The early promise of application services has been keyed to stuff that most people never see implementation, cost and staffing issues that are important, but off the radar screen of the average worker.
Now the fun part is coming, including wireless application services that will have a noticeable impact on many jobs by providing access to business software from any device at any time.
At McData, a publicly traded maker of high-end switches for storage area networks with $250 million in sales, a pilot program under way will give employees in the field access to an Oracle applications suite hosted by San Francisco Bay-area application service provider (ASP) Appshop.
Information technology staff, executives, and sales and service people McData, based in Broomfield, Colo., will go live in the weeks and months ahead on Palm handhelds with service from OmniSky, says Don Wenninger, chief information officer and vice president of IT at McData. Other handheld computers, as well as cell phones and two-way pagers, will likely be added down the road.
Wenninger has three business objectives for the wireless ASP program, including better support for field sales and service people, real-time business intelligence for executives on the go and a more efficient communication and approval process for everything from purchases to vacation schedules.
"The first thing is the flow of business intelligence for problem resolution and customer support," Wenninger says.
For example, he says, a service engineer doing an installation in Europe could work in real-time with a salesperson in the U.S. and an engineer in South America.
Having access to financial data, sales status and other information from any location will be a powerful business tool for executives, as will the ability to respond to action items without plugging in or returning to an office, Wenninger says. "Its about efficiency and the time value of intelligence," he says.
OK, so wireless computing is a wonderful thing. Why use an ASP to make it happen?
For the same boring reasons of cost and support at the heart of the model, Wenninger says. "What the ASP gives us is a very significant savings in terms of global infrastructure," he says. "The ability to support global access full-time on a five-nines [99.99999] basis is a differentiator for Appshop. If they werent doing it, we would not be with them we would find another partner."
Appshop has been getting strong demand from its customers to provide wireless services, says Appshop CEO Ravi Kulasekaran. "We want to add services that will enhance the experience, and wireless is what people want," he says.
Privately held Appshop, a leading provider of Oracle software as a service, was founded in January 2000 and has about 70 customers, many of them high-tech manufacturing and advanced networking companies.
Wireless ASPs, which are frequently established as freestanding companies independent of "traditional" ASPs, are expected to grow rapidly in the next few years. IDC says revenue at WASPs will grow from $13.8 million last year to $732.2 million in 2004. Translation: This tiny market is expected to grow rapidly.
Kulasekaran who, like Appshop co-founder Prashanth Prahlad and other top Appshop managers, is an Oracle veteran says the pilot program at McData will be followed by a general rollout of wireless services, which will eventually be accessible via a broad variety of devices.
"One day soon you will be able to call in on a cell phone and, via voice command, download data to your PDA [personal digital assistant]," Kulasekaran says. "The convergence of voice and data over wireless is going to be very powerful."
Despite the security fears surrounding both wireless services and the outsourcing of vital applications, Wenninger isnt losing any sleep. "Im satisfied with the 128-bit encryption they deploy," he says. "Im not really concerned about it. I worry more about disgruntled employees."
Ed Cone has worked as a contributing editor at Wired, a staff writer at Forbes, a senior writer for Ziff Davis with Baseline and Interactive Week, and as a freelancer based in Paris and then North Carolina for a wide variety of magazines and papers including the International Herald Tribune, Texas Monthly, and Playboy. He writes an opinion column in his hometown paper, the Greensboro News & Record, and publishes the semi-popular EdCone.com weblog. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa, two kids, and a dog.