Why 'wireless middleware' will be one of the most important infrastructure investments you will make over the next three years
There can be no e-business without mobility
The need to mobilise key enterprise information assets - extending the accessibility of information and applications to mobile workers - has never been stronger. Two main trends are behind this:
- every company of significant size now relies on IT systems and digital information to conduct its business effectively, both internally and in partnership with others
- many company workers are no longer desk-bound, but increasingly work from multiple locations, or are truly mobile.
These two trends create a major tension, because the trend towards e-business has a centralising effect on information; and most e-business systems are designed to be accessed from desktop PCs. However, e-business also relies for its effectiveness on the timeliness and quality of the information that is input. Where does the input come from? It can come from interactions with customers and prospects, from people who fix assets 'in the field', from distributors and delivery companies, and so on.
In other words, the quality and timeliness of e-business input comes from ill-defined and mobile locations outside the walls of the enterprise. E-business is nothing without mobility of information and applications, yet enterprise IT suppliers and many consumers of these systems treat it as an expensive exception.
Middleware: the glue for the wireless enterprise
Wireless middleware provides the
runtime infrastructure and development services necessary to deliver digital content, software applications, and e-services to users of mobile computing devices.
Why do you need wireless middleware? The answer is simple.
Today there is considerable diversity in devices themselves, the network services they attach to, and the wireless data protocols they use to send and receive information. In ten years there may be one global public network standard, and one wireless data protocol.
However at the very least, there will continue to be many different types of device - not because of technology constraints, but because different people playing different roles in different situations will demand form factors that suit them.
Reducing costs and complexity
Attempting to deliver a data service to a significant population of workers, by directly addressing each type of device and network that might be used, is therefore very difficult and likely to be prohibitively expensive.
Wireless middleware hides the complexity of delivering services to different mobile computing devices by translating behind the scenes between network protocols, application protocols, user interface standards, security implementations, and so on. Wireless middleware allows you to deliver sophisticated data services to mobile devices cost-effectively.
Applications, applications, applications
In practice, it is highly unlikely that the applications and information that you will want to deliver to mobile workers will be completely new. In most cases, wireless application and information services will be implemented from existing assets, rather than through the creation of new ones.
This fact has an important impact on wireless middleware technology. Most companies will be extending, not creating, applications and information, so the value of wireless middleware products is principally in dealing with the complexities associated with the variety of devices and networks that wireless services must address. Unlike other types of middleware, such as application servers and integration technologies, the value is not in dealing with the complexities associated with hosting and managing large and complex software applications.
Catering for different environments
All software applications are automated ways of creating, sharing, analysing and accessing digital information - but they do these things to different extents. Applications, and the services which deliver them, therefore vary in terms of the kind of environments that users need in order to be able to find, understand, create and manipulate information; and in the nature of the information itself.
In the context of analysing the requirements that applications place on the environments in which they run, there are two extremes: communication-centric applications and process-centric applications.
Communication-centric and process-centric applications
Communication-centric applications include applications such as voice communication, text messaging, unified messaging, e-mail and collaborative 'groupware' applications.
The value of a communication-centric application is largely dependent on those people able to connect to the application and share information. If there are enough of the right type of people 'connected', the application becomes valuable. Conversely, the sophistication of the user environment that hosts a communication-centric application is of secondary interest. Change in the implementation of a communication-centric application is largely driven by the network environment. This might arise because the application needs to reach another group of users using a different kind of network or device, for example.
Process-centric applications include customer information and sales applications; field service applications; and office productivity applications.
The value of a process-centric application is dependent on the quality of the environment through which information can be visualised, created and manipulated. In contrast, the value of a network that connects the device to a central information store may be incidental to the overall value of the application. What is more, process-centric applications are often characterised by the fact that they need to provide users with functionality at all times - even when there is no network connection. In contrast to communication-centric applications, change in the implementation of a process-centric application is largely driven by internal company pressures - such as changes to business processes - rather than by external pressures.
Different applications create different kinds of complexity
The most capable devices and networks are the ones that are the least widely adopted. The most widely-used devices and networks will be far less capable. This much is basic economics.
In addition, there is currently a great deal of heterogeneity in today's mobile devices and networks, and this is not going to go away.
These two facts together lead us to three uncomfortable truths:
- if you want to deliver an application or service to the largest possible audience, you will have to deal with large amounts of heterogeneity in devices, networks and protocols
- if you want to deliver these applications you will also have to settle for delivering lowest-common-denominator functionality, because most devices and networks only provide limited processing and transfer capacity
- if you want to deliver an application or service that is as sophisticated as possible, you will have to strongly limit the variety of devices and networks over which you deliver your offering (and therefore the population of users).
Consequently, process-centric applications - which implement specialised processing of information in order to create a rich or highly structured user environment - cannot in general be delivered cost-effectively to large populations of users. Conversely, communications-centric applications, which aim to create connections between members of an audience, cannot assume that users will have access to sophisticated application delivery environments
Different types of applications require different services from wireless middleware technology, in order to deliver to end users the kind of experiences they want. Despite vendors' claims to the contrary, the suitability of a given wireless middleware solution is not universal; it is dictated by the type of information or functionality you want to deliver to users. Applications are not just content.
At a high level, then, there are two sets of functions that are important in wireless middleware platforms:
one to deal with the 'complexity in the network', which arises from the need to
- deliver applications and services over multiple devices and networks
- another to deal with 'complexity in the information', which arises from the need to deliver usage environments that allow users to interact with and manipulate information in sophisticated ways.
Components of wireless middleware
By dealing with complexity, and smoothing out the differences between multiple machines, systems, networks and protocols, middleware products ease the job of the software developers who have to extend existing information and application assets out to mobile workers and consumers over cellular networks.
Indeed, the true value of any middleware solution should be judged by the degree to which it makes the job of software developers easier. Wireless middleware products are no exception.
There are seven main areas of wireless middleware functionality, all of which hide certain complexities from the developers who are responsible for delivering wireless applications and services:
Wireless middleware is important, but the market is immature
You need to consider the role that wireless middleware can play in helping you implement your e-business strategy - but your ability to procure the best-fit solution relies on you understanding the overall problem space, and convincing suppliers to show you how they fit into it.
The wireless middleware market in 2001 is immature, but growing fast. Despite the overall industry conditions, new players (both start-ups and established) are entering this market all the time, and there seems to be enough room for any player with an ability to differentiate itself. Unfortunately, few of these companies are making it clear how what they do helps address real requirements.
The market is set to change over the next year. By mid-2002, the enterprise middleware players such as IBM, Oracle, BEA, Microsoft and Sun/iPlanet will make serious and concerted moves into this market. Until now, they have not made serious investments - despite some of their marketing claims to the contrary. We also expect that one or more leading network infrastructure vendors (such as Motorola, Nokia, Ericsson or Cisco) will also change the colour of the market by 'moving up the stack' and delivering higher-level middleware services.