As someone who works for a telecommunications company that sells wholesale network services to other communications firms, Dave Buschmeyer considers himself to be a pretty savvy user of mobile devices.
Buschmeyer, a database and billing manager based in Mount Pleasant, S.C., said he has tried to stay ahead of the curve with most wireless trends, including mobile Internet services, but not even his professional experience has allowed him to overcome the challenges that remain in using some of the tools.
“Web access on this particular handset offers little worth looking at, an unpleasantly small screen to view it on, and a user interface so tiresome that you forget what youre looking for by the time you find it,” said Buschmeyer, who uses a Sony-Ericsson T637 phone with service from Cingular Wireless.
“Beyond the larger Internet, even the sports, entertainment and news feeds pre-mapped onto the phone [by Cingular] demand time-consuming navigation, and arent much more than a good way to kill time while standing on line.”
Welcome to the conundrum that is mobile Web access. While theres obvious utility in accessing the Internet via a handheld device, Web content remains ill-suited for most handsets, network coverage can be spotty and keyboard controls are frustrating, Buschmeyer said.
As a result of these factors, the question remains: What needs to happen to make mobile Web access—and the applications that could spawn from it—more useful to enterprise customers?
At the 3GSM World Forum on mobile technologies being held the week of Feb. 13 in Barcelona, Spain, nearly every handheld manufacturer in the world is expected to release new devices offering some sort of Internet connectivity.
The World Wide Web consortium, the group charged with maintaining the standards that serve as the backbone of the Internet itself, will release its latest Mobile Web Best Practices 1.0, a guideline that documents how to produce Web content and Web sites intended for delivery to wireless devices.
Yet, despite all that hard work, its not clear what sorts of customers are ready to jump onboard and give the wireless Web a real try. According to Forrester Research, based in Cambridge, Mass., the mobile Web does continue to grow in terms of traffic, but not at a spectacular rate.
Based on the firms annual benchmark survey of 65,000 U.S. households, some 15 percent of mobile services subscribers accessed the Internet from their devices in 2005, compared to only 6 percent in 2004. Forrester analysts said they expect that number to increase again in 2006.
With technologies such Microsofts Pocket Internet Explorer, Operas Mini and a growing range of device-oriented browsers boasting increasingly sophisticated mobile Web access, some industry watchers say they believe the handset will become used like a computer for accessing the Internet, opening up the market for services like Salesforce.coms hosted business applications, which can be accessed from almost any PC. Other experts maintain that client-server architecture will continue to power wireless business applications of the future.
Opera Predicts Singing Phones
While hardly an everyday name in business circles, Opera Software of Oslo, Norway, said it believes it recently introduced a technology that could help jump-start mobile Internet use. In late January, the company introduced its Opera Mini browser, which promises to make wireless Web access easier on millions of existing handsets.
Rather than attacking the more Net-friendly territory of larger devices such as Palms Treo line or Research In Motions BlackBerry PDAs, which are already winning over wireless Internet devotees with their onboard browsers, Opera said it believes it can inspire people with relatively low-tech devices to begin going online right away.
Capable of running on hundreds of millions of existing phones that run Java and use WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) to access the Web, the Mini, according to Opera, will convince legions of people to increase their mobile Net usage, and inspire more companies to employ wireless business tools.
Company officials said the availability of its mobile browser, and others such as Microsofts PocketIE, will reduce the need for mobile business applications providers to create client-server software programs that essentially include their own browsers.
Instead, the company maintains, applications developers will be able to build tools that run inside independent browsers, allowing users to access them from almost anyplace, or any device.
“Many of todays popular mobile business applications are closed-off client-server type products, but Mini shows how companies will also be able to take a different tack in offering wireless Web tools,” said Eskil Sivertsen, an Opera spokesperson. “Whether it is creating their own version of the browser for a specific use or building less proprietary applications that can be accessed via any browser, theres no need for them to build their own interface anymore.”
As with Salesforce.com on the desktop, he said, mobile users will soon need nothing more than an ID and password to access their applications from any wireless device bearing a browser such as Mini or Pocket IE.
Will the Enterprise Go
Client/Server or Browser-Based?”>
Still Running Screens
While better browsers may allow for some new business tools, companies already offering mobile applications contend that few users will soon be willing to trade the tightly controlled environments of their existing products for more wide-open browser-based alternatives.
According to Pat Smith, a general manager at wireless CRM (customer relationship management) software maker Vettro, a Salesforce.com partner based in New York, a lack of solid browser technology forced businesses to adopt client/server architecture in the first place.
As current browsers cant handle the level of back-end systems integration that mobile business applications demand, he said, customers will be reluctant to change their approach.
“If you look at wireless as it matured in the late 90s, everyone was building WAP versions of their applications and that failed miserably, because they were trying to repurpose something from the PC screen to the small screen,” Smith said.
“Thats why we had to use client/server architecture; you can leverage a lot more technology in a client application than you could ever do on the device Web browsers available today, and it will stay that way for the foreseeable future.”
For its part, Smith said Vettro is rapidly growing its business by marketing a mobile version of Salesforce.coms contact management and CRM software, counting tens of thousands of users, including premier corporate names such as financial services giant Merrill-Lynch and manufacturing stalwart General Electric.
Smith said those types of firms simply do not have the time to take risks on browser-based tools that might not offer instant access or real-time data synchronization, as he said Vettros tools already do.
Opening Windows to Mobile
Nearly everyone watching the mobile applications space seems to agree that one of the biggest factors affecting the continued development of the sector is the arrival of Microsofts Windows Mobile 5.0 operating system on a growing number of devices.
In fact, many industry watchers say they believe that businesses have delayed the process of buying into a mobile applications strategy until that system was released.
Since their IT infrastructures are already built around so many of the software giants products, the thinking is that there will be even more opportunities for integration with new Windows-based mobile tools.
Brad Akyuz, an analyst with Washington-based researchers Current Analysis, said the market for mobile business applications could grow significantly as the Microsoft platform finds its way into more handhelds, and as a result those apps could end up in use by more businesses.
One factor that could serve as an obstacle to that growth, however, is that most of the devices coming loaded with Windows Mobile are among the most expensive on the market, he said.
“Windows Mobile is still not the industry standard, so businesses dont have a lot of options, but they will have more as more devices with it loaded onboard come along,” Akyuz said. “Its not like were going to see this wave of adoption overnight, but a lot of companies that have been sitting on their hands regarding mobile will be looking at their options in greater detail.”
While Microsoft said it is convinced that Pocket IE is in fact robust enough to handle more advanced mobile business applications, even executives at the company maintain that client/server is still the best way for most developers and companies to go.
John Pollard, senior director for Microsofts MED (Mobile and Embedded Devices) Division, said the industry may indeed see more hosted-style applications appear as better browsers come to market, but Microsoft is still encouraging plenty of development under both models.
“Theres no question that you can render very simple applications in a browser on a mobile device, and its not like Microsoft only believes in rich client applications, but, for one thing, in the mobile space you have the inherent constraint of balancing both the online and offline data needs of the user,” Pollard said.
“Browser-based applications are here to stay, and we have a lot of partners going down that route, but the challenge of developing an application for a small screen is still considerable, and you need to have very smart software in order to make something that complex work easily on a small-screen device.”
Pollard said Microsoft will support development of both types of applications in the future, however, as, he said, there will be important gains achieved with both types of tools. He also said its not fair to say that todays browsers have retarded the uptake of mobile business applications, but he does believe that newer products such as Pocket IE and Opera Mini will encourage more software makers to investigate more browser-oriented products.