Wireless email: Many choices

Getting email to employees on the go requires a balancing act between unfettered access and security, and the flexibility to support myriad devices. Here's what's available, and what it integrates with

The decision whether to roll out wireless email to employees is a no-brainer. The answer is obviously yes. But be forewarned: employees carry a wide variety of devices -- and they'll all expect you to deliver their mail to the palm of their hand. According to the Yankee Group, many enterprises plan to take advantage of wireless mobile data. Almost two-thirds, in fact. According to Yankee Group's 2002 corporate survey, about 62 percent of large U.S. corporations plan to deploy mobile wireless data solutions within the next two years; of those, 79 percent cited email as the driving force behind that intent. There have been a number of stopgap methods used to offer employees some measure of email mobility, such as redirectors (which send email from your PC to the mobile device) and forwarding. Some smaller companies have opted for portable devices capable of supporting Web microbrowsers, such as WAP phones. However, none of these provides the necessary security or the level of interaction that client/server-based messaging platforms do. As a result, most solutions offered today use server-based software that works with existing network systems in order to secure data delivery. Enterprise needs
According to Ray DePaul, director of product planning for RIM, there are three key aspects that enterprises look for in mobile email services: security, singlemailbox integration, and push (where the email is automatically delivered to the device rather than the user having to initiate the process each time). He should know -- Rim has been the dominant force in the field, boasting some 403,000 subscribers as of August 2002. In fact, according to the Gartner Group, RIM has the largest installed base for enterprise mobile email/PIM. Besides its always-on email delivery, well-designed handhelds, RIM's success lies in its adaptation to a wide number of communications networks. The company's older models use the legacy PCS-based DataTec and Mobitex wireless networks. However, the recently released Blackberry 6710/6720 models include an integrated GSM/GPRS phone, and RIM is now working on CDMA and iDEN-compatible products. The Blackberry Enterprise Server software is available for either Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Domino, and works by monitoring users' mailboxes for new email, applying filters, compressing/encrypting incoming messages, and doing the same for outgoing email. A multitude of devices
RIM needs to stay sharp: A recent report by the Gartner Group maintained that PDAs with built-in wireless capacity, together with smart phones such as the Handspring Treo 300 Communicator, will eventually overshadow RIM's dedicated email devices. PDA vendors agree. For example, with its new Tungsten W handheld, Palm is directly targeting what the company calls the "PIM-plus-wireless" corporate customer. The PDA features full Internet connectivity and a built-in keyboard; it is due to ship in the first quarter of 2003. "We've tried to go a couple of steps further [than the RIM Blackberry]," says Rick Hartwig, product manager for the Tungsten W. "We've bumped into people who carry a RIM Blackberry for the email and a Palm V for the PIM, and so we've tried to integrate both in this." PDA vendors have been offering their own groupware email solutions to accompany the new hardware. For example, in September Palm introduced the Tungsten Mobile Information Management (MIM) Solution, which includes MIM Server software, to go with its Palm i705 wireless handheld as well as its new Tungsten line. Microsoft recently partnered with AT&T Wireless to launch a new email solution called AT&T Wireless Workplace, which includes Microsoft Mobile Information Server 2002 and GPRS data service plans, and which will work with such specially customised Pocket PCs as HP's new Siemens SX56. Both integrate with existing Exchange and Domino-based email networks, and use the GSM/GPRS 2.5G voice/data networks. However, when enterprises do begin the process of instituting mobile email, they frequently have to contend with a large number of individual devices already in use. Unlike desktop and even laptop computers, which are supplied and monitored by the company itself, many employees already own PDAs or WAP phones that are capable of handling email. While many companies (and especially their IT departments) may wish to standardise on a single device, it may not be either cost-effective or practical. Across the device divide
A small group of vendors now offers middleware solutions to bridge the gap. "Enterprises are going to have all kinds of devices out there to support," says Gartner's Peter Lowber. "We're looking at a piece of mobile middleware that can integrate to any backend email system and create an experience on any type of device that's appropriate for that type of device for reading email." For example, Wireless Knowledge's Workstyle Server edition, which provides access to email and PIM information residing behind a company's firewall, supports both Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Domino, and can handle both Palm OS and Pocket PC PDAs, as well as Internet-ready mobile phones and Blackberry devices. Another middleware vendor, Synchrologic, offers such products as its Mail Accelerator, a mobile server platform that provides push email updating on Pocket PC and Palm-OS phone devices such as the Treo. Other vendors pushing their way into this market include Infowave, Extended Systems, JP Mobile, and Good Technology, whose Goodlink platform supports the Blackberry (and who is now, as a result, fending off a legal challenge from RIM for patent, copyright, and trademark infringement). Variety may be the spice of life, but it can be a problem when it comes to enterprise deployment of mobile wireless solutions. While some IT departments will choose to standardise on products such as the Blackberry RIM, many large enterprises will probably find it necessary to accommodate a variety of mobile devices, including PDAs and smart phones. If that is the case, then decision-makers would be well-advised to choose middleware that can accommodate the full range of current and upcoming mobile technologies.

Have your say instantly in the Tech Update forum. Find out what's where in the new Tech Update with our Guided Tour. Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom.