Comdex 2001: Mobile computing gets real

Mobile Web services and data delivery converge as companies such as vVault, Cutting Edge, and Captaris show off solid mobile applications

Comdex, like the rest of the IT world, loves themes, especially those that you can stick "year of" in front of, such as "year of the Internet" or "year of the dot-com". Mobile computing must have had an overabundance of promise, because it seems like it's the theme du jour... jour after jour, year after year. With the show floor packed with mobile product vendors, the usual optimism about mobile computing is bolstered by real, and useful, enterprise-class applications and development environments.

Interestingly, mobile's arrival intersects neatly with the industry's current buzz - Web services. vVault, a San Francisco-based company, offers tools and services that exemplify this convergence. Built on their vVault Platform, a content delivery engine that uses XML APIs to allow mobile access to Web-based or desktop files. Accessed files can be viewed with cell phones, PDAs, and virtually any browser-enabled device. You can email the files and even read email attachments, or print them by sending them to a fax machine. These features and others are available as Web services on an as-needed basis. The service is available only in the US, and costs about $100 annually per user and includes 50MB of online storage; an administration facility lets you manage multiple accounts, including allowing access to specific services and usage monitoring.

Cutting Edge's take on mobile data access is twofold: using their Quickoffice Conference application, Palm OS users can access and manipulate Excel spreadsheet data in real time -- but those users can also share the data interactively with other mobile co-workers. Cutting Edge includes an ODBC API that allows access to corporate databases so, while viewers will see data in spreadsheet form, the data can come from any ODBC-compliant source. The back-end links are created using a Visual Basic development kit. The data can be shared on a peer basis, or if multiple participants are viewing a single sheet of data, one user can be designated as the conference leader and control other participants' access rights. The application is extremely flexible, allowing spreadsheet workbooks of up to 15 separate sheets; users can view, enter, or alter data on different sheets in a workbook simultaneously. Cutting Edge will offer similar mobile collaboration for its Microsoft Word work alike, Quickword, in the first quarter of next year.

Mobilising enterprise applications typically requires significant infrastructure work to deliver corporate data to mobile devices. Captaris' Infinite Mobile Delivery Server is a turnkey solution that can ease the pain and expense of implementation. In fact, Captaris claims the server can be installed in less than an hour. The server is a full platform that includes an out-of-the-box "connector" to Microsoft Exchange's interface to extend email services to mobile clients. Any client system, including Palm or Pocket PC PDAs, mobile phones, and two-way pagers, that supports a WAP-based browser can access Exchange mail and related applications. The system will detect the type of client and adjust the data accordingly to accommodate the device's display. One of the mobile email system's neatest features is the ability to reply to messages with your voice -- a good alternative to trying to type messages on a telephone keypad. There's also a text-to-speech engine that lets you listen to messages. The server also provides access to corporate databases with its ODBC-compliant API.

Two other mobile products are worth noting: DDH Software's HanDBase Plus and Trust Digital's PDA Secure. HanDBase Plus is an ODBC client that runs on Palm or Pocket PC PDAs. It comes with Windows software that lets you create the client application and select and map fields between corporate applications. Data can be synchronised between a mobile device and the corporate database or between two IR-equipped PDAs. The next release, expected in the first half of next year, will strengthen encryption, add new field types, and allow one PDA to aggregate data updates to other mobile devices and, in turn, to apply the updates to the master database. PDA Secure is a data security management system for Palm or Pocket PC PDAs that will prevent unauthorised access to PDA data. The application offers six levels of encryption; encrypted data cannot be read or accessed by slipping the PDA into another synchronisation cradle. On the administrative side, you can manage all PDAs that connect to your company network, including restricting the types of data that can be downloaded.

These are all solid mobile computing applications, but just the tip of the iceberg of mobile products that bear real evidence that mobile computing has finally reached the enterprise.

If it moves, we cover it. See ZDNet UK's Mobile Technology News Section for the latest news, reviews and price checks on mobile phones, PDAs, notebook computers and anything else you can take-away.

For full Comdex coverage see ZDNet UK's Comdex '01 News Special.

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