The availability of easy, relatively inexpensive wireless access through Wi-Fi technology, and the proliferation of wireless-ready laptops, have set the stage for wireless applications to move beyond vertical markets and into mainstream use.
The early adopters of mobile applications served vertical markets, demonstrated a critical need for mobile technology, and were large enough to afford custom solutions. Companies such as FedEx and UPS in transportation, packaging, and shipping were among the first to demonstrate wireless technology for consumers.
Vertical market specialists continue to employ some of the most impressive wireless applications, and they tend to do it in industries most people don't immediately identify with new technology. Michigan-based Nexiq Technologies, for example, allows trucking companies to remotely monitor and diagnose trucks on the road using its eTechnician wireless, Web-based technology.
According to Warren Wilson, practice director for mobile and wireless business solutions at Summit Strategies Inc., wireless technology exemplifies what he calls "the ever-receding bonanza." Wireless technology was highly touted in the past, and some of the promises in terms of speed and performance of the networks fell short.
"There has been a gap between the promise and the reality," Wilson said. "But there are an increasing number of success stories out there."
Cost and security concerns have been the major roadblocks for organizations looking to implement mobile applications from the beginning. But a number of factors are coming together to change the question of whether to employ wireless applications from "Why?" to "Why not?"
Why Go Wireless with Your Applications?
For starters, companies have invested heavily over the past decade on IT products that create, organize, store, and disseminate information, only to find that the information is still largely accessible only within the walls of an office.
Then there is Wi-Fi, which has brought wireless to the masses. According to Wilson, the three major markets for WLANs -- home networks, business networks, and hotspots -- all drive demand for each other. Consumers now buy laptops equipped for wireless networking, and can buy inexpensive access points for their home, giving them a comfort level and familiarity with the technology. They can take that wireless expertise to work with them, or on the road to remain in touch with clients. Corporate IT buyers are also buying wireless-ready laptops, and could find that setting up access points in a building or on a corporate campus more efficient than running cables.
The vendors who sell mobile applications are also doing a better job of explaining the benefits to potential customers than they were a few years back. "There was a tendency in the earlier days to tout the technology, and not the business value," Wilson said.
Instead of relying on the "gee-whiz" factor, wireless applications now have to prove themselves on the bottom line.
"The important part is 'What can you do with this technology?'" said Ari Kaplan, CEO, co-founder and CTO of Expand Beyond, which develops mobile software for IT professionals. The Chicago-based firm began as a concept in the 1990s when Kaplan was working as a database and systems administrator and found himself surrounded by the inefficiencies of an on-call staff tied to a pager. "Every single one of my friends was in the same situation I was," Kaplan said.
Expand Beyond launched in 2001 with a product that enabled Orable DBAs to administer a database remotely using handheld devices. "We solved one of the highest inefficiencies by enabling Oracle and systems administrators to do anything they could do from a desktop," Kaplan said.
The company expanded its product line from there. Its PocketDBA mobile software product gives administrators access to any IBM DB2, Oracle, SQL Server, or Teradata database from any wireless device or Web browser. PocketAdmin Console offers mobile access to the command line interface of any VT-100 compliant device, including servers, routers and switches. PocketAdmin for Windows allows users to manage the objects in their Active Directory as well as workstations, servers, and Microsoft Exchange.
All of Expand Beyond's software runs on a platform it calls XBanywhere, which Kaplan calls a "mobile middleware gateway." It allows the company's software to work with any mobile platform, whether it's a Palm device, tablet PC, or laptop. The technology is also network and carrier agnostic and works on digital cellular networks. Using XBanywhere, Expand Beyond can also develop custom applications for its customers, providing mobile access to CRM and ERP systems, for example.
But you don't have to be an IT guru or deliver millions of packages a day to benefit from mobile applications. Mobile application vendors cite disaster scenarios, quality of life issues, and employee morale as potential reasons to go wireless. Just giving a potential customer an extra few hours to think about a decision while the sales staff gets to the office to access data can cost a company sales.
"Anyplace where there is latency or delay in the flow of information is a place where wireless can be a benefit," said Summit Strategies' Wilson.
It's hard to say at this point just how ubiquitous mobile applications are going to become, and no one can agree on a timeframe for the predicted success. The networks, hardware, and the security have all improved after falling short of early expectations, which makes Wilson optimistic. "I think wireless is on the cusp of moving into the mainstream," he said.
Expand Beyond's Kaplan admits that wireless applications are a competitive edge right now, but he expects companies without wireless capabilities in two to three years to be seen in the same light as companies without Web sites or e-mail today.
"Years from now people are going to see this as a best-of-breed or best-practice technology," he said.