Squeezed somewhere between headlines about new handsets and the rise of Android, hidden behind mobile operator talk of 4G, and trapped among the self-perpetuating mucus of mobile platforms (Maemo and MeeGo and LIMO), there's a message for the mobile enterprise: The technology is finally here to extend your organization. It's not easy, but the productivity gains are well worth the effort.
Consumers are easy to please with the shiniest new object. Like hypnotists at an LSD-infested rave, manufacturers just dangle slide-out keypads or slap a fruit logo on a device. Nobody's happier than when they're pinching or swiping or multi-touching. Research In Motion (RIM) tried to convince me that its BlackBerry TouchPad could be used like a touch screen. Luckily, I'm drug free, so I didn't fall for it.
But IT departments and the internal and external users they serve need something more substantial. They need some semblance of applications and data re-imagined for the mobile form factor. They need airtight security (in transport, at rest) and device management. What they need requires a bit more thought and planning and complexity (ever seen the architecture behind RIM's BES?). CIOs want to extend the enterprise, distributing applications and data beyond borders, independent of device.
Great technology exists, but the choices are slimmer than that earthy waif at your local coffee house. On the device side, while the iPhone is more prevalent than ever and Android is just starting to rev up thanks to its device independence, nobody touches BlackBerry in the enterprise. It's still the best at offering a managed messaging service with security, scale, and integration. It might not be easy to play Ski-ball on it, but it sure is delightful at user productivity.
For most other platforms -- Windows Mobile, Android, Palm's WebOS, iPhone, and Symbian - there's Good Technology, with encrypted transport, remote device management, and policy enforcement, among other features. But RIM and Good have few challengers (both have been approved by the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security).
Selling to the enterprise is hard. Building for the enterprise is hard. (Good even leaves the door open a little, admitting by its own name that someone should try to do it better.) Sybase, too, is largely alone and vastly unknown as the middleware stack for mobile enterprise software. (You can read a little more about them here.)
RIM, Good, and Sybase are household names compared to Visage, whose Mobility Central helps organizations manage mobile usage across carriers, devices, and users, down to the minute and text message. All of the data it manages exists elsewhere: in the reports you get from your carrier, or in a device or software inventory database. But Visage yanks it all into one place and helps you make sense of it. It's at its best when an organization has multiple devices and multiple carrier plans to manage. In other words, most organizations.
With Visage, you can set policy based on, say, roles, and those policies can dictate number of minutes and what employees are allowed to do (pictures, text messaging, for example). But more than anything, it lets you get a handle on what the various plans are and how people are using those plans (underutilizing or abusing) so you can reset policies and expectations, and also push your carrier partners and plans in new ways (changing pooling arrangements, for instance).
Some of the biggest problems companies have managing mobility are devices that are out of service but still being billed, employees who don't know policies for things like international phone use, or those spending lots of money on things like ring tones (a bigger problem than most imagine). Visage makes all of that information easy to spot and then manage. All of the data is presented in easy-to-view charts, and you can e-mail and/or export the data for employees, or for the management team.
If you haven't heard of Visage, you may have heard of Fiberlink, known more for its management of PCs, laptops, and netbooks, but also in the business of cloud-based device management (or mobility-as-a-service, just to pile onto the "aaS" bandwagon). The company says that RIM's BES service provides plenty of device information, but not necessarily how IT managers need it, and not in a consolidated view along with other PCs. Its technology essentially pulls an inventory, allows you to set device policy, and checks for compliance. Fiberlink thinks that as companies tighten up their IT staffs, mobile device management will fall to the desktop management team. For now, the company provides its services for the BlackBerry and says it's working on versions for Windows Mobile, the iPhone, and Android, slated for later in the year, via ActiveSync.
End users may have an array of great device choices, and IT may be able to manage those devices, but beyond e-mail there's just a smattering of true enterprise-class applications, and these applications hover between mere novelty and crippled versions of what you get on the desktop. To some degree, that's to be expected -- the phone form factor is hardly the place you want to be entering or manipulating financial information or viewing sales reports. Just because you can doesn't mean you should. Data visualization tools like Mellmo's Roambi (on the iPhone -- see video below) provide a quick, graphical way to view reports sucked out of Business Objects or Cognos or even Excel; crippled but meaningful, and that will be the most useful direction. While I'm enjoying running Windows apps on the larger iPad via the Citrix Receiver client, I'm not so sure how much I'll enjoy doing so on an iPhone or BlackBerry.
There will be a day when some employees have only one phone -- not a desk phone but their mobile phone. Using Google Voice is one possible step in that direction, but technologies like enterprise femtocells will also help by extending the cellular infrastructure into the building with more reliability and scale. We also need to extend our PBX functionality, especially over IP. More on this in a future post.
One of the key concerns, of course, is whether users can get to the data. Wi-Fi has become table stakes for most smartphones, but the roaming user may not have that luxury, and 3G -- from any provider -- hasn't exactly become a mission-critical transport medium, even for voice. Equipment manufacturers and service providers have been touting all of the wonderfulness of 4G. This is part of the ecosystem playbook, by the way, whereby the Alcatel-Lucents and Ericssons of the world, which normally couldn't give two packet cores about an IT manager in Peoria, suddenly builds showcase labs, holds contests, and runs benchmark tests and trials.
Normally, a new mobile technology rollout focuses on the consumer, and 4G will be no different, but the applications now are much broader, so I've heard a lot more focus on the enterprise side. Alcatel-Lucent, for example, has its NG Connect program, which focuses on sectors like automotive and healthcare.Derek Kuhn, the company's Ottawa-based VP of emerging technology, showed me some of the existing applications, including a real-time OS for Toyota that can crowd source information from the car (and its driver) about things like erratic drivers, tricky traffic lights, and available parking spaces. It can use a cloud-based service to schedule auto maintenance and sync it with your mobile handset calendar. You can do things like lock your doors at home from within the car and control your DVR. Yes, these are consumer applications, but those consumers are an enterprise's customer (in this case, Toyota's).
Kuhn's team showed me a healthcare system that could monitor wellness after a hospital stay -- everything from self-administered blood pressure readings to high-definition video calls over 4G where a doctor could look at symptoms and provide diagnoses.
Sprint and Clearwire, the main operational 4G network providers today, give similar examples. When YOUR customers get used to conducting business on mobile phones, it's time to extend your offerings -- products or services -- with the same mechanism.
The question I keep asking is how we'll know 4G can scale and handle the volume of data and applications we'll throw at it, when clearly 3G hasn't been able to. I mean, sure, banks and other institutions put their apps on mobile platforms, but it's not something that requires reliable connectivity. If the network fails, the consumer will try again, perhaps slightly frustrated.
Clearwire's chief strategy officer, Dave Maquera, talks about the scale of the company's WiMax network, focusing on the spectrum and the backhaul network, which uses high-capacity microwave networks. Sprint CEO Dan Hesse says that for operators, this is a one-time expense, with almost no operational expense thereafter. I asked Maquera about the call from other mobile operators for more spectrum, and while he didn't answer it specifically, he seemed pretty content with what Clearwire had to offer. "We're open for business," he says. Indeed, WiMax is in 27 cities so far.
In some sense, you could argue that all of these companies are open for business, but business is wanting, at least compared with the hype spewing like volcanic ash in the consumer world. One enterprise mobile company recently sent me information that used the phrase "enterprise-facing consumer application." Just hedging their bet, I suppose.
Some of this just takes time: Only now are most enterprise IT managers beginning to extend the enterprise fully to the smartphone. The technology vendors need desperately to raise their profiles.
Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.
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