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Everyone Wants One

Demand for BlackBerrys and similar devices is growing even faster than anticipated. But as mobile E-mail booms, so do the challenges.
IT strategists face decisions on how to manage the proliferation of wireless devices and the infrastructure changes necessary to support them. If they don't enforce a standard device platform, businesses could find themselves operating multiple servers to support mobile E-mail on different devices. At construction company Rudolph & Sletten, where workers use mobile E-mail to get alerts on work changes, some employees use BlackBerrys with RIM's mobile E-mail service, while others use Palm Treo devices in conjunction with Good Technology's GoodLink mobile E-mail service. That means the company's IT department must support two platforms, a common but not ideal scenario.

Vendors have begun to address the interoperability issue, but they still have a long way to go. RIM and Palm revealed in October that they'll extend the BlackBerry E-mail service to Palm's Treo 650 smart phone starting early next year. So far, however, that only addresses one Treo model.

Wireless carriers Sprint and Cingular Wireless also are in the mix, offering Seven Networks Inc.'s mobile E-mail as part of their data service plans. And Microsoft's market entry with its Direct Push technology, included in the Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 Service Pack 2, could generate more wireless E-mail aficionados.

But with RIM's and Microsoft's legal snares, it's unclear who'll dominate the market in the next few years. Nokia wants to play in mobile services as well and plans to acquire mobile E-mail software provider Intellisync Corp., which claims it's already second in the mobile E-mail market behind Research In Motion, with a 12% share.

Companies that rely on cellular networks for mobile E-mail access also face coverage problems. Ken Vaughn, IT director with BS&R Design & Supplies, says his salespeople use laptops, wireless cards, and Wi-Fi for accessing E-mail; he hasn't any interest in adding cell phones and PDAs to the mix. Cellular coverage is too spotty near the Idaho cities of Boise and Twin Falls, where the company, which designs and furnishes restaurants and bars, does most of its business. Besides, small screens aren't any good for viewing the PDFs and AutoCAD drawings that employees need to refer to on the road, Vaughn says.

Others, like MedStar Health, see E-mail delivered to handhelds as the future. MedStar has 421 managers wielding BlackBerrys. But more than 300 nurses and physicians already use Palm OS or Windows Mobile smart phones to access medical applications, and E-mail will be a natural extension. "Mobile E-mail offers efficiencies and lets people respond more quickly than before," MedStar's Bade says.

Gateway To Customer Data
Just checking messages isn't enough for some. The Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. is deploying a new type of application that will let employees select from address-book entries in their BlackBerrys to gain quick access to customer information. It's doing this using ClairMail Inc.'s ClairAccess Appliance, a transactional messaging server that sits behind its firewall and conducts transactions between employees' BlackBerrys and a billing and inquiry application. The company plans to have 100 users by the end of January.


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Fireman's Fund wants to let its sales reps get policy quotes via mobile E-mail, chief technology officer Jim Dunn says.
When verifying coverage information for a client, a Fireman's Fund employee will click on his or her address book to send a message to "policy information" and type a customer's name in the subject line of the message. ClairAccess automates the interactions with the required systems, immediately retrieves the requested information, and sends it back in an E-mail. Chief technology officer Jim Dunn says Fireman's Fund also is looking into letting field salespeople get policy quotes for new customers via BlackBerry E-mail--a simpler option on the road than a laptop.

Fireman's Fund plans to eventually extend the capability so that its customers with E-mail on their cell phones, PDAs, or desktops can get information on policies and bills via ClairAccess. But "we need to do a lot of work in security to make sure payments are secured if we enable the self-service option for customers," says Gary Butler, VP of corporate service operations.

If businesses find that mobile E-mail is helping their employees work better--or if employees increasingly bring it into their companies, claiming that they need it to do their jobs better--it'll be up to IT teams to find a way around these uncertainties.

--With Larry Greenemeier and Tony Kontzer

Photo by Richard Drew/AP