Mobile business apps middleware catches on

Software makers are partnering with third-party wireless applications providers to develop their mobile systems

Industry experts maintain that many business applications vendors are still struggling to successfully port their tools to mobile handsets. But some software makers claim that by partnering with wireless specialists to develop their systems, they are selling more licenses to end-users today.

While larger business applications companies, including SAP and Salesforce.com, have gone the route of internally developing mobile versions of their existing products, others, such as enterprise software vendors NetSuite and SugarCRM, are finding it makes more sense to partner with third-party wireless applications providers.

In addition to the cost savings and reduced time to market that working with such partners allows -- versus architecting their own wireless applications or acquiring firms that can do so, as in the case of Salesforce.com -- advocates of the emerging middleware model for mobile business applications claim the approach results in far more mature wireless services for customers.

"We originally approached wireless development internally ourselves, and we've developed a lightweight client that can work in almost any browser. But we found that by enlisting a partner that is focused completely on mobile applications we could create something much more compelling," said John Roberts, chief executive of SugarCRM, in Cupertino, Calfornia.

"Mobilizing a product seems like a straightforward process, but the truth is that understanding the way that a user navigates the handheld application, what needs to be in there and what is most useful, involves a lot more work than taking a traditional application and pushing it to a different form factor," Roberts said.

To get its business applications onto smaller screens faster and more effectively, SugarCRM enlisted the help of iEnterprises, a provider of wireless tools that has long specialized in pushing CRM systems to wireless devices. The company currently offers handheld iterations of CRM products made by IBM's Lotus division, SugarCRM, NetSuite, and Microsoft, along with its own applications.

At the core of iEnterprises' strategy is its own Mobile CRM software module, which it also sells as a stand-alone product. Having spent years developing the right mix of features and formats for pushing business applications such as sales force automation (SFA) tools to mobile devices, the company claims it is accelerating the pace with which its partners can offer wireless applications to their customers.

"Everyone in business software is trying to build a mobile module, but many vendors are finding creating that is harder than they thought, and that using something like our module makes a lot more sense," said Phil Sheehy vice president of wireless solutions at iEnterprises.

"Because of the form factor of today's devices, the limited memory and bandwidth constraints of the network, it's very important and challenging to get the right mix of features into the applications themselves," Sheehy said. "The tools have to have enough utility to be useful, but the temptation for many is to try and cram too much into the program, which has resulted in a lot of products that end-users have found too cumbersome or awkward."

Industry analysts continue to criticize the functionality of many mobile business applications for exactly those reasons.

"It's going to take years for enterprise applications to become mobile because these were largely designed for the PC within certain parameters, which doesn't port well to the handheld," said Maribel Lopez, analyst with Forrester Research. "Everybody wants mobile business applications but there's still a lot of massaging of the applications themselves that needs to happen before more customers will be ready to increase investment."

Even those companies building the mobile devices agree that the middleware model for mobile business applications seems to make a lot of sense.

Among the device companies iEnterprises is partnered with is Research In Motion, maker of the BlackBerry handhelds that have become arguably the most popular wireless business device in North America.

"Companies like this that serve in the middleware role are bringing a lot of value to the market by allowing existing CRM companies and their customers to tap into mobility and pull in data from back-end systems," said Tyler Lessard, director of independent software vendor (ISV) alliances at RIM.

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