by Michael Fitzgerald

How to Overcome the Obstacles to Mobile Enterprise Apps

Sep 24, 20085 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsMobileSmall and Medium Business

There's help, and some tools, for IT departments challenged with taking enterprise departments wirelessn

E-mail is no way to run a cafe. Au Bon Pain VP of IT Randy Burkhart knew that on weekends, managers were logging in to e-mail multiple times, checking for potential issues at their stores. Even the BlackBerry was too slow to let them respond to problems quickly.

But a couple of years ago, Burkhart noticed that smartphones were becoming powerful computers in their own right. So 18 months ago he started deploying corporate applications on Windows Mobile cell phones, such as a daily profit-and-loss report and alerts that inform managers about staffing or supply shortages. The initial application was deployed in six weeks. Managers can pick between Motorola Q and Treo phones.

The result has been a quicker response time for all kinds of problems. When an Au Bon Pain catering van ran into a customer’s car in a parking lot recently, the company’s area director didn’t need to e-mail someone and then wait around. He used his phone to take pictures of the accident and report it to the people who would have to handle it. “There is a time value to information,” Burkhart says, and smartphones let his company get more value for their time.

Au Bon Pain is not alone. Companies that got their feet wet on wireless e-mail with the BlackBerry are primed to move other applications onto smartphones, says Andy Seybold, a veteran wireless consultant. Improvements to smartphones themselves (more memory, better processors) and to wireless networks (they’re faster) make such projects more viable, even for small companies. Research company Frost & Sullivan predicts that mobile phone use for field-service applications will increase from 1.5 million subscribers this year to 11 million in 2013.

But obstacles remain. For example, wireless carriers aren’t used to selling enterprise systems to companies because enterprises require different types of support than carriers are set up to deliver. Companies are better at getting data into and out of their core applications than providing mobile access to that data. Nevertheless, data integration with enterprise systems poses barriers. Phones have vastly different capabilities and user interfaces. “There’s a continuous stream of devices,” says Terry Stepien, president of Sybase’s iAnywhere, which helps companies make applications work better for remote and mobile workers.

“Some will have keyboards, some won’t. Some will have GPS, some won’t.They’ll have different operating systems. It’s a heterogeneous world and it looks like it’s going to stay that way.”

Companies can try to build their own interfaces to extend applications to mobile phones. They can use a variety of middleware platforms, such as the iAnywhere’s Information Anywhere suite, or they can turn to mobile-oriented integrators to do the job.

Wireless Three Ways

Au Bon Pain went the integrator route. It got help from Enterprise Mobile, which is backed by Microsoft and works primarily with companies using Windows Mobile. Its main work is shepherding companies through the quirks of the cell phone market, such as helping them choose from idiosyncratic cell phone plans.

Enterprise Mobile helped Burkhart with security and user-interface questions, like what to do when a phone is lost and how to present data on a 2-inch-by-2-inch screen.

Delta Air Lines, meanwhile, used iAnywhere’s Information Anywhere suite, which includes the Afaria mobile management tool and Onebridge development environment and middleware products, to develop a way for its field operations workers to use handhelds, instead of network-attached PCs to check their e-mail or update service tickets.

The tools, deployed in late 2007, let Delta’s field-service workers exchange data directly with the company’s back-end servers, using Motorola mc35 Windows Mobile handhelds, says Rich Meurer, advisory engineer at Delta.

In a different project, Delta added a mobile application for baggage tracking this year, using Motorola m9090 handhelds, which use a different version of Windows Mobile.

Where as iAnywhere’s tools are geared toward developers who are writing specific applications from scratch, Vaultus—which is used by Genzyme—has developed a series of templates that an IT department can customize. Other mobile middleware providers take different approaches: For example, Vettro specialized in putting hosted applications on mobile phones, and Syclo is focused on manufacturing apps.

Genzyme chose Vaultus when it decided to bring its European sales representatives online. The company was already using the BlackBerry and was looking to them to provide its sales representatives in Europe with e-mail. Executives decided to make Genzyme’s customer relationship management system (Sage Saleslogix by Sage Software) available on the devices as well, says Seppo Beumers, application manager at Genzyme in Naarden, the Netherlands. The sales representatives typically work as field advisers. They need to make notes on questions and requests for follow-up and then put those into a CRM system. But they typically don’t have enough time with a doctor to use their notebook computers.

While Vaultus says a typical installation takes between three and six weeks and costs from $20,000 to $200,000, it took Genzyme about 10 months to deploy the application. The company spent about half a million euros, including the cost of about 200 BlackBerrys.

Beumers said the extra time was needed to translate documentation and training materials and find time to train the sales representatives.

The company got a return on its investment in about 18 months, based on time saved by sales representatives. Now Genzyme in Europe is looking at using Vaultus to add more applications to the mobile phones, probably starting with corporate reporting tools. Says Genzyme’s Beumers, “I’m thinking that these mobile devices will be more important than your laptop.”