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2/13/2003
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The Myth of Messaging

There is no killer app for mobile services, Giga's Carl Zetie says. Get over it, and your company will soon find the business-expanding propositions of mobile commiunciations.

One of the most popular questions about mobile and wireless is still, "what's the killer app?" A lot of people don't seem willing to accept that PDAs and wirelessly connected laptops have a significant role in the enterprise unless there's an obvious killer app. What's strange about this question is that few other new technologies, even ones equally as disruptive as mobility, are held to this high standard. What's the killer app for Web services? What was the killer app for relational databases? These and many other technologies were adopted because they were widely applicable and adaptable to each business' requirements, not because they tapped into one single, readily defined common need.

In fact, examples of technologies where adoption has truly been driven by a killer app are hard to find. The story that the personal computer took off with the creation of VisiCalc by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston is widely told (feeling nostalgic? You can download a runnable version from http://www.bricklin.com/visicalc.htm ), but there are just as many examples of killer apps that weren't. Some of the first companies to try to commercialize the telephone apparently saw the killer app as distributing music to restaurants, for example (an idea that may sound disturbingly reminiscent of some of the proposed consumer services for 2.5G handsets). Despite this, the lure of the killer app, like miracle diets and easy money working from home, remains strong.

Despite these misgivings about the wisdom of the question, many people seem willing to give an answer, and the commonest is messaging. Yet, to my mind, this answer misses the point: of course, messaging, but isn't that akin to saying that the killer app for the Internet is browsing or the killer app for cars is traveling? In fact, the paucity of this answer is exposed by many of the direct and survey interactions that we have with the adopters of mobile technologies. When we ask people what applications they are deploying first, what they are using most, or what they see as the low-hanging fruit for early deployment, some form of messaging, including wireless E-mail, short message service (SMS), or instant messenger, is by a large margin the most popular response, often totaling more than all other specific applications put together. No surprise there. However, we often ask the question another way: we ask enterprises what the most important purpose for their mobile deployments is, offering choices that include consumer services, business partners, to employees for professional productivity (including E-mail), or to employees for line-of-business functions. We're no longer surprised that up to 80% of the responses choose for employee purposes, but perhaps harder to understand is that those responses are evenly divided between professional productivity and line-of-business functions. How can this be true if E-mail and messaging, which are only one part of productivity, are the most popular applications?

The resolution of this apparent paradox is in accepting the distinction between a technology and a business purpose. Messaging, whether IM, E-mail, or SMS, is often not a business purpose in and of itself; it is merely a delivery and implementation technology. To put it another way, it's a channel for the business purposes. Of course, business communication and productivity are among the most important purposes. However, messaging is also used as a proxy for a variety of business purposes. E-mail and other messaging technologies can readily be used as the agents for simple business processes such as exception alerts (low inventory, missed delivery), as prompts to initiate contact through another application or channel (emergency repair required, work schedule changed), or approvals in a workflow (expenses processing, purchase approval, nonstandard pricing or contract configurations requiring management sign-off).

The reasons messaging is used for these purposes aren't hard to find: E-mail, in particular, is the universal client, available on most devices, as well as being the universal transport--it goes almost anywhere, is resilient in the face of network disconnects, and has store-and-forward reliability built-in. And unlike browser-based interfaces, most E-mail clients let the user work offline or while they're disconnected. Furthermore, many enterprises plan to deploy E-mail anyway for its primary purpose, so it's an easy step to start exploiting it for other business needs. However, as the application requirements become more complex or multistep, messaging becomes cumbersome. Even the simple forms-based workflows that are sometimes implemented in desktop E-mail today become difficult on PDAs whose E-mail clients may not support the necessary forms. Also, the latency in repeated rounds of E-mail exchanges will typically be much higher than with a purpose-built application client.

The first step in finding business value in mobility is often to get over the desire for a killer app or other easy answer: like Web services, enterprises have to find their own point of leverage to apply mobility. For many, the value of business communication (delivered by messaging) will be one of the answers; but for just as many, other, specific business purposes will be just as important, even though messaging may be used to deliver them.

Carl Zetie is VP of research for Giga Information Group.

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