By Carmen Nobel, PC Week
IT managers looking to give mobile employees access to internal and Web-based information will soon have more offerings to choose from -- though not necessarily from traditional wireless service providers.
IBM, Xerox and upstarts such as NetMorf are stepping in where wireless carriers have failed to deliver with packaged solutions that give users access to corporate data from gadgets such as pagers, cell phones and other handheld devices.
At the CTIA Wireless show in New Orleans this week, IBM plans to introduce the first packaged product to use transcoding technology developed in the company's Pervasive Computing Group.
Websphere Transcoding Publisher translates data into a wide array of protocols and languages so it can be viewed via smart phones and handheld devices, officials at the company said. The server-side software, due to ship at the end of March, will run on AIX, Linux, Solaris and Windows 2000.
In addition, IBM plans to package several of its software offerings into a single service/product platform --tentatively dubbed Websphere Everywhere -- to provide transcoding, synchronization, protocol support and basic management for enterprises providing wireless access to corporate data. The suite is due 13 March.
IBM's Pervasive Computing Group has been partnering pell-mell with both carriers and enterprise customers. Companies such as Delta Air Lines have dealt far more closely with IBM than with their service providers to get their wireless initiatives off the ground.
Delta has been working with IBM and Modem Media for several months to provide wireless access to Delta's Web site. Delta uses Sprint PCS for the network connection, but that's pretty much where the Sprint relationship ends, said Rob Casas, manager of e-commerce development for the airline.
"IBM has come in both on the consultant side and also provided development resources for us for the application side," Casas said. "We have worked with [Sprint] to some degree, but the fundamental thing is an IBM-Delta collaboration."
In addition to its work with Sprint, IBM is also teaming up with AT&T. The companies announced last week an agreement to develop new wireless services for corporate customers.
While companies offering wireless data applications are happy to partner with wireless access providers, they acknowledge those carriers' limitations.
"Many wireless carriers aren't currently equipped to deliver the high-value services," said Andrew Ordonez, director of marketing for Xerox Mobile Solutions, a new branch of the document. "Obviously, the carriers will always be an integral part of the equation, but selling through them requires a significant amount of handholding," Ordonez said. "So alternative channels to the enterprise—e.g., wireless ASPs [application service providers]—are advisable."
At the conference, Xerox Mobile Solutions will introduce its first product, MobileDoc, which will enable customers to access files on their corporate servers via pagers and then signal the servers to forward the files to a fax machine or e-mail address. The product will support Motorola pagers at first, with support for Palm. personal digital assistants and Wireless Access Protocol phones later this year.
Separately, NetMorf this week will announce SiteMorpher 2.0. The software, which sits on top of an application server, transfers back-end data to wireless devices and automatically detects the correct protocol, generating the correct format for the device.
The new version includes SiteMorfer Designer, which provides templates for designing sites with wireless access in mind, said officials at the Boston company. Due March 31, SiteMorfer 2.0 starts at US$20,000, with additional fees for consulting services.
Executives at Sprint PCS and other wireless telecommunications providers said carriers have been slower than the rest of the industry to offer applications specific to enterprise customers, although most of them are testing several companies' solutions. Sprint PCS is the leading U.S. carrier in offering Internet access on cell phones, but it won't begin offering nationwide wireless access to corporate intranet data until the second quarter.
With startup wireless ASPs and companies such as IBM offering more immediate services, the carriers are battling a growing perception that they're little more than a "bit pipe" to the network. "We are one, but we don't want to be just a pipe," said an executive at a major US carrier. "We plan to offer some of these services ourselves. But we still have a lot to learn."