What’s Really Driving the Wireless Enterprise
July 2003 - By Chris Martins

The wireless market is a dynamic one, but with all the noise about various Wi-Fi networks, new mobile devices and other technology news, there is a tendency to ignore what will be the real engine of market success—at least for enterprise applications.

Glitzy devices or the latest 802.11 systems will not determine the keys to success; rather, success will originate in the mundane and gritty world of software development tools. Robust application development environments really represent the center of gravity of market success.

Why? Software platforms with strong development capabilities have something to offer the all-important distribution channel (as well as corporate developers). In turn, a software supplier’s distribution channel can leverage those tools as a foundation to create or customize solutions of the kind required by enterprises in their day-to-day business operations. And that distribution channel—representing hundreds if not thousands of partners—is a critical factor in achieving broad market acceptance of mobile applications.

Looking Back

Distribution channels are key to the kind of market penetration—the proverbial “feet on the street”—that is necessary for both individual vendors and the market to thrive. Substantive markets require the tools to create specific solutions and the resources to deliver them. And broad deployment of field force automation solutions that can meet the needs of the sales and service markets in manufacturing, utilities, financial services, etc., will require a rich development base to create these solutions.

An historical reference can serve as a proof point. Everyone acknowledges that software behemoth Microsoft built its market supremacy by dominating the desktop operating system market through DOS and Windows. From that operating system hegemony sprung Microsoft’s desktop foray, MS Office. Yet Microsoft’s origins began not with these operating systems, but with the BASIC compiler that Bill Gates and Paul Allen developed for the Altair computer.

In fact, it was support of that BASIC compiler that prompted Microsoft’s decision to acquire an operating system. When IBM came calling looking for something to run on its yet-to-be-released IBM PC, Microsoft opportunistically found a bargain basement operating system after another vendor (Gary Kilduff’s CP/M) failed to provide IBM with what it needed. Initially, the operating system was not Microsoft’s endgame, but merely a foundation upon which to run a programming language.

Searching for Solutions

No one would dismiss the vital role that the operating system played for Microsoft and the industry at large. But just as DOS began as a platform on which to run BASIC, so should mobile environments be considered platforms rather than solutions in and of themselves. The relatively low cost of mobile devices has led to the proliferation of new hardware throughout many organizations, sometimes without substantive purpose or any real IT/business mandate. But device deployment is not the endgame for enterprise solutions.

Having mobile calendar and contact functionality is nice, but it’s pretty difficult to cost-justify devices that serve as little more than $300 day planners, regardless of the cachet of their tungsten finishes. To be fully incorporated into the enterprise infrastructure, these technologies have to be married to the key business drivers of the organization.

Many have looked to wireless e-mail and Instant Messaging as that entry point. Both have considerable promise and value for enterprise users who need persistent, untethered communications support. But mobile messaging solutions often operate outside the domain of line-of-business applications. Sales and service staff need to access leads, customer data, product information, presentations and reports on these devices as part of a complete mobile solution. And as for putting cameras into mobile phones? Well, that might be a cool technical achievement, but it won’t be a business solution until we start seeing insurance claims adjusters, property appraisers and others incorporating such functions into their daily jobs.

No Killer App

Face it, killer applications are few and far between. Business requirements are typically too diverse and too specialized within a vertical market to accommodate singular killer apps. For example, barcode or RFID tracking might be the kind of capability that drives mobile/wireless adoption in inventory and distribution operations, spurring mobile adoption in retail and distribution markets. But such capabilities will do little for sales force automation applications and might have only marginal value for field service (e.g., tracking spare parts consumption and managing the reverse logistics process).

Rather than look to a single, monolithic, killer app to drive market adoption of mobile technologies, we are better served to seek out the availability of a rich set of development tools that will help support deployment of a variety of different applications attuned to different market requirements. None of those applications might be dominant on its own, but in aggregate they can represent a new wave of enterprise solutions, mobilized for the modern user.

Again, one might look to software history for perspective. In the 1980s and 1990s, a generation of graphically-centric LAN and client-server applications hit the market that leveraged development tools like Microsoft’s Visual Basic, PowerSoft’s PowerBuilder, Gupta’s SQLWindows and others. These solutions became the foundation for many enterprise solutions. The dominance of thick-client architectures (application logic on the client, data on the server) can largely be attributed to the affinity that developer communities—both corporate and independent and numbering in the millions—had for such tools. That same affinity proved to be a challenge to those developers when confronted with the thin-client, browser-based architectures that emerged with the Web. So much application logic resided and was executed in desktop environments that developers had to fundamentally rebuild their solutions to create new Internet-centric applications. This illustrates how software tools can build tremendous momentum in support of a particular architectural environment. Those tools can also create tremendous inertia that inhibits the adoption of newer architectures.

Winning Tools?

Has a winning set of development tools emerged as yet? In such a relatively young market, most likely not. The platforms (Palm, Pocket PC, Symbian, various “smartphones”) are still evolutionary and the software infrastructure suppliers (Microsoft’s .NET, Sun’s Java, IBM’s Websphere Studio, Qualcomm’s BREW, PalmOS, etc.) are balancing the demands of mobile environments together with Web Services and other infrastructure initiatives. And the challenges of 2.5 and 3G, Wi-Fi and other systems issues also co-opt mindshare. All in all, there’s a whole lot of churn going on.

Yet, this observer believes that the emergence and maturation of the development tools market will be the real barometer of market adoption for mobile enterprise solutions. Though the trade and business press may write front-page articles about the latest, cutting-edge devices, it will be the activities of developer communities in the back pages that really drive adoption. And while such news might lack the glamour of picture phones and instant messaging, it represents where the action is for mainstream deployment of mobile enterprise solutions.

Chris Martins is an independent consultant and commentator on technology solutions. He can be reached at [email protected]


Leisure Publications