The future is getting smaller day by day. At least that's what Tivoli is banking on.
The IBM subsidiary and supplier of management software for in-house systems last week announced a major re-focus on the so-called pervasive computing market, and the Palm platform in particular.
"What we are seeing is the founding of the Palm economy," said Israel Gat, vice president of Tivoli's pervasive management business unit, at the launch of its Tivoli Device Manager for the Palm platform.
Tivoli Device Manager for Palm allows an in-house systems manager to support applications running on the Palm platform and integrate them with back-office systems. As well as software deployment, it has inventory and event notification features.
What this means is that the Palm personal digital assistant (PDA) - and other competing devices, to which Tivoli intends to add support in due course - is transformed from a rather nifty executive gadget into a serious business tool.
"When wireless and pervasive devices are discussed, it's often in the context of individuals. The real pay-offs, however, are in groups," says James Governor, an analyst at researcher Illuminata. While one user with a PDA merely has an expensive electronic Filofax, a network of users is of real business benefit, he argues.
While the number of PDAs is expected to grow massively in the next few years, the cost of managing them will also soar. According to analyst GartnerGroup, handheld devices will have the same ownership cost issues as PCs. So a $450 (£273) device could cost as much as $2600 (£1576) a year in total cost of ownership terms. Tivoli is hoping to capture as much of that market as possible, but it is looking at more than just handheld devices, however fashionable they may be at the moment. Tivoli's vision of pervasive computing doesn't just cover PDAs and mobile phones, but also includes set-top boxes, cable modems, cash points, and point-of-sale terminals.
Underpinning these initiatives is the Tivoli Enterprise architecture, its systems management architecture. Device Manager adds an extra tier to this architecture, extending the Tivoli device support infrastructure, and allowing managers to treat pervasive devices as just another part of their IT infrastructure.
"We are now just another tier, another device, another product in an existing management structure," says Keith Ramee, global alliances manager for Palm.
The ability to support a much wider range of applications on the Palm platform is also very good news for Palm. "Instead of seeing hundreds of devices rolled out, we'll see thousands," Ramee adds.
Tivoli already has one UK company, Safeway, using Device Manager for Palm. The retail giant, which uses Tivoli software to manage point-of-sale terminals for its 470 stores, has been experimenting with giving modified Palms to customers in some of its stores.
The customers use the palmtops to place orders and record their purchases. The Palms are connected to a customised IBM data warehousing application, which allows Safeway to gather more data on its customers' shopping habits.
Another customer is VicRoads, the Victoria state road agency in Australia. It has issued Palms to its road crews, allowing managers to transmit daily job lists. The Palm units are synchronised with both a Palm server and a Lotus Notes database.
Considering that Palm sold 5.5 million units last year, finding useful business tasks for the dinky device is good news for both users and suppliers.
"The real value of pervasive computing lies not in the device, but in the applications you can run on it," says Gat. "A lot of our push into this space is coming from customers complaining there was a sea-change coming up, and we needed to respond to it."
And Tivoli wants to manage as many of them as possible. "The subscription base we build up now is more important than the actual payback we get right now," he continues. "Speaking personally, I don't have any problem with deferring revenue to increase our reach in the market."
Research and development
Tivoli has earmarked $100m (£63m) a year for research and development of its pervasive market initiatives, a respectable sum even for a company with a revenue base of $2bn (£1.2bn) a year.
The firm said it will unveil details later this year of an initiative to create a systems management 'consortia', developing application protocol interfaces (APIs) to allow different systems management products to work together as needed.
It won't just be a Tivoli world, however. Computer Associates (CA) is also looking intently at this area, and has some products in the market already.
Other suppliers are working to develop Palm as a corporate platform. Sun Microsystems is also looking at ways of putting Java on the PalmOS, allowing it to be connected wirelessly to Sun servers.
"The field is wide open at the moment," says Governor. "Tivoli is being very systematic in its approach to this market, and it will definitely be a major player. For both Tivoli and CA this represents a major opportunity to sell into their installed bases."
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