REALITY CHECK: Cellular conundrum

REALITY CHECK: Cellular conundrum

This year will see a major push for wireless enterprise applications - from the carriers, the handset manufacturers, the infrastructure providers, and yes, even the major ERP vendors. They'll all be working in concert to convince IT and business decision makers that the time has come to move beyond email and PIM and deploy real, mission-critical applications on cell phones and other mobile devices.

The first wave of the attack will come through people like me. Vendors need to convince the press that the capabilities are available, hoping that we in turn will soften the market up for the next sales call.

The carriers will troop into my office first, showing me astounding 3G performance. They'll download mission-critical data from the corporate network in barely a blink of an eye. And, they'll tell me, this capability will be available nationwide.

Next will come the enterprise software vendors. They will all be there - Oracle, SAP, Siebel, and Sun - showing me how easy it is to integrate applets on my cell phone with their back-end systems.

The infrastructure players will be next. Software developers, cell phone OS vendors, and connectivity mavens will show me how easy it is to connect to the corporate network, download data, and work either online or off.

Finally, the handset manufacturers will explain how the price of data-capable phones is dropping dramatically, to the point at which they're accessible to more than just the privileged few.

But for my money, the major challenge is TCO. Handset manufacturers introduce about a dozen new models a year - but they don't operate like traditional IT vendors. Notebook and PC makers, used to working with the enterprise, promise to keep the same image or platform as they move from model to model. Not so with handset OEMs, especially on those cheaper phones. The internals of mobile handsets vary with each model, even from the same manufacturer.

Get the picture? Unless your customers standardise on a single handset model and do not waver, even when that model is discontinued a year later by the manufacturer, you will find yourself rewriting applications all the time.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel, but not necessarily on phones. If you insist on deploying serious applications wirelessly, look at the handhelds being designed specifically for corporate use, such as the Treo 650 and some of the better iPaq models.

For my money, 3G performance should be at the bottom of the list of requirements. Higher performance networks, such as 3G and Enhanced Data GSM Environment (EDGE), do not mean more reliable performance. I've spoken to many experts on this subject, and they all tell me that reliability simply depends on the number of cell towers available.

Does an unreliable Cingular Wireless LLC phone network plus an unreliable AT&T Wireless network add up to a new, reliable network? Hardly. As my friend Ken Hyers, principal analyst at ABI Research, says, it is not a given that service will improve when you have "a hodgepodge of different networks melded through acquisitions".

Reliability is what's needed before any company can count on cellular wireless data for remote decision-making. When I see a cellular "red phone" on the president's desk - or on the wall outside death row, for that matter - that's when I'll know that cellular technology has arrived.

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