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Reality Check:Can Mobile Computing Live Up to the Hype?

Wireless and mobile computing took center stage at this summer's TECHXNY and PC Expo in New York, providing some sparks of momentum in an otherwise moribund industry suffering from post dot-com hangover and general economic malaise.

Carl Yankowski, CEO of Palm Computing, put it in the grandest perspective possible, citing Archimedes' quote that "the right lever can lift the whole world," adding "handheld computing is that lever."

But while mobile and wireless computing devices – such as personal digital assistants and Web phones – are pervasive, are we expecting too much from them in an enterprise setting?

The numbers certainly support this promise. Some surveys – including one by ENT last year – confirm that up to about a third of IT managers planned some type of wireless or mobile deployment in the near future, and that more than half of all Web access will eventually be from non-PC devices.

Gartner Inc., the original total-cost-of-ownership gurus, applied this formula to handhelds, and put the TCO for handhelds at $2,000 per year for each handheld, versus $10,000 for each PC or laptop. IDC believes that by 2003, there are going to be 500 million wireless Internet data devices around, and that by the end of this year, at least 50 percent of global 2000 companies will be deploying wireless applications. Overall, IDC estimates that $3 billion of current $67 billion software infrastructure market is related to wireless, and this ratio will grow to $15 billion wireless of $100 billion market by end of 2005.

Microsoft is jumping aggressively into this market. In June, the software giant unveiled Mobile Information 2001 Server, a mobile applications server that extends Exchange Server data, corporate intranet applications and services to mobile users based on a single unified architecture that enables carriers, enterprise customers and key partners to build mobile applications and solutions.

On the client side, Microsoft is beta-testing a new version of its Windows CE operating system, code-named Talisker, which is more targeted at the enterprise than previous versions. Microsoft is also ramping up support for wireless LANs. The company recently joined the board of directors of the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA), pledging to participate in the ongoing direction of Wi-Fi, the dominant standard in this space. Microsoft also is active in the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, a short-range wireless data transmission standard for LANs.

However, while acceptance of handheld computing devices has been strong in corporate America, analysts point out that there has not been a great deal of momentum toward linking such devices to back-end systems or data. Security, technical, and management issues make this an uncertain proposition, say analysts and industry experts. Most corporate end-users confine their applications to news, weather, sports, stock quotes, personal calendars, and e-mail delivered over Web phones and palmtops.

"So far, new wireless technologies have been consumer-focused with services positioned in the 'fun' bracket, highlighting the accessibility of Internet content," says Jessica Figueras, analyst at London-based Ovum Research. She notes that organizations still treat wireless and mobile computing "as an exception in terms of the technologies used to support it, and an expensive exception at that.

Mobile workers are simply cut off from the enterprise backbone, unable to access or feed data into enterprise applications."

The following are issues that still need to be addressed before wireless and mobile computing can link with enterprise networks. Support.

Support is one of the "gotchas" in enterprise mobile computing. A recent study by IDC finds that while a majority of companies do provide help-desk support for various mobile devices, this support is scattered. Less than half, 44 percent, do support PDAs, but only 22 percent extend this support to digital phones.

End-user sites migrating to Windows 2000 tend to be larger supporters of mobile and wireless devices, says Fred Broussard, analyst with IDC.

Other IT managers rolling out mobile support find themselves in a quandary. They have to be able to address problems on any number of personally owned devices, over which they have no control. "I am the help desk for PDAs," laments the IT manager charged with rolling out a mobile computing network for a large government organization. He finds the only way around complex support issues is "to make the applications as simple as possible."

Underused features. As is often the case in the IT industry, enormous hype is followed by an enormous letdown. Such has been the saw with WAP-enabled phones, which provides a lesson on the difficulty of adapting mobile and wireless access to real-world corporate operations.

Meta Group research indicates that up to 90 percent of corporate users that purchased WAP-enabled phones simply use them for voice communications – abandoning any data capabilities they may offer. That’s because data-based services have been substandard, according to Jack Gold, vice president of Web and collaboration Strategies at Meta Group. Limited content, slow networks, high latency times, and generally poor user ergonomics have hampered WAP phone services.

Not for everyone. Not everyone will or should go mobile and wireless. Employees that spend most of their day in front of PCs, for example, would be hard-pressed to spend enormous amounts of time crunched over a Palm Pilot or Web phone. The people that stand to gain the most from wireless Web access are those that are unable to sit down at a PC or laptop for extended periods of time – such as distribution warehouse workers that are able to quickly log shipments with bar-code scanners, nurses that can enter patient data right from the bedside, salespeople at client offices, or insurance claims adjusters working in the field.

Technical and management issues. There are a lot of technologies that have to be included and implemented into IT to make that all seamlessly work. Such technologies include the acceptance of new standards and protocols, new client hardware, new client operating systems and microbrowsers, uniform signal coverage, and new middleware/EAI solutions. Eventually, wireless access will rely entirely on XML, with IP as a communication protocol, some analysts predict.

However, in the meantime, moving data to a small-screen environment that only accommodates a few lines of text requires content translation capabilities. Current network bandwidth will not support such applications, either.

"The middleware needed to support wireless e﷓commerce applications is still in a nascent state," says Adam Braunstein, vice president of Robert Frances Group. "Although a few vendors are making progress, the technology is not yet considered reliable enough to provide the infrastructure needed to support true wireless e-commerce application networks. Until the next, or third generation of mobile communications systems is launched, the circuit-switched networks of today cannot provide the required data speeds and support demanded by IP-based applications."