Mobile enterprise application platforms, middleware, development tools, whichever you call it, one of the toughest questions for a business that wants to mobilize its applications is: "What does my carrier offer to help?"
In the past, most carriers simply referred such queries to partners. If an enterprise customer wanted to integrate its legacy application with real-time maps, or add push-to-talk functions into a messaging system, there were always third-party companies for which AT&T or Sprint-Nextel would gladly make your acquaintance. That's still the case, but carriers are increasingly taking some matters into their own hands.
Why? It's the pipe. By offering applications assistance directly to enterprise customers, the major service providers can retain more control of their networks, keep partners happy by white-labeling various technologies, and create the perception of minimizing security risks by keeping ingredients out of recipe.
Verizon Wireless is currently talking loudest among the crowd. Verizon announced in September that it would work more closely with Sybase, is starting to reveal more about its strategy for helping mobile enterprises with the heavy technical lifting. Verizon already partners with Quickcomm Software Solutions for telecom expense management software, and Sybase for its Afaria device management and security applications. Now, Sybase is also contributing its Unwired platform, which focuses on back-end application integration.
"What I ultimately envision is a world where the app store may be segmented out to a specific enterprise," explains Verizon's Mike Schaefer, executive director of mobility solutions. The combined Quickcomm/Sybase catalog will roll out during the first quarter of 2010 as the Mobile Services Enablement Platform, and will be adaptable enough for some applications to work on other carriers' handsets, he says.
Notably, enterprises need to be prepared for some customization, MSEP product marketing manager Cliff Cibelli added. Verizon is using Sybase's Unwired software essentially as-is, but enterprises will need to customize legacy software to be compatible, he said.
Verizon is also looking for Sybase to make some modifications of its own, particularly related to workflows. "We would like to see them speed up the ability to work with the handset manufacturers," says Cibelli. For example, when Research In Motion updates its BlackBerry OS 5.0, or when HTC and Motorola release new Google Android devices, then enterprises will need quicker access to the right middleware. Sybase is doing a good job making its software work with the Apple iPhone, at least within the confines of Apple's semi-closed garden, he adds.
Still, "I have not yet seen the 'killer app' that can be adapted easily from enterprise to enterprise so that anybody can scratch their head and say, 'Oh my god, we need that' .... until everybody's doing it you don't get a lot of best practices," Cibelli observes. It's not enough to make a web GUI know its visitor is using a mobile device if the back-end processes are not well-planned.
A similar sentiment exists at AT&T. The process of mobilizing business applications should start with line-of-business requirements, not I.T. requirements, according to Igor Glubochansky, director of industry solutions and mobility product management. AT&T underlying partners include Antenna Software, Pyxis Mobile, and Spring Wireless. "Typically we first work on the business process to understand which system needs to be mobilized and which users need access to the data," he says. However, that doesn't mean IT shops can relax "If they only begin to investigate technology when the business says they need it, that's too late," Glubochansky says.
"From AT&T's standpoint we are going a lot deeper in terms of customer engagement. Now we're actually involved in the sale and delivery of customer solutions in those specific areas where we see a repeatable deployment," he said. Also similar to Verizon's desire, "I think there is some room to still improve in terms of how to work with smaller customers, in terms of how to improve the project lifecycle, where, instead if having it be days or weeks, we can have it be hours. Frankly these middleware tools have many levels of complexity for the customer."
Kudos go to all of the major service providers for acknowledging all the room to roam, says analyst Chris Hazelton of The 451 Group. "Right now email is still the primary use case for a lot of mobile developers. I think that everybody is having difficulty driving a lot of applications into the enterprise. Traditionally carriers, especially Verizon, would select one company to drive applications into all of its customers," he explains.
For example, in the past Verizon blocked all GPS software except for its partner company, Networks In Motion, and enterprises were forced to find hacks around that obstacle.
Conversely, Sprint-Nextel traditionally stands out for being more open with its network, even before its competitors were in recent years pressured by customers to follow suit, he added.
Hazelton, in a recent report on the initial Verizon/Sybase partnership announcement, elaborated on a wider theme. "This offering is one aspect of Verizon Business' portfolio of services, but it signifies the growing importance of smartphones in the enterprise," he wrote. "Moving beyond mobile voice and email, managed mobility will allow companies to control devices on a global level, independent of carriers for the majority of smartphones used in the enterprise today."
Editor's note: for more information, visit the carrier's own enterprise developer sites. Links open in new windows.