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The 'MIDDLEware' Child: Often the Forgotten One

The 'MIDDLEware' Child: Often the Forgotten One

Selecting a middleware solution should be easy, right? Yet in this crowded market, it is important to understand how one middleware solution differs from another, not only in terms of features/benefits, but also investment protection.

Wireless communications have experienced rapid growth in the last five years, climbing to 50 million users, according to the research group IDC ­ a faster adoption rate than cellphones and the Internet. IDC estimates wireless technology usage in the enterprise will grow to a 15+ billion-dollar market by 2004. Furthermore, nearly 40% of U.S. companies with 10,000+ employees are developing mobile strategies now ­ and most (69%) plan to deploy the solutions to employees first. Driven by the need to communicate and collaborate quickly and securely, wireless solutions are viewed as a low-cost, high-return investment for mobile professionals.

The word wireless means different things to different people: pagers, cellphones, PDAs, laptops, voice, and data are just some of the possibilities. For the enterprise, wireless means anytime, anywhere access to productivity tools that run the business, regardless of device or network. Although the device is the most visible component of a wireless implementation, the heart of a successful deployment depends on "behind-the-scenes" technology powering productivity applications into the wireless environment.

There is a wide range of wireless solutions to choose from, all geared to diverse levels of corporate needs. While some employees require access to e-mail and simple messaging services, others need access to enterprise applications like customer relationship management and enterprise resource planning. These varying needs can represent a quagmire for the corporate IT buyer. Flooded with promises of the latest and greatest technologies, buyers tend to overlook the core need for a secure and reliable solution that supports all corporate citizen needs. Deploying the foundation ­ a wireless middleware platform ­ to facilitate access to a variety of enterprise applications will ensure simple, flexible, and powerful wireless communications.

The 'MIDDLEware' Child
What is wireless middleware? In basic terms, it connects disparate applications seamlessly to the wireless environment regardless of device or network. Wireless middleware should use common technology standards and APIs, provide security features consistent with enterprise requirements, and grow and expand with enterprise needs.

Not all wireless middleware platforms are created equal. Since middleware solutions vary in terms of agility and levels of data access, it's important to understand how they rate against user requirements, support staff needs, and business benefits.

In general, a middleware solution should allow the user to choose any wireless device. This is important because it expands the utility to the user and enhances the solution's overall value. Regardless of device, employees realize that staying connected to the office is a requirement. Whether working remotely, traveling, or on personal time, having access to the latest information can make a significant difference in a corporate citizen's ability to be timely and productive. The right wireless solution will deliver reliable, ubiquitous coverage, be simple to use, and make the transition to wireless access straightforward.

From an IT perspective, the solution should deliver enterprise-grade functionality and support. Wireless support staff must leverage existing technology investments, by wirelessly enabling productivity tools already familiar to end users. This way, the amount of training, support, and ongoing administration can be significantly reduced. Additionally, IT will not want to be restricted to one type of network or device. Networks and devices are changing all the time. For example, a mobile executive may be given a wireless e-mail device as a productivity tool, but when on vacation, she only uses her cellphone. She should be able to access the same information regardless of device.

Finally, the company demands all of the above, but also needs to understand how this investment affects the bottom line. A wireless middleware solution should arm mobile professionals with the ability to stay connected while out of the office, thereby increasing productivity and reducing operational costs.

Show Me the Money
In theory, a wireless solution seems like a great idea, but raises the question, "What measurable return will this solution provide?" With today's shrinking corporate IT budgets, this is a fair question.

Consider the following example from a sales productivity perspective: daily travel for a sales executive is as inevitable as the frequent need to check e-mail and voicemail messages. The challenge comes when the executive needs to boot up a laptop, find a network connection, get into the e-mail system, check for messages, and re-synchronize a PDA. This process can easily consume more than 45 minutes each day. So the sales executive who travels four days a week will accrue a minimum of three hours of unproductive time each week.

Apply this example to a salesperson responsible for a quota of one million dollars. Let's assume he works 50 hours each week to achieve the quota. The three hours of unproductive time spent accessing corporate data each week consumes 6% of time unrelated to achieving the quota.

This may not seem like much, but over the course of a year, it comes out to over three weeks of lost productivity. If we apply that lost 6% to productive selling activities, we can easily add another $60,000 to the bottom line!

Equipped with this information, selecting a middleware solution should be easy, right? Yet in this crowded market, it is important to understand how one middleware solution differs from another, not only in terms of features/benefits, but also investment protection.

A Few Wireless Thorns
For all of its accolades and merits, users have voiced general concerns about wireless solutions. Slow response time, lack of coverage, applications outlasting device investments, and poor customer service are just a few of the many complaints. Customers are presented with promises of convenience, but instead, deal with technical or support issues.

Despite these concerns, middleware solutions have, by and large, stayed above the criticism. The middleware is less visible to the user so expectations have been modest for those interested in basic e-mail functionality. The vast majority of wireless middleware implementations have been done for individuals or small groups within organizations; therefore scalability and extensibility were not a requirementŠuntil now. According to a 2001 Forrester Research report, devices, network problems, and application limitations ranked among the highest concerns in implementing a wireless solution.

The first concern reflects the notion that companies are hesitant to deploy a solution that requires a specific wireless device investment. With device obsolescence taking place in a matter of months, this becomes problematic. Application limitations ­ security, scalability, common standards, and general manageability ­ have also been defined as "watch-outs." If the software behind the solution fails, companies are stuck with a useless solution and a stock of useless wireless devices.

Network concerns stem from the fact that wireless is not known for its ubiquitous coverage. Problems with speed and accessibility prevent many companies from investing in wireless technology. Networks have a wide range of connectivity quality ­ from spotty to superior ­ and it is crucial to know when and where the solution will work.

Today, there are a few solutions available that are device and network agile, and can conform to a variety of preexisting IT investments. Therefore, you should separate these overall wireless concerns from the capabilities of a wireless middleware solution.

Preparation for the 'Big Game'; Some Wireless Calisthenics
If you are looking into a wireless middleware solution, do your homework. Evaluate a solution based on its ability to provide value to the organization in a cost-effective way. Before you make a significant investment, follow these four steps to determine whether or not a solution lives up to its promise:

Step 1: Create a Pilot Program
To create a pilot program, identify a need (i.e., a mobile professional needs access to e-mail or a sales rep needs mobile access to customer account information). Then, determine what's important to the user in terms of features, functionality, data to be accessed, and where the users will be when accessing the information. Network coverage is paramount in your decision, so be precise as to the coverage requirements. Is coverage needed in major population centers or rural environments? While on the road or when deep inside a facility? Without reliable coverage, the value of wireless access diminishes rapidly.

Step 2: Understand the Technology
Take the time to understand the technology architecture, security, hardware, software, and network requirements. Overall, a solution should be able to evolve and grow with your organization's wireless requirements.

Step 3: Try it Out
The "latest and greatest" may sound wonderful on paper, but if it doesn't deliver on its promise, it is worthless to your team. Solid and reliable middleware solutions are known for having a simple interface, reliable system responsiveness, easy installation and configuration setup, and ongoing manageability.

Step 4: Report and Analyze
Gathering feedback from end users will be the best indicator of a solution's potential for success. Take both positive and negative feedback to the vendor for further information and clarification. You can then make the best possible decision for your organization. When discussing the merits of a middleware solution, be sure to include the solution's short- and long-term benefits and support features.

With wireless communications, you can be sure of two things: 1) technology will evolve rapidly, and 2) there will always be the "latest and greatest" solution vying for its "15 minutes of fame." As the market matures and evolves, it's the middleware platform that will come to the forefront as the foundation for any successful wireless enterprise strategy.

More Stories By Frank D. Brilliant

Frank D. Brilliant is a vice president of Arch Wireless, Inc. Frank's group
focuses on the development, marketing, and service support of
delivering "enterprise class" wireless data and
two-way messaging solutions to companies
with large mobile workforces.

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