On the Road With Mobile Middleware

On the road with mobile middlewareThree years ago, AGSCO, a retailer and service provider to farmers in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Kansas and Canada, walked into uncharted territory: the firm decided to outfit some employees with Symbol Technologies handheld devices. “There were little to no development tools available, so everything we did required a lot of customization,” says Bert Berkholde, IT director at AGSCO.

Application development on cell phones and PDAs with operating systems such as Microsoft’s Windows Mobile, PalmSource’s PalmOS and Symbian’s Symbian has never been easy. Whereas computers were built to generate and exchange information, handhelds were designed for other reasons, such as making telephone calls or ensuring that salespersons can manage their personal calendars well enough so they arrive at client sites on time. Items that are taken for granted with computers, such as the availability of robust programming languages, debugging tools, device management software and system security, are often not found on handhelds.

Although imperfect, the mobile application development environment is an area of keen interest to a growing number of enterprises. “Corporations are looking to improve productivity by exploiting the increased capabilities found with mobile communications,” notes Michael King, an analyst with Gartner.

We’ve got the power
One reason for the shift is the devices’ expanding power. Traditionally, their screens were small, the user input options were limited, the amount of memory available was minuscule and their networking capabilities were rudimentary. That has changed, for instance, Palm One’s Tungsten PDA features a 320-by-480 pixel display, 256M bytes of RAM, touchscreen input and integrated support for Bluetooth—a Wi-Fi LAN link is an easily added option.

As the products have become more functional, enterprises have found more and more uses for them, a process that started with niche applications. To date, much of the handset application development has centered on delivering content for wireless network providers so they can make their services more attractive to clients. Founded in 2000, Dwango Wireless provides billing, content licensing, marketing and Web site operation applications to media companies, entertainment firms and wireless service providers. “The mobile development environment has become richer and richer, so it has become easier for a small company like us to deliver customized content to our customers,” says David Parker, development manager at Dwango Wireless.

Other specialized applications have taken root. San Diego Medical Services, a partnership between the City of San Diego Fire-Rescue Department and Rural/Metro of San Diego, a private emergency services provider, ensures that ambulances arrive to treat citizens in an emergency.

“At the end of the day, drivers manually entered patient information, such as their name, address and insurance carrier, and we were having trouble getting them to complete that step in a timely manner,” says John Pringle, electronic document coordinator. Days, and sometimes even weeks, would pass before the data was entered, and the lag resulted in about seven erroneous entries a day, some of which meant the company would never bill the customer. To solve the problem, the company outfitted paramedics with Palm PDAs, and the new data entry system resulted in $800,000 in annual savings.

Talking Points


  • Mobile middleware used to link applications to devices in an ad hoc fashion, but now, middleware is the gateway to a variety of end devices and data sources.
  • Developers must grapple with incompatible operating systems, as well as handheld device customization when cellular network providers add functions to make their service more attractive.

Flying into space
NetJets, which operates a private airline fleet, sells shares of its service that entitle companies and individuals to a certain amount of airline usage each year. Corporations, such as Aetna, General Electric, Dow Chemical and Prudential Insurance of America, and individuals, including Annika Sorenstam, Andre Agassi and Tiger Woods, are among the fleet shareholders.

Unlike commercial airlines, NetJets flights and passengers do not follow a set routine. As a result, employees at the company headquarters often need to relay information to remote pilots, flight attendants and ground crew about different itineraries. “Our employees are always on the go and work in confined spaces, so we could not expect them to carry a laptop computer so they could find out what they had to do next,” explains Maria Howard, director of IT infrastructure at NetJets. After searching for ways to connect users to corporate data, the company outfitted employees with Research In Motion Blackberrys so they can download flight information using Cingular Wireless’s cellular network.

Healthcare is another industry where mobile employees work in tight quarters. Three years ago, Columbus Children’s Hospital decided to provide 500 of its 4,000 employees (mainly doctors and nurses) handheld devices. “We wanted to offer users the ability to reach other employees, synchronize scheduling data and enter treatment information more easily,” says Schon Crouse, an analyst for intelligent mobility solutions at the hospital. Users work with a variety of handheld devices, and the easy access to data and the ability to enter information from anywhere in the facility has enabled the healthcare provider to cut certain patient treatment cycles by as much as 50 percent.

Use of handhelds is expanding to legacy applications, and AGSCO serves as an example. The company has about 35 account managers who visit potential and existing clients to try to convince them to use the firm’s containers, seeds, bulk storage system and produce handling services. The salespersons will often be at a customer site and require access to information stored in Microsoft’s Great Plains Enterprise Resource Planning package. “We needed a rugged device, one that could be carried around a farm without too much concern for its safety,” AGSCO’s Berkholde explains. Replacing manual entry methods with handhelds increased the accuracy of the input and reduced salespersons’ data entry chores from hours to minutes.

Building mobile applications is only half the battle for IT departments; once deployed, they need to be managed.

Connecting the past and the future
Because of such potential benefits, a growing number of companies is trying to develop links to legacy applications. “Users have been asking for improved access to ERP applications via handheld devices, and the major ERP suppliers, such as Oracle, SAP and Siebel are trying to deliver it,” Gartner’s King says.

Developing such links represents a significant challenge. In the wireless world, few devices are designed to work with one another. As a result, developers must grapple with incompatible operating systems as well as handheld device customization where cellular network providers add special functions to make their telecommunications service more attractive to customers. Consequently, enterprises often have to create and then manage multiple versions of each application, which is tedious and time consuming.

In response, some vendors have developed mobile middleware, which can help enterprises more easily link mobile devices to corporate data. (See related story, “Fruit is tasty, but bitter, too,” page 1).

As the market has evolved, the design of these products has changed. “Mobile middleware linked applications to devices in an ad hoc fashion, but now it functions as a gateway and connects a variety of end devices and data sources,” says Stephen Drake, program director at IDC. In effect, these products now resemble the enterprise application integration systems that became popular with legacy systems near the turn of the millennium.

Another change is application development tools have downsized. Microsoft offers the .NET Compact Framework, which helps users design apps for the Pocket PC, Pocket PC 2002, Pocket PC Phone Edition and devices running Windows CE.NET4.1. The framework’s runtime language manages code at execution time and provides services such as memory management and thread monitoring.

Sun Microsystems designed the Java 2 Platform Micro Edition, which supports application development for mobile phones, PDAs and TV set-top boxes. J2ME includes a Java virtual machine and a set of Java Application Programming Interfaces defined through the Java Community Process.

Qualcomm has focused on building wireless network hardware and developed Binary Runtime for Wireless Environment to spur adoption of wireless data services. The environment’s BREW uiOne enables firms to customize mobile device user interfaces.

Building mobile apps is only half the battle for IT; once deployed, they need to be managed. As with any device connected to an enterprise network, there is a possibility of outsiders hacking into the system and corrupting corporate systems and data. (See related story, “Mobile apps involve risky business,” below.)

Mobile apps involve risky business

On the road with mobile middlewareCorporations are taking a risk providing employees handhelds, which cost at most a few hundred dollars, to access corporate data that can be worth millions of dollars. Although strong security checks are needed to protect enterprise information, many of the devices offer only superficial security features.

"In many cases, handhelds represent the weak link in corporate security chain," says Pete Lindstrom, research director at Spire Security. Hackers can break into the devices then use them to spread malware, and outsiders can crack devices' security checks and access data.

Traditionally, handhelds possessed little processing power. Consequently, mobile operating system vendors had to weigh adding new security functions versus making their platforms more difficult to operate. In most cases, they did not choose stronger security.

As the devices gained the power to support multimedia applications, they also gained the ability to run all of the malware found on PCs and notebooks. Hackers find handhelds to be easy targets. The first in a wave of viruses, worms and Trojan horses designed for handheld systems was launched in 2004. Liberty Emulator was a Trojan horse that corrupts the Palm OS.

With more processing power, handheld vendors are tightening their system security. Also, third parties, such as McAfee, Symantec and Trend Micro, have been developing versions of their anti-spyware and anti-virus products for handhelds.

Another problem is the passwords systems used to protect handheld data are easy to compromise. High profile break-ins illustrate the problem. In 2003, a hacker used cellular network password security loopholes to access about 400 T-Mobile USA customers' accounts. Also, a U.S. Secret Service agent's handheld was hacked, and earlier this year, Paris Hilton's cell phone was compromised and her contact list spread across the Internet.

Users often have responsibility for securing the password system. Carriers assign default passwords, which users are supposed to change once they access the network. In many cases, they fail to take that step. Also, users pick passwords that are easy to remember. "If a password is simple for the user to remember, it is also simple for the hacker to crack," says Bob Egan, president of Mobile Competency.

Companies have been trying to make users aware of such problems and forcing them to work with more complex passwords. But to help remember them, employees often write down the passwords or store them on their handhelds.

As problems like these have become more evident, cell carriers have been trying to harden password protection. Some support digital signatures, which are a robust way to authenticate users, and sell only handsets with protected memory, which can prevent malicious applications from accessing data or parts of the phone's OS.

"Because of the recent high-profile cases, carriers are trying to improve system security," concludes Egan."Many are making strides, but the enhancements usually work only with the latest devices, so companies need to remember that means older handhelds are still vulnerable to attack."--Paul Korzeniowski

Safe, and not sorry
While hackers generate headlines, IT managers often face more mundane security issues: “The biggest problem we deal with is lost phones,” Pringle at San Diego Medical Services says. Whenever that occurs, a company must clear a few obstacles. If a user is fortunate enough to recover a system, it may have to be rebuilt. Rather than send technicians out and reprogram each device, corporations desire products that automate such functions, and vendors now offer such features.

Another challenge is making sure an outsider does not use the device to access corporate data, something that Children’s Hospital of Columbus and San Diego Medical Services especially need to prevent because their handhelds hold confidential patient information.

Microsoft includes a device-wiping capability in its Windows Mobile software, and RIM offers similar function for its BlackBerrys, and that feature prevents non-employees from accessing corporate data.

Mobile application development tools are not perfect, but they are improving. “We are constantly upgrading our mobile applications and find the process much easier now than it was a few years ago,” concludes AGSCO’s Berkholde. The uncharted territory has a land with a growing number of settlers.

The fruit is tasty, but bitter, too

On the road with mobile middlewareThe Roman poet Lucretius observed, "What is food to one, is to others bitter poison," a quote that seems appropriate when describing the current mobile application development market. Enterprises examine these products and see immature offerings whose deployment could be disastrous; vendors see an area with potentially dramatic revenue growth. IDC expects worldwide revenue from mobile middleware to increase from $540 million in 2004 to $1.23 billion in 2008.

As a result, vendors are coming from various market segments to fill the glaring handheld application development holes, and each has a different view of how to fill the voids.

Action Engine is relying on an outsourcing model with its application development offerings, and the firm's Brand-n-Go applications include sourced content, managed hosting and custom branding.

Extended Systems' Onebridge Mobile Solutions Platform is a framework that includes user management and authentication features, device-security enforcement, software deployment functions, backup and restore features, software and hardware asset tracking, and license management.

iPass Mobile-Lifecycle Management Suite features customizable silent mobile device discovery and application distribution and updating for wireless, wired and dial-up connections for Tablet PCs, Pocket PCs, PalmOS devices and RIM Blackberry systems.

In addition to content programming, application development and data synchronization tools, Intellisync offers the Mobile Systems Management, which automatically backs up data stored on handhelds.

Sybase has branched out from its database management system heritage to deliver a variety of development tools, including those for mobile environments. In 2000, the company formed its iAnywhere subsidiary that sells mobile and embedded databases, mobile device management and security software, and mobile middleware. In 2004, the company acquired Xcellent, which had developed the Afaria Security Manager client/server product. It helps administrators secure company data on handhelds through passwords--the software automatically erases data from a device if a user enters the wrong password several times--and encryption.

Tira Wireless's Tira Jump Product includes a workflow manager and XML rules-based transformation engine designed to make it simpler to support multiple handsets and operating systems.

UIEvolution's UIEngine is designed to help enterprises develop applications that run in multiple environments, including J2ME, BREW, Pocket PC, PalmOS and Symbian.

Any of these vendors could emerge as the eventual market leader. "Because of the high growth expected in the next few years, the mobile middleware is wide open right now," IDC's Stephen Drake says. --Paul Korzeniowski

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