Analysis: mobile intranets – Have you got the message?

The business vision for wireless technology has been slow to materialise. The backlash caused by the well-publicised 3G auctions contributed to the malaise, but the marketing hype surrounding WAP has also given some misleading messages to the business community. WAP phones were pitched as consumer products with features such as weather information, news updates, and personal banking facilities. Such devices were not perceived to have a role in the world of corporate IT.

This vision is now beginning to change as firms are realising the benefits that wireless technology can bring to disparate and mobile workforces. A recent study from Meta Group reports that one fifth of business to business transactions will be undertaken by wireless systems by 2003. The figure is surprising considering the unresolved complications in the wireless marketplace and the general reluctance of firms to invest in the technology. The report admits that budgets for wireless projects are still very low but predicts that they will grow rapidly within the next 14 months.

The main driving force behind this rapid growth is the advancement of the technology itself. As mobile phones, PDAs and other WAP-enabled devices become more powerful and their supported bandwidth increases, their potential in business becomes tangible. According to Meta Group, firms are now becoming more discerning about which projects they identify for wireless implementations.Rather than building whole wireless systems from scratch they are choosing to extend the reach of certain business applications with wireless protocols. This selective implementation, says the report, results in a clearer understanding of the business benefits.

Such reports are encouraging for companies involved in the mobile computing sector, but real wireless implementations are still rare, and just how they will develop is a matter of huge debate. Some await a “killer application” for WAP-enabled devices, but the more commonly held view is that once sufficient bandwidth becomes available the uptake of corporate applications on mobile devices will grow rapidly.

As for the devices themselves, we are likely to see some major transformations here too. The real benefits of WAP phones in a business context are still unclear, particularly as the constraints of screen space preclude the kind of complex functionality used in business applications. PDAs allow richer information display but screens must be substantially reformatted to fit the parameters of the display device often resulting in unfriendly multi-function layouts.

Simple messaging applications are more practical than scaled-down front-ends for business applications. In fact, Lotus has recently put in place the technology that makes calendaring, messaging and corporate directory software available to handheld devices. Staff who are on the move are then better able to respond quickly to messages, and report vital information back to base while it’s fresh in their minds. New devices like the Blackberry from Research in Motion have also appeared on the market as pure e-mail devices. The Blackberry is an “always on” device which behaves like a pager, sending out a signal when new mail arrives. The idea is simple and has been hugely successful in the US where the gadget has become so addictive it is referred to as the Crackberry.

The technology is exciting, but it has yet to be taken seriously in business. Currently PDAs are simply not considered to be necessary to an organisation’s key functions. In fact, a recent report from Gartner Group shows the total worldwide shipments of PDAs slipping by a massive 21% between the first and second quarters of 2001. There is evidence that the PDA market will endure some formative growing pains over the next couple of years and there are some signs of more sophisticated devices appearing on the market.

PDA manufacturer Handspring, for example, has recently introduced a new device which is a cell phone, an organiser, and a Web browser. In September Microsoft launched the new version of its Windows-powered Pocket PC 2002 operating system, which provides an interface closer to a desktop PC than to a traditional PDA. Some analysts argue that this will help to drive sales forward in the PDA sector but it’s also clear that wireless devices still have a long way to go if they are to be seen as real productivity tools rather than frivolous executive gimmicks. Recent figures from IDC are optimistic. It says that the market for next generation PDAs will be five times larger by 2004 resulting in more than $26bn worth of sales.

Eleanor Turton-Hill is a freelance journalist


In an effort to integrate wireless devices with corporate applications, IBM has teamed up with Intel and UK smartphone developer Symbian. A combination of technologies will be used including Lotus’ mobile Notes client, IBM’s DB2 Everyplace database and Tivoli’s mobile device management technology. Nokia’s 9210 is lined up for the first version of the software.

Microsoft’s Pocket PC 2002 operating system launched in early September is now pre-installed in products from HP, Compaq, Symbol, Casio and Toshiba. The OS, targeted at the business and professional user, is intended to challenge Palm’s PDA business, but analysts believe that Palm’s cheaper products will maintain their stronghold at the lower end of the market.

In July this year mobile computing company Psion pulled out of the PDA market choosing to focus instead on local and wide area wireless networks.The restructuring, which resulted in the loss of 250 jobs, came after continuing low sales of handheld products both in Europe and the US.

A recent study from Gartner shows Palm still leading the PDA market with a market share of 32.1%, down from 50%. In second place was Compaq which had doubled its market share to 16.1%, followed by Handspring, HP and Research in Motion.

PDA rivals Palm and Handspring have both launched devices for the business market. Palm’s m125 and Handspring’s two new Visor devices will cost between $199 and $249.

Related reading