Developer Product Briefs

Mobility in the Enterprise

CTIA Wireless 2006 allowed Forum Nokia Pro members to meet and share ideas. FTPOnline invited five Pro members to engage in a roundtable to share perspectives on mobility in the enterprise.

Mobility in the Enterprise
Get insider perspectives on the challenges of developing and deploying mobile applications for enterprises in a mobile technology roundtable.
Moderated by FTPOnline Editors

April 17, 2006

Mobile application development in enterprises is not only challenging for organizations, it encompasses a nascent segment of the IT industry that is as dynamic and as unpredictable as it is exciting. Arguably no other segment of the industry is seeing the level of innovation that is occurring in mobile application development. Given the significant technological hurdles that developers of mobile applications face—multiple operating system platforms, myriad devices and features, regional considerations, and so on—what do enterprises need to do to propel their heterogeneous environments forward and capitalize on this innovation?

FTPOnline took advantage of the recent CTIA Wireless 2006 Conference to bring together prominent industry insiders for a roundtable discussion of enterprise mobile development issues. In addition to representing organizations that span a range of product and service offerings in the global mobile device market, each organization that participated in this roundtable is a member of Forum Nokia Pro, a developer program dedicated to providing mobile application developers with a variety of support resources (see the sidebar, "Meet the Mobile Enterprise Technology Panel" for brief descriptions of the participants' organizations). Take a look at the interesting perspectives that these prominent industry executives shared in an exclusive roundtable for FTPOnline readers.

FTPOnline: The mobile device market is larger than the global PC market, but it is also more fragmented with multiple operating systems having significant market share. What are the primary challenges IT organizations face in creating enterprise applications in this heterogeneous environment?

Gerry O'Prey: The main challenge obviously will be support. It will be very time-consuming for the IT department to provide details on how to manually configure e-mail settings and so on. Centralized device management servers will help, providing all of the operating systems support the same device management protocols.

Anurag Lal: In addition to multiple operating systems, IT organizations must also grapple with a myriad of devices that use variants of any given operating system. While some devices can be standardized across similar functions, it's hard to imagine a "one size fits all" device. The organization must also factor the network operators and network types supported (Wi-FI, 3G, and so on) into its mobile equation. As we know, network operators are either in very different stages of their evolution or using incompatible standards. These issues will likely continue for as long as operating system, device, and network fragmentation exists.

Douglas Edwards: The challenges are living within the constraints of small-footprint memory; deploying and maintaining version control across many different device configurations; the trade-off between convenience of Web-based applications and the more robust, true client/server implementations; security across not only networks but within individual devices that even if lost may not be reported; and many more issues.

Fritz Ollom: IT organizations tend to focus on extending their existing mission-critical enterprise applications to mobile devices rather than creating new applications. Organizations need to determine which applications are supported on which operating systems and which devices fit the applications best. Picking a single device that fits everyone's needs is a challenge when the device must be supported around the world and used for different job functions supporting different applications. IT organizations that cannot standardize on one device for technical, business, or availability reasons must ensure that the different devices can be managed properly, which is a significant challenge. Many organizations require a mix of mobile devices and therefore the focus should be on extending applications to multiple platforms.

FTPOnline: Is it possible for IT organizations to standardize on one mobile operating system across the enterprise? Is standardization a practical or advisable strategy?

Edwards: It's possible, but not likely as a mobile device is a very personal choice. Even if an organization gives chosen devices to every employee, individuals will bring in secondary or personal devices that they are either more familiar with or prefer for aesthetic reasons, thus diluting the benefit of any standards push.

Lal: In the short term standardization is difficult. As the market matures and most mainstream operating systems begin to support a larger number of devices, form factors, and applications, it will become easier. For small-to-medium enterprises with relatively homogeneous needs, a single operating system already meets the needs of most employees. For large enterprises with diverse workforces and applications that include field service workers, it's nearly impossible to standardize on a single operating system because of the hardware requirements of custom applications. In the end, there will be a mix. For some organizations, it will be practical and advisable to standardize; for others it won't.

Ollom: But it depends on which applications should be supported and what the geographic scope of the deployment is. Standardization on a particular operating system may impose limited device choices in a certain region. The functionality required by a particular application can also dictate which type of device users may need. For those who have data-collection needs, a Microsoft PPC device or a Symbian-based S80 device with a barcode reader may be ideal. For those who need only voice capabilities, it may be less expensive and more ergonomic to simply deploy low-end, feature phones that don't have a high-end smartphone operating system.

O'Prey: Standardization is possible, but not without staff discontent. The mobile phone is a very personal device, and the same device is usually used for both business and pleasure. Everybody has their own preferences for the feature set (camera, MP3 files, and so on). I would however think that the benefits of standardizing on an operating system across the enterprise is practical and advisable, particularly when there is a wide range of phone configurations using the operating system—for example, those from Nokia.

FTPOnline: What criteria should IT managers use in evaluating mobile device platforms and determining where to dedicate development resources? How has your organization made the determination of what platforms to support?

Lal: Key criteria should include total cost of ownership (including device and carrier fees); breadth of features; service availability and coverage; feature road map/ease of deployment; and access to a robust support infrastructure. Our [iPass's] development priorities are driven primarily by the needs of our enterprise customers. Although we support multiple operating systems, the vast majority of our customers use Windows-based notebooks and PDAs; currently that's where we have the greatest focus. We intend to take a similar customer-driven approach for the smartphone market and are engaged with leading device manufacturers to develop compelling connectivity solutions for the handset market.

Ollom: IT managers should look to deploy mobile device platforms that support the applications critical to their business and have intuitive user interfaces, long battery life, and solid device-management capabilities. For some enterprises the geographic market penetration of a particular platform will also be an important criterion, as will the choice of mobile operator.

The enterprise benefits from providing its employees with common consistent interfaces and access to core applications across all devices, whether mobile or fixed. This benefit is why we [Avaya] developed the one-X product family of client applications and end devices: to provide a consistent user experience as the employee moves from one device to another throughout the workday. Our development resource decisions have been driven primarily by market demand of the particular platform, tempered by the robustness and flexibility of the development environment.

O'Prey: As I said previously, the platform should be flexible enough to support many configurations. Personally, I'd recommend that no phones be considered unless they support WLAN. This networking is now the standard wireless data communications medium and is much easier to use than cables or Bluetooth. In addition, a WLAN-equipped mobile phone has the potential to support Voice over Wi-Fi, which gives the enterprise all the price savings and extra features that VoIP provides.

Edwards: Standard operating systems that function in more or less predictable ways across multiple devices would be ideal, and that includes Windows Mobile, Palm, and Symbian today. It might include Linux at some point, but this operating system is more likely to show up at a lower level with application still contained in the less-robust Java ME sandbox. However, even this limitation can be overcome with innovative technologies that build on the strengths of Java and exploit the power of true client/server solutions.

FTPOnline: Is application standardization across platforms practical? What are the most important cross-platform initiatives? Is interoperability in the offing? How effective are application porting technologies?

Edwards: It's not only possible, it's being done! Standard solutions with work-alike experiences across platforms can be realized—the Handmark Pocket Express is one example. Interoperability is possible where a common server environment normalizes content distributed and the response received from otherwise seemingly incompatible device technologies. Application porting strategies vary considerably and are often the victim of the sins of the least-common-denominator syndrome; however, robust, server-based solutions with intelligent clients can reduce this effect by relying on the much greater power of a supernumerary hosting environment.

O'Prey: The only real applications that are portable between platforms are those written in Java. Obviously this is a very important cross-platform initiative. Other important application-specific initiatives are data synchronization and device management. Java ME is still limited in the functionality that can be provided because of the limitations of the APIs.

Ollom: For some types of applications, it is possible to standardize across platforms. However, as the complexity of the communication increases, the practicality of cross-platform development diminishes. For example, complex applications that need to touch low-level phone settings or APIs don't lend themselves to cross-platform development. Applications that are simply accessing data and displaying it to the user usually can be accomplished across platforms.

Interoperability across all devices is not coming soon. There are a few technologies, such as Java ME and Macromedia Flash, that are (or soon will be) deployed broadly enough that they become important platforms for application development. However, more highly integrated applications for the phone platform usually require native application development for Symbian or Microsoft Windows Mobile. Even for applications that do get written as cross platform, the rapid nature of consumer phone platform development means these devices have idiosyncrasies that often require testing and tweaking to ensure proper application functionality.

Lal: Right now, in most cases application standardization across platforms is impractical. The variability across devices of form factors, network interfaces, and peripheral availability make it difficult if not impossible to standardize. Mobile devices have largely been developed to be "fit for purpose" and don't yet have the versatility and processing capability of a notebook, which is an essential component of cross-platform standardization. Application porting technologies provide one with minimal gain from a development life-cycle perspective because of the differences and customizations required between platforms and operating systems.

FTPOnline: From your unique perspective in the industry, where do you see the state of wireless development in the enterprise going? Do you have a prediction for the most significant milestones in mobile application development in the enterprise over the next one to two years?

Ollom: Dual-mode devices will start to gain traction, but broad enterprise deployment of these devices is still a couple of years off. The technology and standards are now finally there to support QoS and security for VoWiFi on standard devices, but it will take a while for these devices to be rolled out. We'll also see business communications applications vendors striving to extend their applications to an ever broadening array of mobile devices. As more of these applications are extended to mobile users, we'd expect core business processes to change and become more streamlined as people take advantage of the benefits that intelligent communications can provide.

O'Prey: Yes, the uptake of dual-mode phones (cellular/Wi-Fi) will make the mobile phone even more ubiquitous in the office than it is today. The mobile phone will become a cordless extension to the corporate PBX, and IT managers will gain more control over their cellular bills. New services will be enabled on cellular phones because of the combination of VoIP and WLAN.

Lal: I believe the future is very bright for wireless and mobility in the enterprise. One of the most significant developments we believe will occur in the short term (one–two years) is greater penetration and availability of mobile applications that are always connected across the enterprise. This penetration will occur very quickly and is being driven primarily because of first a compelling requirement by enterprise end users to be connected and productive wherever they may be; second by device manufacturers who are delivering multifunction, mobility devices in a convenient form factor and with good battery life; and finally because of the availability of ubiquitous wireless broadband coverage being delivered on a global basis.

Edwards: New tools and environments now being created for specific commercial, or consumer, applications will migrate into toolsets that make it much easier to create powerful, integrated application suites for corporate information systems that can be deployed across heterogeneous device platforms. The best is yet to come.

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