Mobile Middleware Plays The Field

When Sunoco launched its Strive for Excellence (SFE) program in 1999 — an incentive program designed to reward gas retailers for maintaining high-quality standards — mobile data collection proved a much better option than paper. Each of the company’s 17 territory managers were provided with a Palm

handheld and asked to fill in an online survey application when visiting retail sites. The answers to their questions were then uploaded to a local database from which they could run various reports. Later, at the end of the day or after a certain number of surveys were completed, the data would be sent to a central database located at the company’s headquarters in Toronto for further reporting and integration into enterprise applications.

For Sunoco, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Suncor Energy Products Inc., the mobile solution not only improved the integrity and implementation of the SFE program, which awards or deducts points from retailers based on the condition of their facilities, but it also introduced a whole new breed of users for the IT department to support: mobile workers. And according to Mark Sauvé, who serves as integrator of e-business in Sunoco’s business intelligence department, it wasn’t long before requests for more functionality began to roll in.

“”Once you open the flood gates it’s a challenge to deal with,”” says Sauvé, adding most managers took to using the Palm’s contact and calendar features right away. “”Everybody’s going to ask for everything, but you really have to pick out what’s important.””

At the time, that meant focusing on the survey. Using Satellite Forms software from Pumatech Inc., Sunoco created an application that collected survey data and eventually synchronized with the corporate database in Toronto. But today, as territory managers have grown more comfortable with the technology — some even opting to use handheld devices other than the Palm — and the push for instant access to information is even stronger than before, the IT department has had to revisit its deployment and is currently investigating the growing market of mobile middleware as a potential answer.

A bridge to the enterprise

“”We’re starting to break through into true enterprise use of the devices and hopefully it will lead into more applications of this kind,”” notes Sauvé, who says the goal is to eliminate the local database access piece of the equation and provide wireless Web-based access to the corporate database via middleware — regardless of which device is used. “”Once we’ve broken down the wall of administration and the need for a certain device, it becomes a lot easier to whip up applications and deploy them in the field,”” he adds.

In its quest for a device-agnostic wireless solution, Sunoco joins a growing number of organizations turning to mobile middleware — a market Framingham, Mass.-based IDC expects will grow from US$227 million last year to US$1.7 billion in 2006. One reason for the projected growth is the rise in the number of mobile employees, which is also expected to increase from 92 million to 105 million during the same period.

At a high level, Boston-based Aberdeen Group describes mobile middleware as “”software that resides on a corporate server, working in conjunction with mobile devices and wireless networks to enable the use of enterprise applications on mobile devices.”” Vendors supplying products range from software manufacturers such as Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, Siebel and SAP, to technology platform vendors such as iAnywhere (a subsidiary of Sybase), Aether, iConverse, AvantGo, Wireless Knowledge and Extended Systems, to complete solutions from vendors such as Palm and Research in Motion who supply the device, server and software in one integrated package.

According to Aberdeen analyst Isaac Ro, the market has been slow to evolve due to the sharp downturn in IT spending. In addition, many IT departments have lost faith in the notion of mobile enterprise applications altogether since the “”any application to any device at any time”” scenario touted by aggressive marketing campaigns has failed to materialize. However, with the ongoing proliferation of handhelds in the corporate world, it’s a market IT can’t afford to ignore, he says.

“”If you look at the pendulum of control, you don’t buy a PC and bring that into work — those get provisioned for you,”” says Ro. “”So IT managers control that process; they decide what kind of computer you’re going to get. The complete opposite is happening with handhelds. People have pretty much brought those in on their own and are demanding support from their IT managers.””

Road warriors push the limits

“”The users are starting to explore what else they can do with the devices they already have and they’re pushing that to the IT department,”” echoes Barnaby Jeans, national solutions leader of mobile and wireless at Oracle Corp. (Canada) Inc. “”In turn, the IT departments are starting to say ‘How can we actually leverage this and make our users more productive?'””

For many companies, e-mail and personal information manager (PIM) applications are the first applications targeted for mobile enterprise deployment, followed by single business applications aimed at supporting a specific group of employees such as field sales and service.

In June, New York-based Guardian Life Insurance Company of America announced plans to use the m-Business platform from Dublin, Calif.-based iAnywhere Solutions Inc. to link its field-based agents to its corporate systems, for example. Like Sunoco, Guardian was looking for middleware that would support a variety of devices, including the Palm, Pocket PC and RIM Blackberry. The intent is to improve agent productivity by “”allowing them to access important life insurance policy and equity contract information while away from the office,”” states a related news release.

Citibank, part of the Citigroup group of companies, is another example of a company looking to extend its enterprise applications to the mobile world, but rather than focusing on employees, Citibank’s efforts are directed towards its consumer base. In May, Citibank launched a mobile banking services pilot in Australia based on Oracle’s 9iAS Wireless platform, which is intended to give customers the ability to perform banking and cards transactions on Internet-enabled devices. In selecting a mobile middleware platform, the company was looking for a framework that would be telco- and device-agnostic, support future devices and integrate with its back-end systems.

Add to that list an architecture that factors in security since wireless devices accessing your back-end resources are no longer safely tucked behind a firewall and you have the criteria most organizations are looking for in mobile middleware, says Ro.

“”Most of these issues aren’t new; it’s an old list applied to a new market,”” says Ro. “”My sense is IT managers are going to be more cautious than normal about where they spend their dollars and it’s going to take a strong ROI (return on investment) pitch from middleware vendors to convince anyone they should be spending new money on mobility.””

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