Getting mobile: an IT pain, no gain

Personal digital assistants and mobile phones proliferate in Australian enterprises at a heady rate, much to the chagrin of the IT department which is also left in the limbo of who controls and manages the devices.

While IT departments struggle to keep current technology up to date, business divisions are driving interest and acquisition of mobile and wireless applications. Users want handheld devices for personal and business applications, forcing IT to support the various PDA operating systems.

According to John Brand, program director, electronic business strategies for the Meta Group, the "technologists are not pushing the technology … they have been forced to face the issues".

"Business is driving the functionality and telling IT managers what they want implemented."

Brand said users are demanding applications based on their "sex appeal", the "airline magazine" syndrome and "rosy vendor promises", often without solid ROI justification.

"As a result, IT organisations are left to implement projects that may be ill-thought out and nonproductive, with multiple, independent projects failing to leverage enterprise resources."

While wireless applications are not really on the agenda as yet, enterprise-specific PDA applications are set to increasingly dominate IT professionals' already time-strapped schedule.

Meta Group research indicates that by 2005, 20 per cent of leading organisations in the Asia-Pacific region will have attempted to deploy one or more PDA application, largely centred on sales and field service automation.

Research from another industry analyst, Gartner, also indicates the growing importance of mobility, with spending on mobile devices expected to increase by 15 per cent by 2004, while PC desktop spending is expected to increase by only six per cent during this period.

However, the proliferation of handheld devices within enterprises is essentially still being driven at the grassroots level with employees purchasing their own devices. Until such time as enterprises buy smart phones and PDAs for employees, uncertainty about who controls the devices will remain.

So, too, will the problem of adherence to policies regarding how personal and corporate information are used to improve security and information management.

For the most part, the purchase of mobile devices does not fall under the control of IT budgets - for now -- but the likelihood that they will move into their domain is quite high.

Therefore, one thing the IT department needs to push is standards. Gartner suggests consideration should be given to providing users with a list of supported IT products.

Even though it is early days in the use of mobile applications in the enterprise space, the most common use of the devices is as a disconnected platform where users collect data in the field and connect back to the office either via a GMS or GPRS mobile phones, or sync upon return.

E-mail, mobile enabling CRM and ERP, and niche applications like field-force automation are the applications showing real value for users and ROI for businesses.

Brand said while such mobile applications are easy to deploy, integration presents challenges.

"Many organisations contemplating PDA-based deployments mistakenly assume that transcoding or simple data mapping techniques or Windows-based technologies will make this a trivial exercise."

Brand said organisations failing to grasp the complexities and interface, useability issues with microdevice computing will experience a 60 per cent failure rate and substantial cost overruns.

Meta Group predicts pervasive application extension to be the default for virtually all time-sensitive, mission-critical applications in the near future.

"Established software providers (such as Siebel, SAP, Microsoft and IBM) have cautiously been developing wireless extensions to their flagship products. However, these offerings are generally less mature than those available through more nimble wireless startups.

"Still, we believe that by 2003 or 2004 mobile devices will be fully supported by virtually all established vendors. As a result, current investments in niche wireless products should be viewed as tactical."

With software vendors working rapidly to add mobile capabilities to their products, IT managers should now be focusing on standardising on a PDA operating system within their organisation.

The two main operating systems fighting it out at the moment are Palm OS and Microsoft's windows-based Pocket PC. While Palm dominates the market at the moment, Brand believes the Pocket PC platform will succeed in the enterprise space.

"Pocket PC is really an extension of the desktop [while] Palm OS is a disconnected subset of the desktop."

Another concern for IT managers is synchronisation standards. These should also be set to ensure the line between the controlled enterprise and the uncontrolled personal world of the employee remains intact.

While a few good, targeted mobile solutions are being deployed in corporate Australia, Brand believes the number of deployments will increase before 2005 even though we are way behind what is likely elsewhere in the world. In the US, it is expected that 65 per cent of global 2000 companies will be deploying mobile projects by this time.

"It will take a lot longer than people think to deploy production-ready mobile applications and IT managers will be taking baby steps."

* How are you coping with your company's demand for mobile applications? Email kelly_mills@idg.com.au

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