Coffee shop toys: The future of wireless Web apps

Web services push forward from the enterprise to your home workshop

It's the ideal coffee shop toy for music lovers: A wireless media player that connects directly to an online music service. Besides the usual playback capabilities, the device's built-in Wi-Fi enables you to play Internet radio. If you hear a song you like, you can press a button to download it, the album the track is from or a mix of similar songs.

Wireless devices that integrate seamlessly with Web services are starting to be available. Earlier this year, SanDisk released its Wi-Fi-enabled Sansa Connect media player, which connects to the Yahoo Music subscription service. More recently, Apple released the iPod Touch, which connects to its iTunes store.

Many believe that the high visibility of Apple's player will lead to more wireless devices that connect directly to Web services. And it's easy to imagine how these need not just be media devices: Why not tiny wireless devices to perform financial transactions or to provide access to enterprise-based applications such as sales force automation?

Analysts believe we are close to a harmonic convergence of sorts in terms of small devices that interact with specific Web-based applications and services. In particular, widespread wireless access is becoming available via cellular 3G, Wi-Fi and, soon, mobile WiMax. In addition, processors for small devices are becoming more powerful, and displays are becoming more viewable.

"There's huge potential here," said David Mowrey, who, as director of product management at Yahoo Inc., worked with SanDisk to develop the Sansa Connect. "But there are a lot of challenges."

Been there, done that

Enterprises have deployed mobile applications for quite a while, noted Derek Kerton, an analyst at Kerton Group, a telecommunications consulting firm.

Mobile e-mail was the first widely adopted mobile Internet application for enterprises. While BlackBerries are the best-known e-mail devices, virtually all smart phones and many less-powerful cell phones now can send and receive mail.

Beyond that, organizations are increasingly giving mobile users access to core business applications via cell phones, smart phones and other handhelds, a trend that Kerton said will continue as mobile devices and software keep improving.

However, dedicating specific devices to access corporate data in the same way the iPod Touch connects to the iTunes store doesn't make sense for many enterprises, Kerton said. That's because most business users already have devices such as smart phones that can connect to the Internet. The big problem in the enterprise is figuring out how best to access that data, he added.

"Say you have an app for the Palm OS that ties into inventory levels and it works well," Kerton said. "But if you use the Web, it doesn't work so well all the time because you have different devices with different platforms and browsers." Because of that, it's often simpler for many enterprises to build their own applications for use on mobile devices such as smart phones, he said.

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