by John Edwards

Management Software Will Harness Wild Mobile Devices–Eventually

Oct 15, 20029 mins
MobileSmall and Medium Business

His official job title is personal communications manager, but John Crouch often feels more like a professional juggler. That’s because Crouch is in charge of the 500 or so Research In Motion BlackBerry handhelds used by medical and administrative employees of Baylor Health Care System, one of the nation’s largest nonprofit health-care providers.

Managing wireless devices is a daunting task. Cell phones, PDAs, notebook PCs and other mobile wireless gadgets are easily lost, occasionally stolen and, unlike desktop PCs and telephones, difficult to inventory. And like many other enterprises with proliferating wireless devices, Dallas-based Baylor is looking to bring order to its mobile fleet by using wireless device management software.

As companies equip more employees with wireless devices, and as the units themselves become increasingly sophisticated and expensive, the need for effective and efficient management tools grows ever more pressing. (Gartner now estimates the total cost of ownership for wireless devices at more than $4,100 per user per year.) Looking to fill the management void, an array of vendors?ranging from niche players like Mobile Automation to software giants such as Novell?is promising to help enterprises get wireless units under control.

The available software ranges from asset management tools that let administrators inventory their pricey mobile investments to applications that provide on-the-fly software upgrades, remote synchronization, security features and even the capability to locate a lost or stolen device. But no one tool as yet can do everything for everyone.

Safe and Secure

For Crouch, the device management capability that matters most is security administration. Since Baylor employees routinely access sensitive patient information on their BlackBerrys, it’s important that administrators can swiftly secure data in the event a unit is lost or stolen.

Until last year, Crouch’s sole line of defense was a simple software utility that locked each handheld after 60 minutes of idle time; the user then had to enter her password to regain access. “There really wasn’t any centralized management,” he says.

After reviewing tools from several different vendors, however, Crouch settled on mFormation Enterprise Manager, developed by mFormation Technologies. If a user can’t find his handheld, Crouch can send a command that immediately locks the device and prevents prying eyes from viewing any stored information. “[And] if it’s confirmed stolen, we can actually wipe all the data off the device,” he says.

Beyond safeguarding critical data, the mFormation software also helps Crouch find lost units. The technology isn’t accurate enough to tell Crouch on exactly which restaurant table or under which car seat an errant BlackBerry has been left, but narrowing down the AWOL handheld’s location to the nearest cell tower can jog the user’s memory. “We’ve located several devices with that mechanism,” says Crouch. Down the road, as more wireless devices begin incorporating GPS technology, management software will gain greater location accuracy.

Software Distribution

Another way wireless management software can help administrators is by delivering software upgrades and enhancements?including critical virus antidotes?to wireless devices. The diffused nature of over-the-air networks makes wireless software delivery an imperative for organizations that must juggle large numbers of devices. “It’s either very difficult or very expensive for central IT managers to physically touch each device to keep it properly maintained and updated,” says Warren Wilson, an analyst who follows mobile device management products for Summit Strategies, a Boston-based technology research company.

Several software vendors, including Mobile Automation, Novell (which acquired Callisto Software, a wireless device management software startup, last year) and XcelleNet, supply products that allow administrators to automatically distribute software to wireless devices. The tools typically allow administrators to deploy software as if the wireless devices were all linked to a traditional cable-based network.

Many products that allow wireless software distribution also support remote synchronization. That capability gives wireless device users?primarily PDA and laptop PC operators?access to their desktop PC information without having to return to the office and plop the device into a cradle.

Asset Management

Wireless device administrators also need to keep tabs on their mobile investments. Wireless asset management tools, supplied by companies like mFormation and Novell, let administrators know exactly how many devices they have in the field at any given moment, the types of devices being used and each unit’s precise configuration.

Management software helps organizations reduce the number of devices lost through theft or negligence, says Nancy Braatz, a senior technology analyst with the Waukesha Engine Division of Dresser Industries, an industrial engine manufacturer in Waukesha, Wis. “We’re able to track who’s got which device, what serial number, etc.,” she says. “If you’re going to implement anything more than 10 units, or any users who are not all in the same building, I would recommend doing this.”

Having fast and easy access to device type and configuration information is vital to efficient wireless software distribution. “You can’t deploy an application that needs 2MB of RAM on a device that has only 1MB available,” observes Summit’s Wilson. Knowing which applications are running on specific devices is also essential to meeting the requirements of software licensing agreements and for troubleshooting problems.

The wireless asset management field is expanding rapidly. The market’s startup pioneers are being joined by a growing number of traditional network management software vendors, such as Computer Associates International and IBM Tivoli, that are adding wireless management capabilities to their existing network management product lines.

Multiple Choices

Given the wide range of mobile device management tools offering a patchwork of features and device compatibility, finding the right product isn’t easy. Baylor’s Crouch suggests that wireless administrators prioritize their management needs and then select the software that most closely matches their requirements. “Just make sure you do your research and get what you’re expecting to get,” he says.

The situation is particularly chaotic for administrators who find themselves managing a mŽlange of cell phones, PDAs, laptops and other wireless units. For those managers, following Crouch’s advice isn’t that easy. Novell’s ZenWorks for Handhelds, for example, provides a wide range of management features, but it works only with Palm OS, Windows CE and Pocket PC systems. (BlackBerry support, they say, is in the works.) On the other hand, mFormation Enterprise Manager supports an extensive variety of PDAs and mobile phones, and an array of wireless networking technologies, but it doesn’t allow software distribution. For many enterprises, the only solution may be to acquire two or more management products.

Management software pricing varies widely. The mFormation Enterprise Manager, for example, costs $20,000 for the server software and between $55 and $75 per device. The software is also available as a hosted service ranging from $5 to $10 per device per month. Novell’s ZenWorks for Handhelds, on the other hand, is priced at a flat $59 per device.

Many wireless device administrators have responded to the confusion by sitting out this dance and waiting for the music to change. Truncated feature sets and compatibility shortfalls, as well as concerns about products keeping pace with wireless evolution, are deterring many enterprises from implementing any wireless management software. Ronni Colville, a wireless networking analyst at Gartner, predicts that software vendors will have a tough time attracting customers in sizeable numbers. “I would be surprised if these little devices are managed centrally even in three years,” she says. “I think it will be a slow evolution.”

Yet another factor wireless device management software adopters must consider is exactly how they will acquire the technology. Most such products come as licensed software. But as the need for comprehensive device management grows, wireless service providers, sniffing a revenue opportunity, have started offering management tools as add-ons to their service packages. Crouch, for example, licenses mFormation Enterprise Manager from service provider GoAmerica. He notes that the add-on approach has allowed Baylor to sidestep the cost and inconvenience of installing the application on its own servers. “Everything has worked as promised, and it’s been a very smooth rollout,” says Crouch.

On the other hand, in return for the cost savings and convenience, add-on customers must be willing to give up control over the technology, including the ability to customize the software.

The Future: SyncML

Promising to make wireless device management less painful in the future is SyncML, a mobile-oriented data exchange language backed by Ericsson, IBM, Motorola, Nokia and other major wireless players. Based on XML, SyncML aims to pave the way toward the synchronization of all devices and applications over any wireless network.

With SyncML, any personal information, such as e-mail, calendars, to-do lists, contact information and other relevant data, will be consistent, accessible and up to date, no matter where the information is stored. For example, a calendar entry made to a mobile device on a business trip would be equally available to colleagues accessing a network calendar on other mobile and stationary devices.

Although SyncML looks like a step in the right direction toward improved wireless data compatibility, the technology isn’t likely to solve the most pressing wireless device management concerns, such as asset management, security and software distribution. “SyncML is mostly about making sure you get your new e-mail and that the inbox on your handheld device looks like the inbox on your desktop computer,” says Summit’s Wilson.

In fact, wireless device management is likely to get more challenging before it gets easier. With hardware developers constantly dreaming up new wireless products, administrators are likely to find themselves in a tail-chasing race to get a handle on device management. “Think about PCs,” says Gartner’s Colville. “They came out in 1981, and we’re still trying to manage those darn things.”