Magazine Article | June 1, 2003

Big Apps, Small Devices

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Faster networks, more powerful devices - what's keeping you from sending your enterprise applications out to the field?

Integrated Solutions, June 2003

If you haven't yet added mobility to any of your enterprise apps, you're far from alone. Despite the hype about using mobile wireless computing to extend your application infrastructure, universal adoption is not yet here. Sure, the use of wireless data collection on handheld devices has become commonplace in warehouses and distribution centers. Also fairly common are public safety organizations and field service-oriented companies that rely on mobile apps for dispatching services. And, yes, remote e-mail access from PDAs has even penetrated the consumer space. But, sending full-scale enterprise business applications - ERP (enterprise resource planning), CRM (customer relationship management), and the like - has yet to achieve anything like deep market saturation.

Having real-time access to data from the field can undoubtedly have direct impact on productivity, efficiency, and, therefore, revenue. Field service technicians, for example, can use wireless communications to enhance on-site service and even to download marketing information needed to "upsell" additional products and services. To do that, the cable guy doesn't necessarily need loads of CRM functionality. A basic order entry app running on a handheld device could suffice. But, a different type of employee could make remote use of a full-blown CRM package running back at the home office. The cable company's director of marketing, who just happens to be on the road at a trade show, may want to study the latest data on market trends to determine which premium movie specials to wrap into a promotional mailing for a particular region.

That can happen - and happen now, say some industry insiders. Three key technology indicators suggest that, if it hasn't already done so, your organization may soon be rolling out one or more enterprise apps for mobile wireless access: 1) mobile devices are becoming increasingly powerful and more durable; 2) the emerging standardization of mobile platforms is making EAI (enterprise application integration) less cumbersome and costly; and 3) wireless networks are getting faster, with access to them becoming more pervasive.

Handhelds No Longer Need Handholding
Until fairly recently, the processing power of handheld devices was too limited for most enterprise apps. Even if the device could launch an enterprise app, the processing delays, though perhaps only as long as 30 seconds, could frustrate mobile users who might be at that moment trying to hold the attention of a customer. According to Greg Richards, VP and general manager for mobile enterprise solutions provider Tolt Technologies (Gig Harbor, WA), the iPAQ, with its 206 MHz StrongArm processor, was the ground-breaking device that got companies thinking seriously about using mobile devices for more than just checking calendars and contact lists. "Suddenly, you could run some fairly robust, disconnected applications," says Richards. "The XScale, Intel's follow-up to the StrongArm, has expanded the possibilities. It's a set of processors specifically optimized for handheld devices. Devices that use them are wickedly fast for mobile use - 300 MHz and 400 MHz devices."

Further illustrating the reliability of mobile devices, Richards points to improvements in the batteries that power them. "On the consumer PDAs, you can expect two to three hours of continuous use," he says. "On the more ruggedized devices, you should be able to get a full day's use on one battery."

Open Systems = Rollout Options
Enterprise adopters of mobile computing applications have traditionally had little choice but to invest in solutions built on proprietary platforms. That reality has dissuaded prospective adopters who can foresee the need to have more flexibility. They understand that, after the initial mobile application is rolled out, the company may want to deploy - and deploy quickly - additional applications for use by the same mobile work force.

Thanks to the emergence of open systems platforms, such as Microsoft's Pocket PC, those barriers to adoption are rapidly disappearing. Industry insiders predict the Pocket PC environment will likely become the de facto standard for mobile application development. After all, the original core of that environment, the Windows CE operating system, was designed from the ground up to run on mobile wireless devices. "We're seeing the start of a transformation in the mobile industry, from the DOS environment over to Pocket PC 2002 and the new Windows CE .Net," says Myles Gooding, director, product group, for mobile computing solutions provider Versatile Mobile Systems Inc. (Lynnwood, WA). "As soon as there is general movement to a common OS [operating system], you'll see an expansion in application functionality. Users will be able to take an application and pop it onto any device that supports the common OS."

Want To Satisfy Your Need For Speed?
Perhaps the most essential drivers for adoption will be advances in wireless network connectivity. Two key aspects are ubiquity and performance. Mobile application users want expansive coverage areas and ever-faster data transfer rates. Dave Rosi, SVP, marketing and business development, Aether Systems (Owings Mills, MD), sees promise in what are referred to as 2.5G (generation) and 3G networks, such as GPRS (general packet radio service) and systems based on CDMA (code division multiple access). They greatly improve the speeds of existing wireless transmission - for example, those carried over the soon-to-disappear CDPD (cellular digital packet data) infrastructure, which provides data transfer rates of only 19.2 Kb/second. "Think back to when you were surfing the Internet at 19.2 Kilobits per second," Rosi says. "You're probably even frustrated at 56 K. The new networks at least triple the data rates and will continue to increase in speed."