In-Depth

Tracking today’s wireless tools

Wireless is now a fact of life in the enterprise. The past two years have seen a veritable explosion of mobile technologies worldwide, and if you are not already dealing with an army of road warriors wielding an arsenal of untethered devices, you soon will be.

Industry analysts at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC expect to see more than 10 billion wireless devices in use around the world five years from now -- everything from PDAs and cell phones (and hybrids of the two) to RFID tags, smart cards and nanotechnologies. Although many of these devices will be aimed squarely at consumers, a significant number will serve our ever-expanding mobile workforce, and the divide between the two markets will continue to narrow. IDC projects that the number of mobile workers in the U.S. will reach 104.5 million by next year, which is almost two-thirds of the country’s total workforce population.

“The initial wireless wave was all about toys and games,” said Rikki Kirzner, an IDC research director who follows the application development and deployment market. “But we’re at the beginning right now of a new wave that’s all about business; about providing wireless access to key enterprise applications and data, and application infrastructures that take advantage of wireless networks.”

A key indicator of this new wireless wave, Kirzner said, is the proliferation of tools for mobile and wireless application development. “In this industry, tools lead; applications follow,” she noted. “All of the major vendors are introducing or have already introduced a set of tools that will enable developers to bring services geared to the professional business user to the mobile market. These environments are rich, they’re visual, they usable and they’re sexy.”

Tool vendors large and small are offering support for wireless and mobile application development today. If there is a unifying theme among them, it is the promise of features that leverage existing developer skill sets.

“One of our goals is to bring the skill set of the Windows developer to the mobile device by providing a consistent environment that makes [developing for mobile platforms] just a natural evolution of his skills,” said Kevin Lisota, product manager for the Mobile & Embedded Devices Division at Microsoft

Lisota sees a parallel between the evolution of tools for wireless and mobile application development and the evolution of Microsoft’s widely used Visual Basic dev tools.

“Before Visual Basic came along, developing for a PC was a specialized skill that required a lot of training,” he explained. “Visual Basic opened up application development to a whole universe of people, many of whom did not consider themselves to be developers. We see a parallel in mobile development. The experience has been very difficult in terms of specialized toolsets and limited device capabilities. We want to bring that simple development experience to mobile devices. Given the response to what we’ve done so far, I’d say that the universe of developers for these sorts of applications and devices should grow substantially over the next five years.” (Microsoft claims a Visual Basic developer population of 3.2 million.)

Microsoft: Reaching out
Microsoft made a substantial and very public commitment to mobile development last June, when it unveiled Windows Mobile 2003, along with a new SDK, several new relationships with mobile OEMs and the firm’s then-new Windows Mobile branding strategy. In March of this year, the company kept the ball rolling with an upgrade to Windows Mobile 2003 designed to provide a consistent platform across a shifting landscape of hardware form factors.

“A year ago we were just testing the waters with pilot programs,” Irwin Rodrigues, Microsoft’s group product manager for mobile and embedded devices, said at the time. “Now we’re seeing actual IT shops deploying thousands if not tens of thousands of devices standardized on Pocket PCs and Smartphones in the enterprise. They’re seeing it as a powerful common software platform [on which] they can build line-of-business applications. And they’re seeing that they can leverage the existing skills of their in-house Visual Studio developers.”

Microsoft is also reaching out to device developers with a certification and marketing program for Windows Mobile applications, called Mobile2Market. The program is designed to help commercial developers connect with multiple distribution channels, including retailers, e-tailers, OEMs and mobile operators, Rodrigues said.

Oracle: Dev focus
Oracle Corp. agrees with its archrival from Redmond on very little, but on this point, the two software giants are simpatico: Developers are best served by mobile and wireless development tools that are part of the primary development environments they already know and love.

“The idea is that you want to do most of your application development in one integrated environment,” said Jacob Christfort, chief technical officer and vice president product development of Oracle’s Mobile Products and Services Division. “And then you want to be able to control your rendering to a variety of user interfaces, one of which is the desktop, and a number of different wireless browsers.”

Oracle began integrating wireless tools into its application server and dev tools two major releases back, said Ted Farrell, architect and director of strategy for Oracle’s Application Development Tools Division. “We’ve done a lot of work in the mobile space,” Farrell said. “We want to make the development environment the same whether you’re working on a desktop application or a mobile app. The tools are seamlessly integrated, very consistent and an extension to our current offerings.”

The latest release of the company’s Java IDE, JDeveloper 10g, supports wireless and mobile development with the JDeveloper Wireless Extension, which “makes JDeveloper into a seamless mobile development tool.” Oracle also provides the Wireless Developer Kit with Industrial Solution, a small-footprint wireless runtime, and the OracleAS Mobile Studio, a hosted online environment for building, testing and deploying wireless applications.

“We’re moving away from simulator-only solutions where you work outside the IDE and you talk to this simulated device, this piece of software, that you got from a vendor,” Farrell said. “We’re trying to give developers something that will allow them to reuse the back-end services and the mid-tier to create unique value on the mobile device.”

The basic scheme underlying this leverage-your-existing-skills pitch involves automating portions of the development process, said IDC’s Kirzner. “Ultimately, the question IT departments are asking is, ‘How do we allow our developers to work at their own skill level and use the same tools?’” she said. “The tool vendors’ answer is, ‘We’ll do a lot of the heavy lifting for them by automating a good portion of the process.’ Every major vendor has developed or is getting ready to release a version of their software that is far easier to use than anything we’ve seen before. In these new development environments, wireless becomes just another format.”

Borland: Put on an IDE face
Borland Software, maker of several popular IDEs (JBuilder and C++ Builder, to name two), has used this approach to simplify the mobile and wireless development process, which the company has integrated into its application life-cycle strategy. Borland’s Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) combines the firm’s IDEs with design, test and deploy tools into a single, integrated environment.

“The challenge for the developer of mobile applications is still just a basic development challenge,” said John Ray Thomas, Borland’s senior manager for mobile and C++ solutions. “It’s about being able to understand the frameworks and build systems, which can be very complex depending on the platform. In other words, [the developers] have to learn and then deal with the intricacies of each new platform. We are trying to make that process easier by providing IDEs and build systems that are more visual than they are hands-on makefile approaches.”

By putting an IDE face on mobile and wireless application development, Borland abstracts the differences among the many platforms to create a consistent experience for the developer. “They use the same tools,” Thomas noted, “and the wireless application becomes just another application. We put a lot of emphasis on keeping as much consistency between these different types of projects as possible, so that the developer doesn’t have to rethink everything. And their familiarity with the tools makes them more productive.”

Borland’s Enterprise Studio for Mobile is an end-to-end solution for designing, developing, testing, and deploying Java and C++ mobile device and server applications from within a single integrated environment. And its Mobile Studio tool combines components from JBuilder and C++BuilderX Mobile Editions.

This focus on shielding developers from complexity in mobile and wireless development is part of a more general trend among toolmakers, IDC’s Kirzner said. Simplifying application development has become something of a cause celebre among vendors like IBM, BEA Systems, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems. Sun made the concept a central theme of last year’s JavaOne developer conference.

Sun: Targeting Java
Sun’s approach to enabling mobile application development is less about integrating tools than targeting a platform -- not surprisingly, Java.

“Java developers can certainly leverage their existing skill sets within any Java environment,” said David Rivas, chief technology officer for Sun’s consumer and mobile systems group. “At last count, there were 250 million Java handsets out there, which the world’s 4 million to 5 million Java developers have an opportunity to develop applications for.”

Sun’s basic strategy here is to provide a common software platform, independent of the operating system and of the device to which the applications are deployed. Which is not to say, Rivas hastens to add, that developing mobile applications is no different from developing desktop apps.

“In many ways, developing applications for wireless applications is fundamentally different from desktop development,” he said. “You have to take into consideration disconnected use because of unreliable networks. You have to consider different user interface paradigms, which are quite different from what traditional desktop developers -- and even PDA developers -- have grown used to. And all many of these phones have is a keypad and a very small screen.”

According to market watchers at the London-based analyst firm Ovum, there were actually more than 260 million Java-enabled handsets in use at the beginning the year. Ovum expects to see that number grow to 1.5 billion by the end of 2007.

Sun is supporting development for all those phones with its own mobile development tool, the SunONE Studio Mobile Edition, which provides a programming environment, an emulator and the Java Technology for the Wireless Industry (JTWI) environment. JTWI is a Java specification that defines an industry-standard platform for the next generation of Java-enabled mobile phones. JTWI, which is defined through the Java Community Process (JCP) as JSR 185, specifies the technologies that must be included in all JTWI-compliant devices, to, in the words of the JCP, “minimize API fragmentation and broaden the substantial base of applications already developed for mobile phones.”

Sybase: Going Unwired
Ojas Rege, senior director of product development at iAnywhere Solutions, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Sybase that focuses on mobility solutions, agrees that building wireless and mobile applications creates a new set of challenges for developers, and he sees those challenges primarily in three areas: usability, managing networks and working with constrained resources.

“If you’ve been developing primarily for the desktop,” Rege said, “your biggest learning curve will be in the area of usability. The usability bar on a handheld device is much, much higher than on a desktop. In a desktop application, you can get away with forcing the user to do a lot of things that just won’t cut it on a handheld. When the users are taking these devices out of their pockets, and they’re expecting to use them for about 30 seconds before they put them back, you can’t make them spend 29 seconds navigating seven levels of menus. It just won’t fly.”

On the networking side, it is all about dealing with unreliable connections, Rege said. “Even when the software can manage transactions that are cut in half when the connection goes down, the developer has to think about what the users do next,” he said. “I know I didn’t lose any data, and I know I can restart that transaction, but what’s the message I need to send the user in my application? How should that feel? How should that look? What kind of flag should I set at the back end to make sure that the back-end application knows that the data is going to come eventually?”

And then there is the issue of providing applications to devices with limited resources. “Most developers who are used to developing with high-powered clients honestly aren’t that familiar with what you do when you have one-tenth the memory and one-fifth the CPU horsepower,” he said. “Developing for resource-constrained devices means that you have to take a much more efficient approach to how you manage code, how you manage data access, and how you manage memory.”

Sybase is another company that is betting big on wireless. Through its Unwired Enterprise intitiative -- and several key acquisitions (AvantGo, XcelleNet, Dejima) -- the database and enterprise software vendor is offering a broad set of mobile and wireless solutions, from middleware to development tools.

Last year, the company released a version of its venerable PowerBuilder RAD tool for mobile development. The strategy behind Pocket PowerBuilder is, again, to leverage the existing skills of PowerBuilder users for developing new mobile and wireless applications -- in this case, those that target Windows CE-based environments -- or extending existing apps to that mobile platform.

“We’ve seen some fundamental changes in the market over the last few years,” Rege said. “A couple of years ago, I saw a lot of people playing around with mobile, doing small pilot projects. But they still hesitated to take them forward because the technology was so new to people. But also, mobility means different things to different people. Laptop mobility and wireless LAN mobility are very well established and understood, but handheld applications and wide-area wireless applications are still pretty new to many organizations.”

The integration issue
Proof of the efficacy of tool strategies from vendors like Sybase, Sun, Oracle, Borland, Microsoft and others, will be seen in their ability to help developers not merely use their old tools for new apps, but to overcome some unique challenges presented by wireless and mobile application development. Along with the development process itself, IDC sees back-end integration as a second critical element of a successful wireless app. Hody Crouch, senior manager, professional services at Atlanta-based toolmaker AppForge Inc., agrees.

“Far and away the top three problems facing wireless and mobile developers today are integration, integration and integration,” Crouch quipped. “It starts with your connectivity layer. Are you using HotSync? PC Suite? Sockets? Are you going over GPRS? Are you talking to a database? Is the same style database on the handheld as on the back end? How do those databases communicate with one another? Is your IT guy going to allow your handheld to talk to the back-end database? Does it have to sync through your PC? What are the business rules associated with it? And on and on and on!”

AppForge provides an add-in for the Microsoft .NET Framework and the Visual Studio development environment. The company’s goal is to enable .NET and Visual Basic developers to create apps that run on most handheld, mobile and wireless platforms, including PalmOS, PocketPC and Symbian devices. The company’s UltraLite component is a library of objects that provide the UltraLite database functionality on PalmOS and PocketPC.

AppForge has made a name for itself as a provider of mobile development tools for industrial applications (think UPS, FedEx, warehousing and inventory management). According to Crouch, it is a market set to explode.

“The potential business revenue on these devices is absolutely massive,” Crouch said. “Data revenue is sort of the Holy Grail, and we’re starting to see a push from the carriers because it’s easy to tie data revenue to business benefits. It’s where the businesses are willing to spend additional money. It’s recurring, monthly revenue, which is what everybody wants. And ultimately, it helps the businesses to be faster.”

The market for industrial wireless applications has opened up, Crouch explained, because of the availability of good development tools, the declining cost of mobile devices and the evolution of data networks. “When the major shipping carriers were first rolling out their data networks,” Crouch said, “those networks were extremely expensive and they pushed very small amounts of data. We’re talking about a lot of satellite stuff, a lot of long-range, long-haul radios with big antennas strapped to big trucks driving down the interstate. Now you take a GSM network deployed ‘nationwide’ with a GPRS data network, add an inexpensive handheld device, and you can have the majority of what these guys implemented 15 years ago for almost no cost.”

Crouch has his own set of wireless market indicators, the foremost of which is third-party plug-in modules, particularly bar-code scanning and, recently, radio frequency identification (RFID). “We’re seeing a lot of people purchasing either SDI/O- or compact flash-based bar-code readers,” he said, “as well as Bluetooth bar-code readers. Because all of a sudden you take a phone that you picked up for $200 with a contract, put a custom application on it with Bluetooth, add another $150 for the bar-code scanner, add a little application, and for under a $1,000 you have live data in a true machine-to-machine environment. And that’s something that we’re seeing a lot of our customers doing today.”

The RFID factor
What you might call Crouch’s RFID Factor may have some merit. Many of the tool vendors interviewed for this article are taking a serious interest in radio frequency identification technologies. Sun in particular has made a big bet on RFID. In May, the company opened a 1,700-square-foot RFID testing facility in Dallas complete with loading docks, conveyor belts and forklifts. In June, it launched Sun Java System RFID Software, which is designed to simplify the integration of RFID data into enterprise information systems.

But Sun is not alone in its enthusiasm for RFID. In April, Oracle introduced a new product and services initiative through its recently formed Sensor-Based Services Program, which gives its application server and database systems the ability to “capture, manage, analyze, and respond” to data gathered from RFID tags, bar codes and other “sensor” technologies. That same month, Microsoft announced that it had created its own RFID group: the Microsoft Radio Frequency Identification Council, with the mission of “bringing together major partners delivering RFID solutions on the Microsoft platform.”

Crouch has also noticed an upsurge in industrial adoption of general-use smart devices. “People are using RIM devices, Palm devices and Pocket PC smart phones to access corporate e-mail, browse the Web and do basic transaction processing. We’re seeing mass adoption of common applications in industrial environments. And every day, more and more people are accessing their e-mail remotely.”

Sun’s Rivas goes even further, crediting the RIM Blackberry, which is a J2ME device, for causing that upsurge. “What you are seeing right now is the beginning of a tremendous groundswell of enterprise deployment,” Rivas said. “And in some sense, that groundswell is being lead by the RIM device. You have to give credit to the Blackberry guys for producing a genuine killer app: mobile e-mail.”

Yet the real significance of the Blackberry reaches beyond its success as a mobile e-mail solution, Rivas said. “CIOs are in the hot seat right now,” he noted. “Wireless applications don’t get deployed in the enterprise until they have proven themselves to be more than a science project. The Blackberry guys have proven that you can provide mobile access securely to a valuable enterprise asset: the e-mail database. So now you have CIOs ready to get serious about the more interesting kinds of enterprise apps because they have a secure connection from those critical enterprise assets to the mobile device sitting in their employees’ hands.”

The Blackberry is emblematic of another unique aspect of the mobile market: these devices are likely to be used both for business and for personal activities.

“I’ve never seen a situation in an enterprise setting before, where someone gets a piece of technology for their birthday, and now wants to use it at work,” said iAnywhere’s Rege. “That didn’t happen with laptops. If you look at just about any sales organization, and at least 40% of the people already have a personal information manager or a smart phone or something. The good news here is that the learning curve is much shorter because people are already using them for simple applications. But the challenge is, once they’ve gotten used to using Device X, they will probably resist this new Device Y that you are forcing on them.”

Cell phones and PDAs first entered the consciousness of users as consumer devices, and the innovation rates of these devices reflect that origin -- which presents another challenge to developers: a very rapid hardware life cycle. “In the consumer electronics world, if your devices aren’t changing about every six months, then you’re history, because consumers move on,” observed Rege. “But enterprises prefer and are used to closer to four-year product life cycles. And that is an enormous challenge for enterprise developers, and one they’ll have to get used to.”

But that roiling device landscape could be simmering down. Metrowerks, maker of the popular CodeWarrior dev tools, expects to see a handful of devices emerge as the preferred mobile hardware platforms for enterprise users. The Handspring Treo is an example of a trend toward “convergence” of communication devices with PDA functionality. Metrowerks, a subsidiary of Motorola, has been shipping tools for wireless application development since 2002 for the Symbian OS. One of the more popular features of the Symbian toolsets is their on-device debugging capabilities, which are based on Metrowerks’ Target Resident Kernel (TRK) technology.

The dual purpose of these devices presents opportunities for developers, said Sun’s Rivas, both consumer and enterprise. He points to statistics from London-based Informa Media Research on the mobile game market: revenues in that market doubled between 2002 and 2003 to $587 million; researchers expect that market to reach $3.8 billion in 2007.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important the gaming market is to the operator,” Rivas said. “Very soon now, you are going to see a very large community of developers who are very familiar with consumer uses of these devices, and the devices themselves. That familiarity is just naturally going to find its way into applications for the enterprise.”

Which observation points to another possible consequence of increasing interest in enterprise-class mobile and wireless applications: wireless specialists. Despite the efforts of the major tool vendors to make their products mobile- and wireless-friendly to all developers, Borland’s Thomas expects growing enterprise interest in these kinds of applications to produce a cadre of wireless development ninjas - at least initially. “There is some level of specialization going on, just in terms of the basic industry approach to new technologies,” he said. “Enterprises typically send off a couple of developers to begin focusing on these new technologies, and pretty soon people who may have been building a back end two years ago are spending more and more time doing wireless development. As a consequence, they develop a specialized expertise.”

Sun’s Rivas agrees. “We are starting to see folks who are predominantly oriented toward developing in the wireless market; people who are developing the expertise to bring compelling content to consumers and enterprise customers who are using their applications.”

Sparking and old debate
Another trend that is sure to affect the evolution of the tools for mobile and wireless development is the increasing capabilities of the devices themselves. The growing horsepower of these little boxes is also sparking an old debate: thick clients vs. thin clients -- or, as vendors prefer it nowadays, rich clients vs. network-enriched clients.

“We will be astounded by the capabilities of devices in five years,” said Microsoft’s Lisota, whose company comes down squarely on the rich-client side. “We will look back and wonder at how primitive the devices are that we’re using today. Processing power, screen size, memory cost -- you name it. The devices are going to be incredibly capable.”

Sun CEO Scott McNealy popularized the phrase, “The Network is the Computer,” which puts Sun in the not-thick client camp. The firm’s Rivas agrees that the expanding capabilities of these devices will drive the enrichment of the applications, and he insists that Sun’s vision encompasses that evolution. McNealy’s catchphrase is not about the particular architecture of a client, he said, but about developing applications that utilize the full value of the network.

“There is tremendous value in a network, and we want to bring that value to the mobile device,” said Rivas. “It can be brought in through access to critical enterprise information assets, but also by using some of the core attributes of the network itself, such as the ability to determine who else is on the network and the ability to connect other folks on a network. I expect to see those attributes exploited in new applications brought to mobility by developers creating applications that are very network-aware.”

Sybase prefers the term “smart client,” which Rege suggests is more accurate. “The difference is, the smart client can take advantage when connectivity is there, but doesn’t rely on connectivity. In general, that means that you are going to have applications and data resident on the device, but when you do have connectivity, you absolutely need to be able to take advantage of it. You need to be able to push data across that network if there is an alert; you need to be able sync data; you need to be able to get dispatch information, and so on. I think the model shifts a bit to this contextual issue of being occasionally connected.”

Borland’s Thomas, whose company is a resolutely neutral supporter of both .NET and Java, agrees that developers will probably want to take advantage of improving device capabilities with rich-client applications. But whether the clients are thick or thin, he added, developers should keep in mind that, for the near term, IT organizations are probably going to be looking at mobile and wireless applications primarily as a means of extending their basic enterprise assets to their mobile workers.

“Enterprises want to extend their support onto the wireless platform so that people in the field have access to the same key enterprise applications and data they would have if they were working within the walls of the organization,” he noted. “It’s about extending those applications so that the folks who are not always connected are just as productive when they can’t get back to the office to work with those systems.”

Practicalities of the moment notwithstanding, Thomas agrees that the future of mobile and wireless seems particularly bright. “We’ve seen so many advances and changes in just the last few years, it’s hard to tell where we’re going to end up,” he said. “But one thing is sure: It’s going to be pervasive. It’s going to be part of our everyday lives, even more so than we see today. We’ll be able to see our enterprises in the palms of our hands.”

Please see the following related story: “A sampling of wireless development tools” by Lana Gates.

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