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Corporate Applications on a Mobile Device Near You

Web services as the lingua franca of the mobile enterprise

In the enterprise building mobile applications is as much about integration and the corresponding challenges as it is about pure application development.

Recent industry reports reveal that more than 70% of mission-critical data and most of the pivotal business logic that runs worldwide commerce still resides on existing host systems. Based on this dependency, as well as their speed and power, host systems are unquestionably here to stay for most large organizations and will continue to be a foundation for business success as organizations design and implement new business initiatives.

However, many of those same organizations have also invested in packaged applications (SAP, Siebel, Oracle Applications, PeopleSoft, etc.) to manage their businesses. When building mobile solutions that leverage these systems, enterprise developers want to use the existing business logic of these applications (to ensure data integrity, security, etc.) and not have to recreate this logic in new systems.

For many organizations a mobile enterprise solution will need to expose business functions from numerous core business systems in a single, seamless, easy-to-use interface, delivering real business value.

That core business functionality is housed on multiple platforms, including structured data such as databases and unstructured data such as host, ERP, CRM applications and middleware. Without a comprehensive mobile platform with built-in connectivity to these core systems, delivering mobile solutions becomes very difficult.

Therefore, in the enterprise, mobile applications are an extension of the company's existing systems and processes and are very rarely standalone applications in their own right. They are about allowing a mobile workforce to have real-time and continuous access to corporate business processes and information.

Many mobile enterprise applications require real-time access to multiple existing business systems. For example, to provide the sales team with a complete view of the customer, the mobile application might need to interact with the corporate SAP system for sales information, the Siebel system for customer care issues and the mainframe for customer records. To be practical, (limited real estate, data bandwidth, etc.) the mobile enterprise solution should only provide the specific data required for the task and not try to be general-purpose.

As such, mobile integration follows the same principles and tenets as any other integration issue in the corporation. Today's guiding principle for integration is Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) and its major delivery mechanisms XML and Web Services. SOA promises to decouple the end devices and their operating environments from the integration of mobile services with corporate applications. The adoption of XML and Web Services will help this come about.

Today, the consensus supports the adoption of mobile middleware. It's clear that off-the-shelf integrated application adapters combined with the capability to define and coordinate transactions across multiple back-end corporate applications (with process management) is the recipe for delivering corporate business processes and applications to mobile devices.

Mobile Computing
The spike in laptop, notebook, and tablet-type devices over the last few years underscores the demand for information that travels with people as they move around. These devices have become essential tools for many different types of mobile workers, from sales people to service technicians, who need to access and enter data electronically.

In recent years, the market for small handheld computers such as Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) has grown rapidly and trends are pointing toward exploiting mobile technology even more. Research shows that while laptops are still the mobile device of companies, smaller handheld devices are being used to deliver mobile e-mail to field personnel. The RIM Blackberry has been at the forefront of this new age of mobile communication, but other vendors are able to deliver mobile e-mail on other handheld devices such as those using the Microsoft Windows Mobile and Symbian platforms. In addition, many employees have purchased handheld devices and are looking to leverage these devices in their business lives. Many companies now face the challenge of coming up with a strategy that turns PDAs into useful productivity and communications devices. These companies face an equal challenge due to the rapid evolution of PDA technology - much faster than conventional PCs and laptops.

Nowadays most of these devices come loaded with more than one wireless option for data communications including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), and other 3G network technologies such as EDGE. All of these devices come with browser support, which in most cases, goes beyond support for Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) to support standard HTML-based Web sites. Most of these modern devices also support development frameworks, such as J2ME and the Microsoft .NET Compact Framework, which creates new opportunities to develop solutions beyond mobile e-mail. With this, the availability of literally thousands of Wi-Fi hotspots has meant that a combination of 3G GPRS and Wi-Fi can realistically be used to deliver the mobile infrastructure needed by the enterprise.

The real opportunity for companies is to move beyond mobile e-mail and begin to leverage the millions of mobile devices already in the hands of salespeople, service representatives, and customers, delivering corporate information directly to the point where it's needed.

The Mobile Internet - Reality versus Hype
In the past the media - with plenty of eager help from overzealous marketing campaigns - has generated a massive amount of hyperbole about the potential of the mobile Internet. By confusing "Internet-capable" with "can do everything that the wired Internet can do," the mobile Internet has been over-sold. Many companies' inflated expectations have been dashed by the realities of yesterday's first-generation implementation of the mobile Internet.

If we look back to the year 2000, it was estimated that by 2004 the number of Internet-capable cell phones being shipped and used would outstrip - by a large margin - those that didn't have a data communications capability. That milestone was reached in half the time.

According to Forrester Research in 2005 mobile networks covered 80% of the world's population, which means that more than five billion people are within range of a cellular network. And a quarter of the world's population - some one-and-a-half billion people - use mobile services. In addition, 78% of those users are connected to GSM networks, with the greatest penetration of mobile use in Europe followed by the United States.

IDC has estimated that more than 55 million mobile devices were sold in 2005, a boost of 165% over 2004. In other surveys IDC has said that approximately 40% of these devices will possibly require middleware in an enterprise environment. It's estimated that there are tens of millions of phones capable of running J2ME applications - all of which can integrate with the enterprise through their HTTP and Web capabilities.

Gartner, the research company, estimates that mobile terminal sales is likely to reach 848 million by 2008. Gartner also estimate that in the third quarter of 2005 shipments of Smartphones exceeded 12 million units. World Smartphone shipments surpassed those of PDAs for the first time in 3Q04 by 1.2 million units, and in 3Q05 this gap widened to nine million units.

Lessons Learned
Mobile Internet pioneers have learned some important lessons:

  1. The mobile Internet is not suitable for all of the same applications you find on the wired Internet. The key is choosing applications that fit in the screen space and speed constraints of today's mobile devices. Applications that provide on-the-spot order entry, sales force automation, customer lookups, and equipment service are all excellent candidates for mobile Internet use.
  2. Mobile Internet technology, at all levels, is moving very fast - handsets, network speeds, interoperability standards, and protocols are all evolving rapidly. Mobile phone manufacturers, network infrastructure players, and mobile network providers are investing massive amounts of resources in developing and deploying the next-generation networks. Today's devices have bigger full-color screens as well as faster networks that enable even more types of applications and services to go mobile.
  3. Mobile network technology is not a North American technology, or European, or is it GSM-specific or tied to any transport network or technology. Mobile applications mask all the local differences and enable worldwide deployment of mobile applications using virtually any handset and wireless network.
Many corporations have started to deploy mobile applications to small projects and a substantial number in experimental or pilot stages. The types of mobile applications being deployed range from packaged mobile applications, used to deliver solutions for specific groups (such a field service), to custom mobile applications where they need access to multiple corporate systems in a singe solution.

When it comes to the benefits of mobile technology in the enterprise, most companies cite better employee productivity as the major gain, with the advantages of real-time access to corporate information a close second. The more information people have at their disposal, the better decisions they will make.

Forrester defined mobile enterprise technology as a set of technologies - including networks, infrastructure, and portable devices - that enable employees and systems to use applications in a mobile environment. Key deliverables from mobile-enabling corporate applications include a boost in customer service, an increase in productivity, and a reduction in costs.

The concept of multi-channel and multi-modal applications means that corporate applications should inherently be able to support access from any device. Of course, in reality this is not the case and won't be for quite some while. In the meantime, mobile application middleware will deliver solutions that allow both legacy custom-developed applications and contemporary packaged applications to be accessed from handheld devices from a multiplicity of vendors. Obviously, any mobile middleware solution should have built-in support for as many enterprise applications, old and new, as possible.

Back in 2004 Gartner said that companies should plan for a widening range of mobile application platforms to become available. It advised companies to plan on mobile applications becoming a strategic part of their IT portfolio and not just tactical solutions.


More Stories By Roy Mitchell

Roy Mitchell is a senior product manager at NetManage (www.netmanage.com), a software company that provides solutions for accessing, Web enabling, and integrating enterprise information systems. Roy has more than 10 years of product management experience in enterprise software solutions.

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