More and more often, workers are finding the workplace can be anyplace -- at the office, at home, or even out at...
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the ballgame -- if they have the right mobile equipment and applications.
Employers see the benefits of improved response times, while employees receive the flexibility to put out fires or make critical decisions while not being tied to the desk or a computer.
Right now, an IDC study indicates, mobile email is largely driving mobile computing growth, but that is probably the tip of the iceberg.
Various companies are helping enterprises enable their employees -- ranging from top-level systems administrators to field technicians and sales forces -- to be as productive with their smartphones on the road as they are with a desktop in the main office.
Rob Woodbridge, CEO of Rove Mobile Inc., said that after seven years of being in the mobile applications market, he has seen -- in just the past six to nine months -- a sudden development of wider interest in what mobile platforms can do.
Rove offers a suite of applications focused on network administration, including a mobile SSH client and mobile Windows Server administration and diagnostics. Woodbridge said mobility can offer less downtime coupled with more freedom for administrators.
He gave the example of one company that had network administrators "on call" 24/7.
"Their policy was that if you're on call, you have to be within a certain timeframe from a computer," he said. "They bought our software, and after extensive trials … you could be anywhere you wanted to be -- instead of being tethered to your house and computer."
If SSH and the server administration tools fail, Rove also offers a VNC client that can allow users to navigate the full screen of the desktop from their portable device. Not the optimal input, to be sure, but if the choice is a shrunken screen or a daughter's missed dance recital, that ability can be priceless.
But IT is not the only department that can be mobilized.
Antenna Software focuses on the field: Sales, service workers and technical support are some of their larger segments. Using Antenna's AMPower platform, enterprises can send and receive relevant data directly from workers' phones.
Heineken Ireland, for example, adopted the platform to dramatically speed up the refresh rate of pub servicing information. Traditionally, Heineken's draught service representatives would manually fill out paper forms as they travelled to, inspected and serviced all the locations where Heineken products were on tap.
That information would then have to be re-entered later, usually backlogging the information for a week. In addition, the service representatives could be the AMPower gateway, so the technicians could cut out the redundant paperwork and instantly notify central offices if more parts were needed or if a maintenance stop had to be rescheduled. Managers could also notify their technicians if an urgent field problem arose, so they could better prioritize their travels and service stops.
All of the users can then be managed through a Web portal.
"Mobility is not just about communications between people now," said Jim Somers, vice president of marketing for Antenna. "As we close out this year, we're starting to see signs that we're moving into the next wave."
Somers said mobile computing is no longer just about making people more productive in their current methods but is actually about rethinking many processes and practices to achieve a more streamlined, efficient workflow from the bottom up.
Of course, not every company is ready to hand its employees BlackBerry devices and the latest in mobile enterprise software. But as the recent iPhone mania has shown, employees might start bringing smart devices on their own with or without corporate blessing.
That is one of the markets Synchronica is pursuing. The company has developed a middleware that sits between Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Domino and other services and converts that information (typically email, calendar, contacts, etc.) to SyncML, the open standard supported by a wide variety of phones. In addition to enterprises, Synchronica sells its mobile gateway as a white label service to cellular providers.
Carsten Brinkschulte, CEO of Synchronica, said there was a mix between business and consumer end users, with the latter category growing substantially. He said the company's approach of converting data before it reaches the user had at least one major advantage.
"Requiring a client to be installed on the handset is a very limiting factor when addressing the market," Brinkschulte said. "That means you are limiting the devices that can use your software to the smartphones."
By contrast, he said, 70% to 80% of devices now produced are SyncML enabled.