Software vendors specialising in pushing wireless e-mail to mobile devices, such as Good Technology and Research in Motion, are scrambling to broaden their appeal by creating a middleware layer for accessing all kinds of corporate data.

Meanwhile, vendors that cut their teeth on such middleware, such as Everypath and JP Mobile, are busy adding applications for personal information tasks such as e-mail, scheduling and contacts.

The distinctions between the two are blurring, which analysts say raises the question of whether network executives should look to this pack of evolving, specialised vendors or to the comparative behemoths in this segment: IBM, with WebSphere Everyplace; Sybase's iAnywhere group, with the SQL Anywhere mobile database and M-Business Anywhere software; and BEA Systems, with WebLogic.

Middleware acts as a broker between different client devices and an array of enterprise databases and applications.

Good and RIM want to expand
Good Technology early next year intends to introduce software designed to create a wireless data access framework for its customers. The company currently offers a free application, GoodLink Forms, to create forms-based access to sales, inventory or other databases (mentioned in our review of GoodLink). Vendor executives declined to offer details, but said the product is intended to be a highly integrated set of components for quickly building and deploying wireless client-server applications.

"We're shifting the company strategy to wireless information access," says Sue Forbes, vice president of marketing and product management at Good Technology. The idea is that the same core software that supports wireless e-mail can be exploited to support access to other corporate data.

Archrival RIM, with its popular BlackBerry handhelds for enterprise e-mail, has been moving in that same direction, says David Werezak, vice president, enterprise business. RIM today has Mobile Data Services, a Web-based client with HTML access to back-end Web servers. Developers also can deploy a Java-based application on BlackBerry devices to store and process data locally (read our review of the BlackBerry Enterprise Server).

RIM has launched the BlackBerry Connect program, licensing its software to an array of cell phone and handheld computer manufacturers so users have a broader selection of clients. Werezak says several of these software-equipped devices are available in Europe and soon will be in the US.

Users will go for the familiar
Both vendors' plans show the challenges posed by any move beyond wireless e-mail, especially at the enterprise level. The easiest and fastest way to deploy applications is via a Web browser linked to data stored on a Web server. But that requires a continuous network connection, and lacks the sophistication found, and often needed, in a client-server user interface.

"I'd be surprised if they can get much traction (with this strategy) in a market that's dominated by heavyweights like IBM and Sybase," says Carl Zetie, a Forrester Research vice president.

"When people come to build vertical applications, they look for middleware that's familiar and that integrates easily with server-side databases or (Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition) or .Net servers. The kind of middleware these smaller companies offer doesn't look like this," he adds.

At the same time, wireless middleware vendors are debuting a range of applications. Among those making news:

  • JP Mobile next week is expected to unveil SureWave Mobile Office for e-mail, scheduling and contacts, and SureWave Mobile Defense, for managing data and device security features, including encryption on mobile clients. Both run on the company's middleware platform, which lets customers load client software, user configurations and security settings entirely over a wireless connection. Mobile Office costs from US$180 to $300 per user, depending on the number of users. Mobile Defense costs $40 to $70 per user, depending on volume.

  • Intellisync next week is set to debut Version 6 of its Intellisync Mobile Suite, which is targeted at midsize to large businesses for e-mail, and data and file synchronisation. The release includes: support for additional clients, including any Internet Message Access Protocol clients, SynchML synchronization agents, and SendMail and SunOne IMAP servers; XML Connector, an interface to link with any XML-formatted data on back-end servers; and stronger password protection and encrypting data on the device.

  • Everypath this week announced two applications, Everypath Activities for managing contacts and account data, and Everypath Orders for order management tasks. Both are included with Version 6 of the Everypath Mobile Task Automation (MTA) middleware. One key change in MTA 6 is embedding a data interface called MTA Applications Schema Layer. It lets the applications switch between data managed within MTA and data in SAP, Siebel Systems or similar applications. The software starts at $130,000.
Look for duplication and overlap
It will be some time before the scope of mobile middleware is quite clear. Overlaps between different products will keep us confused for some time - but the goal has become clear: reliable access to enterprise applications, wherever you are.