"I sing the segment wireless" or "Come in, remote apps!"
- By Jack Vaughan
For too long, wireless computing has been "The Next Big Thing." Yes,
Wi-Fi computing has been successful, but truly unique and working new remote computing applications are few.
There are good reasons why so-called mobile or wireless application development
has been a slowly evolving discipline. Standards have never taken hold across
the client pool as they did with the World Wide Web, which has meant too many
choices. Meanwhile, people brave enough to make choices in this area have had
to grapple with the usual blind alleys and false starts that any new technology
Individual cell phone manufacturers, tablet PC software/hard makers or PDA
manufacturers have had no compelling reason to give up their own takes on how
to create mobile apps. Java and .NET are standards, sure. But in the mobile
device world, unlike in the computer space, they are just some among a very
wide set of standards.
to create such apps. Depending on your organization's experience and mind set,
one or the other will seem the better path. For your app, you can strive for
"always-on" operation or, based on a growing body of learning, go
for a more asynchronous "don't-count-on-an-'always-on'" approach.
Few software companies have dedicated more of their resources to wireless computing
than Sybase and its iAnywhere group. The company forged even deeper roots in
that which is wireless last year when it purchased AvantGo, now part of iAnywhere,
a company that was early to the Web wireless application show.
In the March issue, Application Development Trends talked with wireless application
development leader Dr. John Halamka of Harvard Medical School about a remote
application that could feed hospital case log notes, lecture notes, exam calendars
and the like to the PDAs of medical students (see http://www.adtmag.com/article.asp?id=9014).
Halamka used Sybase iAnywhere software on the project. We also spoke with Ojas
Rege, formerly with AvantGo and now director of Mobile Solutions for Sybase's
iAnywhere Solutions subsidiary. Few have a better view on the trends in this
area. So what does Rege see?
Let's start with what he has not seen. "We haven't seen that one size
fits all in mobile computing," said Rege. There has been a proliferation
of development paradigms, he noted, and that has not been all bad since people
don't want to be stuck with a single solution.
But a lot has had to be unlearned along the way.
"In the early days, the wide-area wireless [segment] was especially where
expectations weren't met," said Rege. "There are some remote apps
where wireless is essential, but in most cases being able to synchronize [at
some point] is just fine. We say 'Understand your application. Don't get lost
in technical details.' In 1999 and 2000, people were so focused on pure wireless
that the applications didn't work or had performance issues."
Field service applications, little discussed when the wireless Web first raised
its head, keep arising. They got there through trial and error. "People
have field service applications and they may even have 95% [wireless area coverage],
but the fact is that they have to work all the time. Where we have seen people
do this effectively is where it can be dispatch driven," said Rege. The
advice for pursuing Phase 1 of a wireless application: "Get it to work
first," he noted.
Early -- circa 1997 -- attempts in this area saw developers trying to implement
still-new Web apps in the yet-newer mobile environment, explained Rege. "Categories
we see lot of use in over the last two years are on the CRM side, specifically
for sales force automation," he added. Then there are field service inspection
and field data collection apps. Meanwhile, he said, there has been an uptake
in various areas of decision support or productivity enhancements. That involves
Personal Information Managers (PIMs) and e-mail-oriented corporate portals.
Among the questions that those on the bleeding edge have had to try and answer
is: If I am doing data collection, do I need a full database on the device?
Am I going to be doing a lot of searches and retrieval? The answers to these
questions will influence your technology decisions, said Rege.
The area continues to be unsettled. Through the brief history of mobile computing,
application development planners have had to grapple with the fact that the
platforms are very consumer oriented -- "gadgety," if you will. The
short shelf life and fast turnover of consumer gadgets haunts this application
space. Moreover, decreeing a specific type of device for a large pool of users
is not often a favorable path.
Jack Vaughan is former Editor-at-Large at Application Development Trends magazine.