Mobile middleware makers marry

Extended Systems Inc.'s decision to buy fellow mobile middleware vendor ViaFone, is simply a response to customer demand, according to one executive with the software maker.

Extended Systems announced this week that it would acquire ViaFone Inc. in a stock swap deal that was roughly valued at about US$12 million the day of the announcement. Extended Systems plans to issue 3 million shares of its stock in exchange for all outstanding ViaFone shares. The deal, subject to stockholder approval in both companies and certain regulatory requirements, is expected to close later this summer.

Extended Systems has specialized in creating a server application that periodically synchronizes data on various kinds of handheld computers with Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes servers, and with databases that use the OLE-DB or ODBC interfaces. The vendor's XTNDConnect server also includes a set of device and software management tools.

ViaFone's focus with its OneBridge product line has been to create a full-blown mobile application server that, in effect, extends a subset of enterprise applications, such as enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management and so on, out to a handheld device.

The software emphasizes real-time, ongoing interactions between the client and the enterprise backends. A "presentation server" adapts to almost any kind of client, such as cell phones with Wireless Access Protocol (WAP) displays, various handheld computers, browsers, and even telephones.

"This was spurred by our customers, especially some in financial services, who first made use of our groupware solution, but then wanted to synchronize with other backend applications," says Don Baumgartner, VP of worldwide marketing for Extended Systems. At the same time, he says, some of ViaFone's customers were pointing it to the capabilities offered by Extended Systems.

Unusually, given the current market for mobile and wireless computing, both companies are in pretty good shape. "A lot of the acquisitions we've been seeing lately have been one company picking another off the scrapheap," says Stephen Drake, program manager, mobile infrastructure software, with IDC, the Framingham, Mass. market research company. "But with these two, you're seeing two companies that are pretty steady financially coming together."

Drake also thinks the two product lines will dovetail nicely together. Extended Systems has focused on off-line, or periodic, data synchronization, either via a cradle device or a wireless connection. Part of its focus has been mobile device management. "This is very critical when you think of extending these [enterprise applications] out to handhelds," he says. "You want to secure the devices, and manage them. They have a pretty solid solution."

ViaFone, says Drake, will add real-time wireless access, supporting browser or other thin client connections to backend servers and relying on the servers to handle the application processing.

For the first six months or so, says Extended Systems' Baumgartner, the two companies will focus on, in effect, offering separate products but with unified and coordinated sales, marketing and technical support. Work will begin on identifying the areas where the product lines can be integrated, while making sure both software products hit their already announced targets for improvements and new releases.

Right now, the main integration priorities are:

-- Creating a common user interface for managing devices.

-- Building a security and authentication model that can be implemented in both products.

-- Designing a user interface that will have the same look and feel when interacting with either of the server applications.

Extended Systems plans to keep ViaFone's Brisbane, Calif. headquarters, and its Toronto, Ontario office, which is the home of ViaFone's consulting group.

Mobile middleware vendors have been popping up like mushrooms over the past two years. Most of them blend some kind of server-based software, which sits between the handheld clients and the enterprise applications, with consulting services, while others are focused on thin client, or browser-based, applications. A few specialize in applications that load and run on the handheld. Some of the better known names include Aether Systems, AvantGo, Air2Web, Wireless Knowledge. One of the closest competitors to ViaFone is Aligo, Phoenix, Arizona, which also describes its M-1 software as mobile application server.

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