Wireless switching paves new application path

Enterprise application vendors are catching the pervasive-computing bug. Following the porting of enterprise-grade applications to PDAs, advances in network switching technology are paving the way for high-end cellular handsets called smart phones.

As handset manufacturers such as Nokia develop technology that switches seamlessly between 802.11x and public wireless networks, they blaze the trail for application vendors to explore new usage scenarios for supply-chain management, logistics, field service, and CRM applications. A bridge between 802.11x (or other WiFi networks) and public networks such as GPRS holds the promise that business processes will be able to embrace a model of ubiquitous and permanent connectivity.

Oracle is one of the companies exploring early usage scenarios for both industrial and corporate collaboration for such cellular devices. For example, warehouse users, now a large proportion of 802.11 users, could extend their supply chain and customer service applications beyond the approximate 200-meter range of 802.11 by using a smart phone, according to Jacob Christfort, vice president of development at Oracle’s mobile products and services division.

"If a driver has left and a customer calls, they can trickle the request to a cellular network over the device," Christfort said. "Instead of warehouse workers pulling inventory from the warehouse for delivery using one device and drivers out of range using a cellular phone, each could use the integrated device, and the enterprise would only have to maintain a single infrastructure to support that."

Oracle predicts that devices that can switch from 802.11 to public networks will allow enterprise users to have just one smart phone instead of needing to carry both a cell phone for voice and a PDA for email, calendaring, and other collaborative applications.

For its part, PeopleSoft envisions the numerous benefits of smart phone connectivity felt by highly mobile users who need access to CRM applications. "The true road warrior will be able to move back and forth between hotspots in hotels and airport and cafés and cellular networks," said Chris van LobenSels, director of mobile strategy at PeopleSoft.

"The key is the ability to get your data up to the network and down from the network when and where you want in an affordable way," said van LobenSels.

IBM also sees workforce mobility, asset management, and inventory logistics as key areas that could benefit from a cellular handset that switches between networks. IBM executives note, however, that despite the added advantage of access to different networks, users will still need an infrastructure to support enterprise-grade applications on such a device.

"If we have an engineer on site who needs to order a part, … he needs to go into an order entry system and place the order. He could do this on the Nokia phone, but what if he loses connectivity?" said Letina Connelly, IBM’s director of pervasive strategy and solutions. "Regardless of connectivity, you need to be able to make sure you securely transfer the transaction."

IBM’s WebSphere Everyplace Access solution -- an enterprise platform comprised of a wireless application server, client software and a development toolkit -- can tackle these kinds of critical issues, Connelly said.

"When you are trying to handle a disconnected scenario…for the intermittent period you are not connected you need to have the ability to store the information somewhere," Connelly said. "If you place an order and lose connectivity, somewhere it stores the state of the transaction so when you move the phone an inch and the signal comes back there is stored information in the client that says the state of the transaction when the service was lost."

The Everyplace solution also leverages the WebSphere portal to ensure users receive a consistent user interface for multiple different applications and a built-in virtual private network for security.

"Across all these networks you have one virtual tunnel from behind the corporate firewall to the WAN and hotspot to the device," according to Connelly. "It’s a secure pipe."

For many enterprises, the potential boost to the bottom line may be the first enticement to leverage a smart phone that easily can move between networks, said Adam Zawel, a wireless analyst with the Yankee Group in Boston

"Many enterprises are already paying for voice services for their employees. In most cases they are paying too much," Zawel said. "What we’ve heard with these converged devices is a vendor can make a pitch that they can centralize the purchasing of voice, and from the savings, deploy a data application as well. It makes an easy ROI argument."

PeopleSoft's van LobenSels argues the enterprises will be able to leverage their investment in Web services infrastructures. Recent enhancements to PeopleSoft’s Mobile CRM 8.4 software include a mobile synchronization engine that uses Web services standards to synchronize updates to mobile sales and field service applications.

"If you’re just using a contact application but you want to now start using another application like lead management, we can transmit that new functionality via a Web service," van LobenSels added. "At the enterprise level customers that are serious about mobile are looking very seriously at the cost of ownership and ease of management. The ability to have more powerful networks and the ability to use Web services to manage those apps is key for enterprises to see that these applications are affordable."

Yet for all the potential uses for the applications available on smart phones, Yankee's Zawel said the device will still need to compete with the screen-size advantages of PDAs. "For a company that is convinced that they want to do a wireless data app, it is unusual that they go with a phone," Zawel said.

"It’s going to be a challenge to convince enterprises to use an even smaller screen if they want to enable a CRM system or provide access to an Enterprise Resource Planning system," Zawel said. "There’s only so much you can do on these smaller screens."

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