The enterprise is going wireless - or at least it wants to. It was once considered the height of sophistication for corporate businesses to equip their sales teams with laptops and mobile phones. Now they are going even further and opening up their core systems in the race to become mobile.
Corporates are working hard to throw open their data centres to allow remote access to even the biggest applications. Look across the raft of announcements from companies such as SAP, Oracle and IBM and you will see growing support for mobile technologies. Each is working towards making its products accessible from anywhere.
SAP plans to make its R/3 enterprise resource planning package accessible from wireless devices with the upgrade to be announced in September (see box, right). In May, Sybase shipped its Enterprise Portal, which is a web-based front-end for corporate data access that supports mobile and wireless devices. The firm has put its recent good financial performance down to its move into the mobile and wireless access space, and the strategy looks set to continue, said John Chen, the company's chief executive.
Sybase has announced tie-ups with WebTrends and Actuate, two suppliers of trend analysis technologies, with the intention of delivering corporate information over the internet. Sybase's web-enabled database - Adaptive Server IQ Multiplex - will be certified to work with Actuate's information delivery solution and WebTrends' CommerceTrends and Enterprise Reporting Server.
Sybase's recent stronger than expected financial results were attributed solely to its decision to opt for the wireless access market by forming two subsidiaries. Profit rose to $23.6m, from $13.9m, with turnover reaching $234m, an increase of 11 per cent on a year ago. Licensing income, including that of Sybase's SQL Anywhere database, was up 16 per cent on last year.
Oracle launched Oracle8i Lite in November and is now endorsing the Palm computing platform, saying it is "ready for the enterprise, with a broad choice of highly portable hand-held computers".
An Oracle representative said: "An object-relational database, two-way synchronisation direct from hand-helds to Oracle servers, and services offering completely centralised deployment and management of mobile software components are available today on the Palm Computing platform."
Naturally, Oracle is claiming a lead in extending enterprise systems to hand-helds. "Palm operating system hand-helds are striding into the wireless world and mobile access to corporate data is a 'must do' for suppliers," said the company.
The big network suppliers are aiming to be the next Cisco of the wireless world. But once again, the spectre of a lack of standards and protocols is helping to muddy the waters for customers and make life more complicated for resellers. The question is, which protocols will companies adopt to access all of this corporate information?
According to a report from market analyst Illuminata, the answer is not as clear as it was. "One year ago, Wap [wireless application protocol] was going to conquer the world," said James Governor, Illuminata analyst and author of Wap: Turning Japanese, We Really Think So. "Wap was seriously over-hyped when it was first launched, and Wap devices are now suffering from poor sales and a media backlash in Europe as a result."
New kid on the block
However, Governor said there is a newcomer that is not Wap-friendly. "The European wireless market changed shape recently with the announcement that NTT DoCoMo, Royal KPN and Hutchison Whampoa are joining forces to compete for third-generation mobile phone service licences in the UK, Germany, France and Belgium," he said. "That has huge implications for Wap."
DoCoMo's i-Mode uses compact HTML - a sub-set of HTML - to display web pages. This means sites do not have to be redesigned for display on a personal digital assistant (PDA) - DoCoMo phones can display JPEGs, for example. Wap, on the other hand, relies on Wireless Mark-up Language, which means sites have to be redesigned to display on a PDA or phone.
Another recent development came from Sun Microsystems, which launched its Java 2 Platform Micro Edition (J2ME) in mid-July that should complement Wap nicely. But can a phone really run a rich multimedia application? Rumour has it that Sun has already demonstrated Sega's Sonic The Hedgehog game running on a Motorola mobile phone.
Governor said DoCoMo has already committed to J2ME, and Sun claims that Java will be installed on i-Mode phones by the end of 2000. Nokia and Ericsson plan to launch Java phones next year. "It is unlikely Java will kill Wap or i-Mode. It's more likely to complement them. Java, for example, would seem better suited to environments where wireless connections are sporadic because application logic is held in the device. It's worth pointing out the similarity to the debate over thick and thin clients in enterprise computing. Neither is going to disappear soon," he said.
Europe is only just hanging on to its lead in mobile technology, with the threat expected to come from Asia as much as from the US. However, Deutsche Telekom's recent $50bn acquisition of US mobile operator Voicestream reminds us that the market is in for more consolidation, and that the winners are hard to pick.
"This transaction is a unique opportunity to enter the US wireless communications market - one of the most attractive in the world," said Ron Sommer, chief executive at Deutsche Telekom. "As in other markets, such as the UK with One2One, we are partnering with a rapidly growing, nationwide, domestic wireless company."
Wap on the knuckles
Deutsche Telekom bought UK mobile operator One2One for £8.4bn in August last year. This May, it announced that it will invest £600m in upgrading One2One's network. But it is not all good news for the German telecoms giant, which admitted that Wap take-up in Europe has been disappointing. In Japan, the take-up figures for i-Mode have far outstripped those of Wap in Europe.
This failure to deliver is puzzling. Whether you look for the origins of the mobile revolution in the internet, computer telephony integration or the storm caused by the first PalmPilots, the amount of activity in this area is unprecedented and it is the infrastructure suppliers that are leading the charge.
The race to upgrade networks has begun, with Ericsson signing a deal with Vodafone, and Nortel Networks bagging BT to upgrade its network. Once in place, these third-generation networks will open up new markets for resellers aiming at corporates and make access to back-end systems a reality.
Compaq continues to sell products such as its latest wireless Lan offerings. This consists of an 11Mbps PC card and PCI card for wirelessly enabling portable and desktop PCs, as well as 11Mbps hardware and software access points which act as wireless gateways for mobile users. The company has also launched its H3630 pocket PC, which is aimed squarely at the business market.
Whether you have been selling databases and large applications to corporates or simply hoping for a few crumbs from the corporate table in the hardware supply market, the wireless revolution is a great opportunity to get a foot in previously closed doors.
And if you are not already selling Palm devices it may be that Microsoft-based pocket PCs will open the door. Given that most corporate data is accessed through desktops, going the Microsoft route could be the logical answer. However, the Microsoft-based handhelds have only 15 per cent of the market, compared with Palm's 85 per cent.
You are what you wear
However, the ultimate in mobile computing has yet to arrive. One of the broad trends emerging in advanced human computer interaction is the increasing portability of computing power. The Humionics Society, a research group dedicated to the advancement of wearable computers, claims: "Wearable computers are the next generation of portable machines. Worn on the body, they provide constant access to computing and communications."
A wearable computer is one that is "subsumed into the personal space of the user, controlled by the wearer and has both operational and interactional constancy, which means it is always on and always accessible", according to the Society.
There has been a lot of research into wearable computers backed by firms such as IBM and Microsoft. When they hit the shelves we will be asking: "What shall I wear to the office today? My i-Mode Armanis or my Wap Guccis?" It's only a matter of time.
- Data centres the world over are being thrown open to access from mobile devices. Traditional database vendors such as Sybase and Oracle are leading the way with mobile applications that enable this.
- Wap may be under threat from new Japanese technology.
- Java, another endangered technology, may complement Wap.
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