Stay Mobile to Survive

“You’rekidding!” An old friend was completely exasperated when I asked her how she wasgoing to adapt her corporate intranet applications to the new generation ofmobile devices. “I’m just getting my programmers used to the idea of developingdistributed applications that work with the browsers everyone has. Don’t gochanging the target on me!”

Well,sorry. I must.

This columnlooks at the challenges IT directors, content developers, and networkadministrators face when developing distributed, Internet-based applicationsand services. One of the clear challenges to all of us who work withInternet-enabled applications is the emergence of, and eventual domination of,mobile devices. In fact, I think one of the sternest assessments of the abilityof organizations to capitalize on Internet applications is the test of howthose services are delivered to mobile devices.

With phonevendors licensing both the Palm OS and the Windows CE platform, it’s clear thatthe convergence of the personal digital assistants and mobile phone is upon us.All kinds of commercial services will emerge to produce information andrecreation services for this new generation of mobile device. The most profoundchange, however, will appear in those organizations that adapt old applicationsfor delivery on the new devices.

The newservices could enable a broad range of functions, from allowing sales staff inthe field to access corporate databases to enabling engineers on a shop floorto make on-the-fly changes to manufacturing schedules. Combining the power oflegacy applications with mobile -- always available -- delivery will make ahuge difference in the way we deliver and perceive services.

Oneapproach that will be required to make this happen is to provide gatewaysbetween the new devices and essential legacy systems. Some suggest treating thenew mobile devices as a new “presentation technology,” without worrying aboutany of the special needs of those devices. That would be a mistake. Mobiledevices have unique challenges including supporting the huge diversity of userinterfaces and interaction models found in small, portable devices; providingthe customization needed by telephone companies, enterprises, and individuals;and scaling customized mobile services to large numbers of clients.

It’s clearthat major vendors understand the difference between appending a new deliverytechnology to an existing network strategy. As an example, Hewlett-Packardrecently put some emphasis on adapting its current offerings to therequirements of mobile applications. The company seems to be taking a kitchensink approach to mobile applications, saying that it will provide middleware,system integration, consulting, and even the mobile appliances themselves.

IBM, on theother hand, proposes a suite of technologies that includes a combination ofconnectivity gateways, content transformation tools, security andsynchronization technologies, and device/user management. Called WebSphereEveryplace, the IBM tools stress integration between the new devices and anorganization’s existing Internet and intranet applications and back officeservices.

Microsoft,not to be outdone, is also in the fray. Microsoft takes the position thatapplications are to be “mobile-enabled.” Microsoft’s approach appears to be toisolate the presentation and delivery of information from the business logicand services that get provided. Called Mobile Information Server, Microsoft’sapproach adds client network modules that adapt applications to whatevernetwork is in use, whatever device is in use, whatever user interface thedevice has, and, finally, whatever user preferences the client expresses.

Mobile InformationServer is a long way from being available, but it seems telling that Microsoftis touting its strong integration with Exchange Server as one of its keyassets. To be sure, Microsoft goes to great lengths to commit to support forstandards such as Wireless Application Protocol, Wireless Markup Language, WTLSand Handheld Device Markup Language. Still, while emphasizing integration withExchange Server makes sense, it makes you wonder how this will affect thosepeople who have made non-Microsoft infrastructure decisions.

No matterhow you see the mobile integration landscape, the challenge is to view mobiledevices as a crucial part of the Internet/intranet application environment.Many organizations will invest in successful, tactical solutions that bringspecific applications to the mobile user. Delivering an individual applicationmay realize a specific organizational goal, but investments in infrastructure,which lead to greater costs and longer timetables, are often left behind.

That’s thechallenge. Some organizations will have the vision to invest in theinfrastructure needed to bring mobile services under the umbrella of all ITservices rather than set apart as an outsider -- adapted to the existingenvironment. How well organizations build for the mobile future can be judgedby the investments they make in common infrastructure rather than tacticalsolutions.

That’s thetheme of this column: the tools, services, and technologies that make buildingnew Internet/intranet applications possible. -- Mark McFadden is a consultant and is communications director for theCommercial Internet eXchange (Washington). Contact him at