Is The Smartphone Your Next Computer?

How BlackBerry, iPhone, Windows Mobile, and Symbian-powered handhelds are becoming over-the-air portals to enterprise apps, and why they could ultimately edge the laptop aside.

Alexander Wolfe, Contributor

October 3, 2008

5 Min Read

That's momentum enterprise software and smartphone vendors are anxious to capitalize on. Some vendors argue that we're already well into the mobile-apps-on-steroids era. Says Scott Rockfeld, Microsoft's group product manager for Windows Mobile: "The applications are there, and more are coming to this space every day. ... Everyone from SAP to Siebel to just recently Bloomberg and Reuters have brought their applications down to Windows Mobile."

Oracle's Mobile subsidiary, formed in 2000, has created a wealth of smartphone apps, ranging from Mobile Sales Assistant and Siebel CRM Mobile for BlackBerry and Nokia devices to Oracle Business Applications for the iPhone, says Anthony Lye, senior VP of CRM development at Oracle.

Such responses raise the question: Then why isn't everybody using this stuff already? Lye maintains that only now are we seeing, by way of the BlackBerry and iPhone in particular, smartphone platforms that are "rich and capable" enough to support business apps for knowledge workers.

But with more mobile applications available than many IT managers realize, the more salient questions might be: How do you select the apps that are right for your company, and how do you manage deployment?

For companies with the software development resources, rolling your own can be the way to make mobile apps stand out. Take Cantor Fitzgerald, which developed two apps--eSpeed UST and eSpeed FX--to let its institutional financial pros monitor and trade U.S. Treasury bonds and currencies, respectively, from their Windows Mobile phones.

Motorola Q, a Windows Mobile phone, running the eSpeed financial trading app

Generally speaking, mobile development work requiring lots of data entry--such as updating sales calls--gets handled via custom user interfaces rather than through a mobile Web browser. "The objective here is to give field workers only those data fields they need," says Oracle's Lye, "both so that they don't waste time on meaningless interaction and so they don't eschew the app entirely because it's perceived as too burdensome."

Just as common, though, mobile browsers such as the iPhone's Safari will be enlisted as the app portal, particularly when there's sure to be more data reading (think prepping for a sales call) than writing (like slogging through the post-meeting CRM update) involved.

Having a browser that makes that data more handheld-accessible than it has ever been is why the iPhone is the big game-changer in the mobile apps ecosystem. The iPhone's enterprise footprint also is increasing because of its consumer popularity--as in, people are buying the phone on their own, and then pestering their IT departments to support it.

Oracle, Salesforce, and Sybase are among the first out of the gate with enterprise iPhone applications, rolled out via Apple's App Store with the launch of the iPhone 3G on July 11. Oracle introduced Oracle Business Indicators, a business intelligence app that provides financial trends and sales information. Salesforce Mobile gives users over-the-air access to their Salesforce CRM and sales data.

As the first step in its "business-process mobilization" strategy, Sybase rolled out iAnywhere Mobile Office in March for Symbian, Palm, and Windows Mobile devices. The app lets field users approve purchase orders, requisitions, and similar documentation via e-mail, tied into customers' Sybase back-end corporate databases. As step two, Sybase introduced an iPhone version of the app in July.

"We got a lot of flak for that, because people thought of us as an enterprise software provider," says Willie Jow, VP of marketing at Sybase. "Why are you tinkering around with this consumer device? Yet we anticipated that there will be users who want to bring their favorite device into the enterprise and get access to enterprise data."

(click image for larger view)Apple App Store teaser for Oracle's new iPhone offering

Giving a nod to the pressure many vendors and IT departments are feeling from the Apple faithful, Jow says: "The interesting thing about the iPhone is, people say they want to connect to the corporate data and have us secure that data, but they want us to leave their iTunes alone."

Peering only slightly into the future, enterprise applications developed for smartphones won't be just miniaturized versions of those developed for desktop PCs. Oracle's Lye puts his finger on the direction we're headed with the magic Web 2.0 word "mashup."

"We're looking at all of the enterprise: ERP, CRM, supply chain, and HR data, and we're building brand new applications that mash that data together and create new, informative applications." He points to Oracle's Indicators application.

Sybase's Jow agrees that users see their handset as one great big app enabler. "People are now looking for aggregated data," he says. The goal is a smoothly integrated app which can pull together CRM data, business intelligence, and information residing on different back-end corporate databases. To some extent, desktop enterprise apps are going the way of the mashup as well.

About the Author(s)

Alexander Wolfe


Alexander Wolfe is a former editor for InformationWeek.

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