Remember a few years ago when the wireless mobile enterprise was the next big thing? High-speed 3G bandwidth would hover in the air everywhere, enabling you to whip out a wireless PDA and turn the backseat of a taxicab into a rolling office with seamless access to enterprise apps.

That particular taxi crashed and burned. Carriers never delivered fast bandwidth, sensible people raised security alarms and the cost of developing and deploying mobile apps proved absurdly high compared to the potential payback. The mobile revolution became something of a joke - supplanted by the more modest goal of providing Wi-Fi network access across the corporate campus. "I think what stopped this stuff before was the economics didn't make sense," says Danny Shader, CEO of Good Technology, a mobile enterprise software provider. "People won't spend US$20,000 to $30,000 a user to get mobile. They're just not going to do that."

Yet Shader and others believe the stage is now set for a mobile comeback. Although ubiquitous 3G remains an indeterminate number of years off, carriers are in the process of rolling out dial-up-speed - and faster - wireless data services. As for security, Blackberry creator Research In Motion (RIM) and Good Technology have developed security solutions, primarily for e-mail, that ease enterprise worries. Meanwhile, enterprise server software vendors have gobbled up mobile app servers and development tools, folding them into the stack and reducing development and deployment costs.

The hardware has improved, too. "The convergence of better processors, better displays and better operating systems is allowing enterprise applications to become more acceptable for use on PDAs," says Todd Kort, a principal analyst at Gartner Dataquest, who believes there's a bright future for a new, more powerful generation of smart-phone devices. Kort thinks a dramatic uptake in enterprise mobility may occur later this year, after a new Palm operating system, a more efficient Intel CPU for handhelds (the Xscale), and mobile enterprise software for the Microsoft Windows Mobile platforms arrive this summer (the beta for Windows CE 5.0 is already out). See our review of the Handspring Treo 600

Those with an eye on the bottom line have a right to remain sceptical, even though many companies have already deployed wireless e-mail for executives, most often using RIM devices. And of course, vertical industries have been quietly rolling out field apps on wireless PDAs for years. Much can be learned from those experiences when searching for secure, cost-effective ways to respond to business-side requests for wireless mobility. To justify the cost of devices, secure connections, airtime minutes, and enterprise apps adapted to tiny screens, the plan of action must be carefully crafted.

E-mail paves the way
The no-brainer enterprise app is the same as it has been for a few years: e-mail. "E-mail has become such a time-consuming part of our lives," Gartner's Kort says. "If you can knock out 20 percent of that e-mail when you otherwise would have been idle, that's a considerable time saving." Until now, the biggest beneficiary of this trend has been RIM, which Kort says is "on a roll." The company sold as many devices in the first quarter of this year as it did in all of 2002, Kort says.

Why has IT embraced RIM? Because for some time the company had "the only secure device," says David MacFarlane, vice president of business development at Idokorro, a small mobile enterprise application development house. "The first thing our customers ask is: Is it secure? The BlackBerry has the BlackBerry Enterprise Server for secure e-mail." This security provides end-to-end encryption and compression between the device and RIM's server, which enterprises deploy inside the firewall.

RIM's principal competitor is Good Technology, which offers a similar security scheme in its GoodLink mobile messaging software (so similar, the companies sued each other, settling in March). GoodLink works with Palm devices including the Treo 600, lynchpin of the service Good brought to the UK this year. It also works with Pocket PC and RIM devices.

Both RIM's and Good's solutions can withstand frequent disconnections, a fact of life for mobile wireless data communication through carrier networks - and a showstopper if an enterprise tried using a conventional VPN.

Palm lacks a comparable security model, which may be one reason why the company - which once owned the enterprise space by default - has experienced declining enterprise sales in the last couple of years, according to Gartner's Kort. PalmSource will address this deficiency with its new Cobalt operating system (already in the hands of OEMs) that enables enterprises to "plug in" security solutions, such as a licensed version of RIM's secure server (Palm and RIM have announced a deal). Cobalt will also be the first multitasking Palm OS, resulting in a much more attractive application environment.

As Palm has ebbed, Pocket PCs have flowed into the enterprise. Sales of Hewlett-Packard iPaqs are double what they were a year ago, according to Gartner. Because Microsoft lacked a compelling carrier-based solution, the main attraction has been the capability to run Windows Mobile and Pocket versions of Word, Excel and Outlook. According to Ed Suwanjindar, lead product manager of the mobile and embedded devices group at Microsoft, the "core, killer app" for Pocket PCs has been Outlook synchronisation.

Gartner's Kort expects a mobile wireless wave to start hitting Pocket PCs as soon as this summer. For one thing, Windows Mobile for Pocket PC 2003, which has just begun shipping on devices in the US, will be the first version to support "meaningful (e-mail) push capability for cellular networks," according to Good Technology's Shader. Just as significant, Good will begin shipping its GoodLink 3.0 secure wireless messaging solution for that new Windows Mobile version this month.

Adam Zawel, The Yankee Group director of wireless/mobile enterprise and commerce, adds that Exchange 2003 is "built from the ground up with wireless in mind. The thorny problems surrounding mobile computing are handled in the design of the application itself." The combination of Microsoft's application support and Good's security may well open the floodgates to e-mail everywhere for Pocket PCs from HP, Dell, Toshiba and others.