Is the Best Yet to Come?
Chrysler's auto-industry rival General Motors has found itself face to face with the same mobile development platform conundrum. "Do you standardize on a device or a plug-compatible structure? To date, we have standardized on a device," said Fred Killeen, General Motors chief systems and technology officer. GM issues employees BlackBerry devices for messaging, e-mail, calendaring, Web browsing and telephony. However, like many organizations, GM has yet to go beyond that basic slate of functions.One of those Web applications is GM's so-called "people finder" application, a corporate phone book that enables GM employees to find and connect with one another. Originally a browser-based PC application, the app has been ported to work with the BlackBerry's browser. GM also uses Cognos software, and Killeen is toying with the idea of running the Cognos mobile device interface for BlackBerry. Indeed, in general, Killeen is waiting for the market to shake out before making a greater commitment. "We're looking at all devices, whether it's the iPhone, Symbian OS or Android," he said. "Devices will converge, and employees will need richer capabilities from their personal devices. Android could fill the need, but we'll have to see." The best is yet to come? Reticence in mobile application development is not confined to the auto industry. Fidelity Investments has a long history of support for mobile devices among its customers, dating back to the pagers of the 1990s. When mobile browsers came into use, Fidelity adapted its mobile investor communications system, Fidelity Anywhere, to accommodate them. "Way back, we did browser detection by redirecting the browser from Fidelity.com to Fidelity Anywhere," said Joseph Ferra, chief wireless officer at Fidelity. "Now we're doing device detection. We know it's a mobile browser and what type of device it is, including screen size and keyboard layout." To perform browser and device recognition, Fidelity developed its own software, which grew out of the mutual funds giant's earlier pager support. Support evolved to include early RIM and Palm devices, followed by cell phones. While Fidelity has a uniquely flexible capability for interacting with different browsers, the company has stopped short of device-specific development. "We have thought about it with J2ME, but it's hard to support one-off applications," Ferra said. Smaller enterprises, like their larger counterparts, are often inclined to hold back from mobile application development commitments. Many are happy to use only the capabilities that come packaged with devices. Goldrich and Kest, a real estate company that manages 130 apartment buildings and two marinas in the Los Angeles area, is equipping its property managers with BlackBerry devices so they can access and read PDF documents and Microsoft Word and Excel files-capabilities included with the devices. "We use whatever comes on it," said Bob Lauterbach, IT manager at Goldrich and Kest, who was a respondent to the eWEEK survey. "There is no need to edit the files, just to read them." Thirty-one Goldrich and Kest employees have the devices, and 19 more are set to get them, the IT manager added. Francis Rabuck, an independent consultant and an eWeek Corporate Partner, praised the BlackBerry's potential while lamenting that it often isn't realized. "BlackBerries can't just be for e-mail anymore," he said. "I have seen amazing applications on the BlackBerry. Just doing e-mail is a total injustice." With newer and more broadly appealing platforms coming along, that potential may never be realized. Said Gartner's Clark, "The pendulum was shifting toward RIM and Microsoft until the iPhone came along. Now, the iPhone is breathing life into the market. Then there is Android."
"We have a small number of Web-based applications, but we have not invested in the BlackBerry development environment and we have not purchased applications, either," Killeen said. "We want to write applications that are portable across devices, so, as the market changes, we have the freedom to make that move. Our strategy in the short term is to do Web applications."