Mobile email is a big issue this year, but it's not entirely new. Ever since there's been email, people have been attempting to make it mobile, whether it's by synching email to a PDA and clearing your in-box on the train, or by taking a laptop to a hotel room.

"True" mobile email, that's continually connected, took off with the Blackberry, but it's still only reached a small proportion of the potential market. "There are about 650 million business inboxes," says Glenn Dale, senior global product marketing manager, of Nokia Enterprise Solutions. "How many have been mobilised? Around 10 to 12 million worldwide."

"We're in early adopter mode now, and there's opportunity to grow." says Rob Bamforth, analyst at Quocirca, who has conducted research amongst IT decision makers on the subject.

"The Blackberry has had a tremendous impact among a certain user community," says Bamforth. He refers to Blackberry users as Pink Collar workers, because they tend to be City types - lawyers, and accountants who buy their shirts at Thomas Pink.

"Mobile email has been deployed in small pockets," says Dale. "Typically the top five or ten percent of an organisation." That's because of cost, and speed of change, he says.

In Techworld's recent webcast on the subject of mobile email (available here), we asked the audience how wide mobile email should go. Nearly half the sample thought that only about ten percent of their organisation would benefit from mobile email. Only a minority (11.7 percent) thought the whole organisation should have it.

Mobile email promoters expect it to quickly grow to a much higher level than that in business. But for mobile email to grow, several changes will happen. It will have to be used on a range of different devices - not least because the market for mobile email will spread beyond the initial Pink Collar demographic. It's also clear that email will not be the only thing to be mobilised - but it will start there. "Mobile email users tend to be the ones that think about mobilising other applications within their organisation."

Few organisations have yet deployed mobile email broadly across the organisation - 10 percent of the decision makers Bamforth spoke to claim to have achieved this - but nearly 30 percent have limited deployments, "maybe only to their executives or a handful of the sales force," says Bamforth. "We're seeing limited deployments that could grow to become very significant."

What are the blockers?
If there's all this potential, what's holding it back? Bamforth and Dale see several factors.

  • "The single biggest thing holding back mobile email deployment is cost," says Bamforth. "There's the cost of the devices, the cost of managing the dedeployment, and the cost of airtime." Growing a deployment from a dozen to a few hundred users will have an impact.
  • Anything new will be treated as a security risk, says Bamforth: "As soon as you move things out of the office, security is going to be a concern."
  • There's confusion around choice - it's not bad that there is choice, but there's a lack of standards, and companies worry they might get it wrong, and it will come back to haunt them.
  • Control is an issue, especially as more device types come in. "It's a fundamental building block," says Dale.
  • There's also apathy - as IT managers look at an immature market and decide to wait till things become clearer. "If I invest in a solution now, will I still be using it in 36 months time, and will it grow with my requirements?" is what they ask, says Dale.

Blackberry will lose its hold
While Blackberry has a hold on the Pink Collar people, it is clearly going to lose market share. IT executives see optimised end-to-end solutions like Blackberry as a good way to get the market going, but they want to see a range of devices.

The vast majority (70 percent or more) of Quocirca's sample see it as "critical" or "very important" to have a range of devices to suit different user needs. Even more of them (80 percent) see it is important or critical, to be able to switch handsets in future. Both of these things require the development of open standards, "Proprietary systems are not seen as the future," says Bamforth.

By and large, vendors agree. "It seems almost contradictory, to say that Nokia is going help you to use a solution that is going to run on a Palm device or a Windows Mobile device, " says Dale, "but we need to think about who our customers are. Interoperability is key to them."

A lot is sometimes made of Blackberry's inevitable fall from being the market leader, but with a market expanding from 12 million to somewhere closer to 650 million, it can still grow massively while still losing market share. Indeed, when it is seen as one solution among many. Blackberry will actually benefit - IT directors will feel happier with the concept, and many will still prefer the user experience of the Blackberry.

Want more?
These questions and others were dealt with in depth during the Webcast "How will you do mobile email - and why?", which can still be seen at IDG Webcasts.