When it comes to mobility, the major enterprise application vendors are going nowhere. At least that's what one $50 billion consumer goods manufacturer found when it tried extending Siebel Systems' applications to field workers. The attempt went so poorly for this Fortune 500 manufacturer that, despite a major investment in and devotion to Siebel enterprise software, it turned instead to a vendor that specialises in mobile tools. "When it comes to mobile applications, Siebel certainly hasn't kept up," says a senior IT manager at the company who requested anonymity.
Porting Siebel's rich applications to the tiny form factors of handheld devices is "challenging," concedes Jeff Summers, vice president of marketing at the vendor. But, he counters, several upgrades in the latest release, Siebel 7.7, are aimed at mobile users.
A feature called TrickleSync automatically synchronises mobile clients whenever the software detects a network connection. IT can enable TrickleSync centrally, cutting users out of the loop. Another change reduces the number of transactions replicated to mobile clients, shortening sync time and trimming the mobile database size, Summers says.
Increasingly what today's corporations want is the ability to make up-to-date business data available to employees, customers, suppliers and business partners when and where they need it. Ideally, that means number-crunchers working at their desktop PCs at headquarters, PDA-toting technicians out in the hinterlands and sales reps polishing up some PowerPoints would all pull information from the same CRM database. And in this world, any changes these users make would kick back instantly to that central source so the data stays real-time.
But reality bears little resemblance to this ideal, despite the obvious importance of mobility and the effusive lip service enterprise application vendors pay it.
To be sure, some of the limiting factors are beyond vendor control. Updating the database in real time can be an expensive proposition and a foolish goal if wireless transmissions are a factor because connectivity can be spotty.
Many consultants and system integrators recommend that companies rely largely on cradle synchronisation at first, with an eventual goal of moving to real-time communication.
A hybrid approach works well for Pepsi, says Tim Curran, CEO at Eleven, which provides the company with a wireless retail application. At Pepsi, field reps who stock store shelves "do a cradle-attached-mode sync that maybe takes 10 minutes" during the morning. But they transmit orders back to distributorships in real time (or as soon as they can get a network connection from their remote devices), he says. "To get those supply-chain advantages they want to get that inventory data to the factory ASAP," Curran says.
The shortcomings of application vendors' mobility offerings might make IT managers feel they've got two less-than-ideal choices: bite the bullet and run unsatisfactory mobile versions of enterprise applications, or go with third-party mobility solutions and live with the added complexity, integration and support.
While corporate users figure out the best ways to synchronise their data, enterprise vendors are working to improve their sync offerings. Siebel has TrickleSync, while PeopleSoft teamed recently with Intellisync to address a problem spot in its mobile strategy for the Enterprise and EnterpriseOne software - synchronisation that required user initiation.
With Intellisync, users now can access the PeopleSoft applications without worrying about whether the data is synched with the server; the Intellisync tools handle the synchronisation invisibly. Intellisync Mobile Suite comprises an e-mail accelerator, data- and file-synchronisation tools and systems management software. The suite is compatible with laptops; tablet PCs; Windows Mobile-based smart phones; and handheld devices based on the Pocket PC, Palm OS and Symbian operating systems.
Oracle has built mobility into its standard application server and database products so customers can build unique applications for their field workers on top of Oracle's mobile architecture, says Jacob Christfort, CTO with Oracle's Voice & Wireless Division. Enterprise buyers get the technology by default, facing no additional license fees.
"With back-office [users], there's a lot of information being exchanged, and it's being sent back and forth to many departments," Christfort says. As a result, companies place a premium on the standardisation of data provided through the enterprise software. But data format standardisation isn't so important for field workers and sales reps using mobile devices, he contends. "You're out there at the end of your spoke - you're not so worried about standardization out there. . . . Mobile workers are in the physical world, and the physical world has some rough edges."
SAP, too, has added mobility to its application development platform (called NetWeaver) so enterprise customers can create their own mobile applications. But SAP's approach differs from competitive strategies on the client side. SAP requires that a Mobile Infrastructure client (consisting of a Web server, a database layer and business logic) be installed on each mobile device. When remote users access applications using PDAs, they work with the most recent data. Changes they make then are replicated back to the central data source.
"This gives IT a lot of flexibility because they're not tied to an" operating system, says Michael King, a Gartner analyst. Thus, an application written for a Pocket PC also can run on a laptop, a tablet PC and any device that supports Java.
Despite the progress big application vendors have made, it's difficult to remain patient waiting for them to deliver true seamless mobile solutions. The benefits - among them less integration, rapid access to a true single data source and confidence in the long-term survival of the provider - are clear. Mobility is becoming too important to hold off for a utopian blend of seamlessness, ever-present real-time communication and infinitely flexible interfaces.