Wireless Handhelds Connect to Enterprise Apps

Talking Points


  • The number of end users looking to access their companies' applications using wireless handhelds will rocket to about 50 million over the next few years.
  • 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 traffic.

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 it," says 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 “Case Study: Columbus sails on wireless apps.”)

Centralize control
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. (See “Mobility 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.”


Sidebar: Mobility comes in many flavors
Sidebar: Case study: Columbus sails on wireless apps
Sidebar: Six ways to stay the course

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