Handhelds For The Right People - InformationWeek

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Handhelds For The Right People

Wireless E-mail can boost productivity if companies select users wisely, and today's offerings are a good fit for most businesses.

People want their wireless E-mail. The challenge for IT is determining which users really need it, how best to manage and secure it, and what delivery architecture and devices to use. Wireless E-mail can increase productivity if used properly by the right subset of employees.

That's a big if, but many companies are trying to make it happen, according to a poll that InformationWeek's sister publication Network Computing conducted of 513 readers. Seventy percent of respondents say their companies provide wireless E-mail, with the majority citing isolated, tactical use by individuals or departments and only 13% reporting widespread adoption.

Respondents are concerned about whether wireless E-mail technology is ready for wide use. The problem is less about immature technology and more about confusion. There are some excellent products that can get a wireless E-mail service running with minimal effort, Network Computing explains in its review of wireless E-mail gateways (Mobile Messaging Gateways). Vendors have solved problems such as having to poll for new E-mail and manage multiple in-boxes. In addition, comprehensive security and management features let IT support large deployments with thousands of users.

But there's still a high level of uncertainty. Wireless E-mail technology is evolving rapidly, and the many service-delivery models are difficult to sort out. Although Research In Motion Ltd. now controls three-quarters of a market serving roughly 4 million devices, other vendors are coming on strong.

Wireless E-mail encompasses a wide range of usage models, but in all cases, its value depends on the urgency of the conveyed information. For some workers, it doesn't matter whether they answer a message immediately, in several hours, or even the next day. For others, timeliness can make or break a crucial deal.

In the poll, respondents say they're neutral as to whether wireless E-mail makes sense for a significant percentage of company employees, affirming the view that only a subset of workers truly needs the capability. Nevertheless, accommodating that subset can translate into considerable productivity gains. If used unwisely, however, wireless E-mail may instill interrupt-driven work patterns that make it hard to get tasks done. It's as if workers' phones are constantly ringing, but even worse, because many E-mail messages are just CCs of messages sent to somebody else. Spam only exacerbates the distraction.

Once a company decides that the benefits of wireless E-mail outweigh the negatives, which device should it use to deliver it? People who send as much E-mail as they receive require highly interactive setups and may be best off using notebook computers with wireless data capabilities. In fact, this was the most deployed configuration in the E-poll, ahead of Research In Motion BlackBerrys. With a notebook, connectivity options include both Wi-Fi and cellular. For cellular data, the cost of unlimited usage plans for laptops is much higher than for smart phones.

The form of wireless E-mail most often associated with the genre is a wireless PDA or smart phone such as a BlackBerry, Palm Treo, or Microsoft Pocket PC; users receive E-mail in close to real time with these devices. Good nationwide cellular-data coverage is available from many operators, and smart phones are an excellent fit for the speeds and capacities of these networks. The most common usage model is one in which 80% to 90% of E-mail is received and 10% to 20% is sent--no surprise given smart phones' input options. The little keyboards found on many newer wireless PDAs help greatly, but typing is still difficult.

The key feature of this model is the "push" of messages to the mobile client, which usually involves a gateway to do the pushing, most likely a client-initiated pull process. A variant of the PDA model is to have users access mail servers directly from their devices without using the gateway. This setup is simpler, but you lose the push capability. Though polling an E-mail server every five or 10 minutes may provide an almost-real-time mail experience, it's highly inefficient from a network standpoint: It decreases battery life, and companies must configure their firewalls for inbound mobile communications.

The third usage model involves monitoring E-mail using a mobile phone while sending only a tiny amount--painfully, using the 10-key pad. You can use a microbrowser, which also requires a gateway, or a mail client on the phone itself. Many phones include mail clients, though capabilities are limited. Java capability is becoming more common on handsets, and mail clients written in Java will likely become more sophisticated and support a higher number of E-mail protocols.

Why does Research In Motion have 75% of the market for smart-phone wireless E-mail services? Being first certainly helps. But the company also has optimized every aspect of the wireless E-mail experience. It offers integration with all the major E-mail platforms, plus push capabilities, end-to-end security, and protections against device loss. Management features include over-the-air provisioning and a platform for extending other corporate data to the mobile device.

As new wireless PDA platforms become available, challengers are jockeying for position. These include Critical Path, Extended Systems, Good Technology, Infowave, Intellisync, JP Mobile, Notify Technology, Seven Networks, and Visto. Many have capabilities that rival those of RIM's BlackBerry. In Network Computing's E-poll, the BlackBerry ranked highest in desirability, followed by a tie between the Palm Treo and the Microsoft Pocket PC, then Microsoft Smartphone and, finally, Symbian and Java offerings. Most users indicated they prefer to carry one device for voice, E-mail, and other data functions.

When using a wireless E-mail gateway, there are two main configurations. One is where IT operates the gateway behind the firewall. The other is a utility model, in which a service provider, generally a cellular one, operates a gateway serving many different customers. In both cases, the gateway vendor provides client software.

The behind-the-firewall gateway offers the greatest functionality. Yes, it's one more system IT has to worry about. But for large deployments, it quickly pays for itself in ease of management. Slightly more than half of poll respondents say they prefer this approach.

Typical features for both behind-the-firewall and operator-provided gateways include:

  • Easy-to-use clients. Users will spend a lot of time with them, so vendors are emphasizing intuitive, full-featured clients.
  • Push. The gateway pushes new E-mail, appointments, and even other corporate data. The systems also synchronize contact databases.
  • Single-mailbox integration. If a user deletes a message or makes an appointment, the change propagates back to the E-mail server.
  • Client platform support. Possibilities include the RIM BlackBerry, Palm system smart phones, Windows Mobile Pocket PCs and smart phones, Symbian system smart phones, Java- and Brew-capable devices, and devices with Wireless Application Protocol microbrowsers.
  • Support for multiple types of E-mail. The most flexible gateways can access E-mail from a variety of systems, including Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Domino, Novell GroupWise, and Internet POP3/ IMAP servers.
  • End-to-end security. The gateway communicates with the mobile client over secure encrypted tunnels. Many store encrypted data on the device.
  • Synchronization. Most gateways let users synchronize personal-information-management data, such as contacts and appointments.

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