as Symbol Technologies, Tadpole Technologies (Cambridge), Teklogix (Toronto) and Research in Motion (Waterloo) have been successfully addressing the industrial and corporate markets for years. Major mobile phone and infrastructure equipment vendors have a ways to go to achieve that same know-how.

But there are signs that they are getting there. They have realized it is not enough to just sell boxes or servers or handsets. Motorola recently announced a new mobile office solution, as well as a technology alliance with Peramon Technology Ltd (Reading) to deliver corporate solutions, while Nokia's NetPoint Developer program and Ericsson's Mobile Application Initiative are making strides to address horizontal and vertical markets with mobile Internet mobile data applications.

Once Nokia, Ericsson, and Motorola get in the game, they will expand the corporate market exponentially. But the mobile phone manufacturers will need to work hard to correct an impression, whether deserved or not, that the wireless industry is selling devices that are driven by low-cost technology and a "fashion-industry mentality", with little respect for backwards compatibility and usability, says an industry insider.

Plethora of platforms, protocols, and apps, a threat and an opportunity

At least 60 percent of Fortune1000-type companies will deploy mobile Internet applications and services to their workers in the US, says Gartner Group, resulting in IT managers having to potentially have to support and manage fifty different mobile device profiles and ten different wireless network interfaces by 2004.

A plethora of platforms such as this could scare off corporate planners. But savvy network operators or other service providers (Aether Systems comes to mind) could turn this into a huge opportunity, offering to take that headache away from corporate managers by selling them basic packages or advanced bundles of hardware, software and value added services, specifically targeted at the enterprise market.

It looked like Vodafone and BT, both of whom have announced Pan European alliances and projects with corporate software vendors, such as Microsoft, might have been first to address these types of issues. It seemed they were ahead of the game. Vodafone announced a joint venture with Cap Gemini targeting the business market on a Pan European scale, called Terenci, established in mid-December, targeting the freight, construction and retail sector, but there is still little to report of their efforts.

More tangible results can be seen with Germany's e-Plus (Dusseldorf). It was early to target the corporate market as it deployed HSCSD more than a year ago, as well as GPRS. It has since been creating service and hardware bundles. One bundle offers business a Virtual Private Network solution with cheaper rates for mobile and fixed communications between employees (offer only available to firms with more than 26 employees). This is a voice solution but e-Plus is also working developing hardware/service bundles and has partnerships with software suppliers such as Lange Communications (Lippstadt), Monec Holding (Bern), and iSoft (Berlin).

Chucking the portable PC

Mobilkom (Vienna) has gone so far as to equip its own sales force with a WAP-enabled customer relationship management (CRM) application. When management took its employees laptop computers away and gave them Ericsson smartphones bundled with GPRS services, it had dozens of happy employees. The notebooks computers had been resisted from the start because of their complexity, cost, and battery problems. Employees were choosing to call in orders or data to be entered on their mobile phones.

Mobilkom says it's saving money by not having to buy portable computers, modems and software upgrades anymore. But more important than the cost was that workers were using a better tool, that combines Push and Pull. It's now offering the CRM solution to Austrian business in partnership with the manufacturer of the CRM and marketing management software, Update.com (Frankfurt).

Another firm that wants business to toss the portable PC is Syfex. "We developed a mobile enterprise solution for one of our customers. Its field service personnel based on Palm devices equipped with barcode readers, software from XTNDConnect and a custom program that we sell for a total of 2,000 francs per user. This is a huge saving compared to a portable computer based solution," says Daniel Fry, Managing Partner of Syfex AG, a Swiss, platform independent, systems integrator targeting the mobile enterprise market.

"It also reduces paperwork in the field, increasing efficiency. At these prices a corporate user can expect a payback within six to twelve months,Ē says Daniel Frey.

The old paperless office pitch

Maconomy (Copenhagen) is also delivering a solution that lets corporate users chuck their notebook computers, as well as reduce the amount of paperwork required for certain administrative tasks. The solution is targeted at the services segment, for example consulting companies, software firms, and advertising agencies. It enables employees to complete their time and expense form on a WAP phone. Customers are Ramboll Group and IBM.

"Replacing paper-based business processes with forms-based applications on mobile devices can result in significant improvements to a business. As data is captured at the point of origin in a digital, electronic form, the accuracy of that data increases and the business reporting time is reduced, " says a Microsoft white paper.

AvantGo (San Mateo) provided Cisco's field representatives with handhelds that offer up to the minute pricing and training information. The solution was deployed within days. "Instead of asking the field service employees to surf the Web for more information about it, we put all of the data they needed in the palms of their hands with the AvantGo client," says Cisco's Chris Timby, manager of VPN and security field development.

At the risk of oversimplifying the technology, mobile applications for enterprise today are all about synchronization between corporate systems, usually found on desktop PC or servers, and handheld devices.

Synchronization software is abundant, especially for popular software from Microsoft and SAP apps, for example. Vendors include Extended Systems (Boise), Mobilocity (New York), or Synchrologic (Alpharetta). Solutions are increasingly available that give mobile workers access to even older legacy systems, such as the IBM A/S 400 platform.

"There is a feeling in the market that until Microsoft, Lotus, IBM, and SAP get behind the mobile Internet technologies, the acceptance in the market will be delayed," says Hussein Bhorania, founder of Anytime AG (Basel), a unified messaging systems integrator that is planning to enter the enterprise mobile Internet market.

The market for that other segment of mobile applications for enterprise, real time access to corporate information based on a client/server model, is embryonic. Technologies like the Java Mobile Internet Device platform and Qualcomm's BREW will end up being drivers.

But it will take more than a software vendor push to set fire to the market. It will also take widespread GPRS services at reasonable prices and reliable GPRS handsets. There will also have to be a way to automatically adapt information and the user interface depending on the screen size of the device.

Valerie Thompson is a freelance business and technology journalist, specialized in emerging networking and computing topics. She lives in Zurich, Switzerland.