Software suppliers and mobile network operators are battling for control of an emerging wireless enterprise technologies market, which is growing to support the needs of mobile workers.
If you are looking at extending the accessibility of business applications and information to mobile workers, the good news is that new public cellular network technologies such as General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), and mainstream availability of high-powered personal digital assistants, will make life a lot easier.
The bad news is that you have many - perhaps too many - choices. To succeed you will have to base your strategy on the requirements of the applications you want to deploy - not on the marketing promises of suppliers.
A major part of the battle between pioneering wireless software players, such as iAnywhere (a division of Sybase), and mobile network operators, such as Vodafone and BT Cellnet, centres on the architectural configurations they promote. Unsurprisingly, mobile network operators are keen to promote demand for new network services; and software suppliers are keen to promote demand for new mobile devices.
Consequently, the starting position of many mobile operators is a "wireless web" message, which talks up the ease of extending your existing intranet to the world of wireless. By contrast, many software developers take a more "fat-client" approach, which mirrors the client-server architecture that underpins many older local area network-based business applications.
A "thin-client", "wireless web" architecture undoubtedly enables you to build, deploy and manage applications and information cost-effectively; whereas a client-server architecture, which relies on software and data being installed on each client device, makes life more complicated and is a more dated method.
So, thin-client web architectures are firmly in vogue when it comes to corporate intranet applications, but when it comes to mobile computing, is the corresponding notion of the "wireless web" the right way to go?
If you decide to extend the accessibility of a business application or information store to mobile workers, you do so because your company wants to improve its operational efficiency, or to improve customer service.
If mobile workers can't access a key application or piece of information at a critical moment, the potential for process optimisation or customer service improvement is blunted, to say the least. Consequently, a thin-client model will only be suitable if the network you are using to distribute the information is reliable and available when users need it.
Herein lies the problem. Coverage of third generation (3G) services (and GPRS, to a lesser extent) will not equal that of today's Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) services for a long time. There will be teething problems. Reliability and availability of these network services will never be the same as that of a fixed service. In some remote locations these services will never become available.
However, this is not what many UK companies are expecting. Ovum has carried out user focus group research with IT managers across a variety of vertical industries in the UK, US and Australia.
There is a lot of scepticism about the claims being made about new cellular technologies such as GPRS (2.5G services). Users don't believe the data speeds or the delivery times being promised. However, many say they would prefer to wait for 3G networks, seeing 2.5G as an "interim technology". While cynical that things such as GPRS can deliver on operators' promises, several referred uncritically to the 2mbps speeds originally advertised by 3G operators.
This adds up to a potentially dangerous situation, for your company as well as for network operators and software houses. Suppliers need to come clean, or risk the backlash experienced over Wap. The truth is that a thin-client model isn't necessarily bad; but it certainly isn't the optimum model for every application.
Given the unreliability inherent in new mobile networks, process-centric applications such as customer relationship and supply chain management and office productivity applications - which rely on rich user environments to make them usable - fit more naturally with a client-server architecture than a thin-client one.
These applications still need mobile networks to allow users to access up-to-date information; but the device and the software parts of the solution take precedence over the network.
Neil Ward-Dutton is senior consultant at analyst and consultancy company Ovum