When David Heit joined Research In Motion in 2000, the companys wireless e-mail system was only just becoming a favorite in executive circles and he was tasked with looking for the firms next big thing.
Six years later, RIMs BlackBerry handheld devices and e-mail software are the de facto standard for enterprise mobile communications applications, and are now fighting off a potential system shutdown at the hands of its patent suit with NTP. But Heit believes that next big thing has arrived.
The future of delivering mobile applications to handheld devices, he said, lies in the development of new Web services-based technologies.
While mobile browsers, including RIMs own software, currently support a wide range of business tools, he said, and client-server oriented wireless applications built on technologies like J2ME (Java 2 Platform Micro Edition) have won homes in many businesses, Heit contends that the adoption of Web services platforms for building new applications is where the biggest opportunities may lie.
Like Heit, some experts believe that Web-services based tools, software built using standards-based languages such as XML, will allow organizations to piece together news programs derived from their existing applications.
Heit, a senior product manager at RIM, said that despite the belief that mobile browsers will eventually serve the same role they do today on the desktop (acting as a gateway to many business applications) he believes that looking at the issue from that perspective may be all wrong.
By offering some of the advantages of browser-based technologies and mobile client server applications, as well as an increased level of design flexibility, Heit said that Web services-oriented tools will someday better meet the needs of enterprise customers.
“The assumption is that the mobile browser experience should be the same as the desktop experience, but we believe that the usage patterns are different than when youre sitting at your desktop, versus when youre working with a mobile device,” Heit said.
“The mobile experience is much more about immediacy and having information available when you need it,” he added.
“Web services represent a third development model beyond browsers and something like Java, and they will greatly increase our ability to extend applications onto the handheld.”
Rather than trying to build something that recreates the desktop experience of viewing a Web page or online business portal, Heit contends that businesses will embrace Web services-based applications that farm specific data they need directly to handhelds.
Java-based client server applications work well in this regard today, but the cost of developing such tools will become prohibitive as mobile tools proliferate, he said.
At the heart of RIMs Web services effort is its BlackBerry MDS Studio, a visual application design and assembly tool that promises to help developers more quickly piece together mobile applications using a drag-and-drop approach.
By giving companies the ability to create rich Web services-based applications using a simple interface, Heit said, RIM will also offer the ability for firms to save money they might have spent hiring Java developers.
MDS Studio May Be
“[MDS Studio] is opening up another development avenue for the handheld between the browser and Java in terms of simplicity, where companies have greater control of the user interface and can link to other applications on a device, such as a calendar, and it allows for local data storage as part of package,” Heit said.
Heit said that a large number of RIMs enterprise customers, particularly firms running its BlackBerry server software, have already begun playing around with MDS Studio and are trying to build customized mobile applications for themselves.
For instance, Suncor Energy of Canada built a mobile application delivered on BlackBerry handhelds for its team of 85 service station inspectors that replaced a paper-based forms system.
Working across some areas that have poor network coverage, the Web services technologies onboard allow for devices to cue data in the application until the workers find their way back to a reliable connection.
While other technologies might allow for the development of a similar a tool, Heit said, the application was built faster, cheaper and more easily using MDS.
Another RIM customer tapping into the firms mobile Web services strategy is real estate specialists JJ Barnicke, which has built a field sales automation application to help its agents do business with customers on location.
Mario Kovacevic, vice president of IT and eBusiness for the company, said that the Web services development tools have allowed the company to move significantly beyond its previous mobile applications approach.
“Weve gone down the J2ME route and had some wonderful success with that, but had some roadblocks from the standpoint of trying to capture and work with unstructured data,” said Kovacevic.
“To that end, the Web services design model has presented us with an almost infinite opportunity to get almost any compilation of data that we store throughout our organization pushed into the mobile application; its given us a great chance to expand the types of data the tools work with.”
Kovacevic said that his company has also worked with browser-based applications, but the firm found that network coverage issues kept those tools from having much success.
With better browsers on the horizon from mobile device vendors and third-party providers such as Opera Software, he said the firm may experiment with such applications again, but those tools probably wont be as sophisticated from a business process perspective as the Web services-oriented applications, Kovacevic said.
“Since business in general is going in the direction of adopting Web services, it makes a lot of sense to line up mobile strategy along the same lines,” Kovacevic said.
At least one industry watcher agreed that there is little doubt that Web services-based mobile applications will represent one of the most popular models for delivering business tools to wireless devices in the future.
However, said Brad Akyuz, analyst with researchers Current Analysis, wireless carriers will need to embrace the approach if it is to catch on with business customers in the U.S. anytime soon.
Since wireless carriers have so much influence over the types of devices and applications that customers use in the United States today, Akyuz believes those companies will play a key role in pushing the Web services approach forward.
“At the end of the day, the U.S. market is all about control by the carriers, and from their perspective pushing Web services through their portals gives them a lot more control, so there could be some resistance,” Akyuz said.
“I dont think that theres much question that someday the predominant way for delivering applications to mobile handsets will be push-based services built on Web services” Akyuz said.
“But the manner in which carriers embrace all of this, which mostly remains to be seen, will have a significant impact on where and when we see these types of applications showing up.”