Wireless Handhelds Connect to Enterprise Apps
- By Johanna Ambrosio
- May 1, 2005
MOBILITY ON THE MOVE
- The number of end users looking to access their companies' applications
using wireless handhelds will rocket to about 50 million over the next few
- Keeping track of hundreds or even thousands of devices, supporting them
when software upgrades are needed and helping end users help themselves
can be daunting.
- Grow wireless apps slowly to make sure IT has the resources to support
them and the enterprise's infrastructure can handle the increased and varied
The most successful wireless implementations grow a little at a time, allowing
IT to support them in a way that is manageable.
End users have not started in a big way asking IT to give them access to
enterprise apps using wireless PDAs, smartphones and other handheld devices,
but experts say it's only a matter of time.
"Wireless is here; it's real; and IT needs to find a way to support
Eugene Signorini, a wireless analyst at The Yankee Group.
Tony Rizzo, sector head of the mobile group for analysis firm, The 451
Group, agrees. "Last year was a time of education for corporations just starting
to realize there's a productivity gain" by providing mobile applications
that link up with what's behind the firewall. He expects this year to mark
the first significant mobile steps for many enterprises, with next year being
one of "explosive" growth.
The number of end users looking to access their companies' applications
will rocket to about 50 million over the next few years, up from 3 million
this year, according to some market researchers. The majority will want to
access e-mail, personal information management and calendar apps, but that
too will change as end users ask to reach deeper into back-end systems.
Fortunately for IT, the learning curve isn’t steep, and implementation
is not necessarily a big deal. Setting up the servers and installing software
for wireless access to corporate e-mail and personal productivity applications,
in particular, is straightforward.
IT staffers report their biggest pain when there is a problem figuring out
just what’s causing it: operator error, a buggy device, a mis-configured
server setting or something else. Keeping track of hundreds, or even thousands,
of devices, and supporting them, say, with software upgrades, can also be logistical
nightmares. Another challenge: training end users to access enterprise apps,
sync their PDAs and so on.
In the plus column, the tools to deploy and manage wireless handhelds are improving
in sync with the growing popularity of the devices.
Security has not been much of an issue because most wireless apps have a reasonably
solid degree of security baked in. Often, wireless access is to apps that are
already well managed and perhaps more importantly, isolated on dedicated servers.
Grow slowly and set limits
Growing wireless apps slowly to make sure IT and the enterprise’s infrastructure
can handle them is critical, say IT managers who have implemented mobile solutions.
Hawaiian Airlines, for instance, started in May 2004 with 50 wireless e-mail
users, mostly with Treo phones. These users were primarily managers and senior
directors who need to respond quickly to problems such as plane delays. A year
later, the number of users has grown to about 100. The airline will add 50 users
in the next year, says John Steffey, IT support analyst for the airline. “At
this point, we’ve given them to pretty much everyone who’s going
to use them,” he says.
There must be limits. One global conglomerate found that out the hard way a
few years ago when it implemented e-mail access using BlackBerry handhelds.
The initial roll-out was designed to be a field test by IT staffers. “It
was designed to be a test of 50 people, tops,” says one IT team member.
Word, however, spread quickly—and what was initially designed as a small
field test soon became a popularity contest, where managers, division VPs and
others demanded to have devices of their own. “Pretty soon all the cool
kids wanted one,” the staffer says, “and within a few weeks we were
up to 500 users.”
Because the trial was not designed to scale, it wasn’t long before a variety
of technical problems emerged. If there was an upside, it was that the corporate
big-wigs complained they couldn’t access their e-mail, inducing the CIO to fund
additional Exchange servers. Three years, and a couple of thousand users later,
it’s all good. But experience was so disruptive it sparked a white paper written
by IT (which is still used internally) about how not to deploy an app. (See
Columbus sails on wireless apps.”)
At Hawaiian Airlines, the biggest motivator to going with Intellisync’s
middleware was to help centralize the management of all the various types of
mobile devices being used. “Everybody wants their PDA, and it was becoming
a pretty big time sink to handle them all separately,” Steffey explains.
“Everyone would bring in their device of choice and we’d have to
learn it, and each one is different.”
Now the firm supports only Treo smartphones and helps its end users by syncing
PDAs with corporate data over the network to reduce end-user errors.
As a result, the number of support calls for PDA-related problems have been
cut from 30 or 40 hours to about 10 or 15 hours per week, Steffey says.
Eastman Chemical started its wireless e-mail access in 2000, with BlackBerry
devices that have been since exchanged for Treos and some laptops outfitted
with wireless WAN cards. The company has about 375 mobile phone and PDA users
and 100 laptop users, David Hrivnak, mobile projects manager, says.
The company uses iAnywhere’s Pylon as a platform to keep an up-to-date inventory
of mobile devices and their users and push software and upgrades over the network.
comes in many flavors.”)
Can you hear me now?
This is not to suggest the wireless arena is a slam dunk; it’s not. Hawaiian
Airlines’ Steffey says the “weakest link is the device itself—when
a new phone version comes out, I usually have to send a few back.”
Eastman’s Hrivnak seconds that thought: “I’m disappointed
in the hardware quality; we’ve had many more failures than I think we
should have,” he says. “Sprint’s been good. They ship a new
one overnight, and we do a hot-sync, and everything comes back.” It’s
a problem that often grows exponentially as the number of wireless users increases.
Other problems Hrivnak has run into include splotchy screens or dropped calls
due to a problem connector. A user will start a call, and then the call is dropped
despite having three or more bars of service.
Likewise, he says that Eastman’s had some issues with the iAnywhere Pylon
server; Eastman is now upgrading to a new version of Pylon and to a larger server.
“We hope it’s a bit more stable,” Hrivnak says. “That’s
part of the reason we haven’t seen more explosive growth—there’s
been a number of issues. Wireless works 90 percent of the time but not 100 percent.”
To be fair, he says, “this is partially due to the fact the chemical industry
builds plants away from the population centers where the cell companies build”
their towers and infrastructure.
Nor are these problems keeping Eastman down. The company is looking into expanding
beyond e-mail, with an application to let its corporate buyers bid on items
to get better discounts when they’re available.
Support problems can linger
Yankee’s Signorini suggests this is the wave of the future that companies
need to prepare for: figuring out what wireless devices can really be maximized
for and then building or buying applications. “E-mail is typically the
first mobile application because it’s easy to deploy,” he says.
“But then, if you’ve got a huge mobile sales force or field-service
organization, the question becomes: What are their requirements?”
The key here is to figure out which pieces of information are really required
or to think about new ways of doing old applications that fit with the technology.
“It’s not about taking the big application and shrinking it,”
Signorini says. Adding drop-down menus, for instance, can minimize the need
to enter data using the device’s tiny keypad. On the support side, however,
he says, problems linger. “The burden has fallen largely on IT to pull
the whole solution together. There’s definitely a gap as to who’s
going to be the one to be the point of contact. Is it the software provider,
or will carriers take a more active role in this?”
One interesting model for the support piece is Antenna Software, which provides
a mobile field-service application. Because the firm operates its own network
operations center, the company can track the information from creation to delivery.
It’s still unclear whether other firms will follow this lead.
In the meantime, however, existing users say starting with wireless e-mail
is not too scary a prospect. Hawaiian Airlines’ Steffey says that initially
the concept seemed, “like a big undertaking, but it’s more painless than we
expected. It hums along, and once users are synced up, it pretty much runs itself.”
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