In three to four years, more than 50 percent of private enterprises are likely to deploy mobile devices -- primarily PDAs, but also smart phones and other data appliances -- as an integrated part of their business operations, according to Meta Group, a Stamford, Conn.-based research group.

Embracing these solutions, businesses will seek to improve productivity, streamline processes, improve customer service and increase employee retention, according to "Planning Mobile Deployments," a recent white paper written by Jack Gold, META Group's vice president of Mobile and Pervasive Computing. Wireless applications, the report suggests, will play an increasingly prominent role in sales force automation, field service, dispatch, logistics and factory floor operations, retailing, financial services, and medical services.

While the report focuses on the private sector, many issues raised apply to government operations. A strong case can be made that many of the production benefits of wireless applications apply just as well to the public sector.

Gold's report states that much of the wireless deployment in the commercial sector to date has been driven by end-users, in terms of both convenience and an unabated exuberance for new gadgets. This is particularly true of PDAs; rather than carrying around a heavy laptop with limited battery life to access small amounts of data, PDAs offer an attractive alternative for simple data needs.

But as an enterprise advantage becomes increasingly apparent, a second phase of more strategic mobile deployment is expected, driven more by cost savings than by the end-user. For instance, specialized devices and applications could extend mobile wireless to workers for whom notebook deployment would be cost prohibitive. Because of this, Gold's report predicts "pervasive devices" will outnumber traditional PCs within four to five years.

Enterprise Wireless

Given the general shift in thoughts about wireless, it is not surprising that research and consulting firms, such as the Meta Group and the Gartner Group, increasingly advocate the need for an enterprise approach to wireless to help ensure adequate return on investment.

Part of the argument for an enterprise approach hinges on the technological landscape. Leif-Olof Wallin, Meta Group wireless expert and author of a follow up to Gold's white paper called, "The Convergence of Mobile and Wireless Data Networks," argues that organizations of all types will need to implement a mobile strategy, as well as continue to "act tactically and plan for obsolescence. Each technology change will require device upgrade/replacement," Wallin wrote. "As the market continues to consolidate, vendor viability remains important. The business model of a single service providing only mobile/wireless data networks has failed miserably, due to high capital expenditure and the cost to attract customers. The mobile/wireless data network market is becoming dominated by the cellular divisions of incumbents that leverage their existing infrastructure assets and customer base."

Against this economic backdrop, the underlying technologies themselves are not rolling out as rapidly as some experts once expected they would. "Until at least 2007, the quality and availability of mobile data networks will vary by region," Wallin noted. "The deployment of third-generation (3G) mobile data networks is significantly behind schedule in most regions and will not have considerable presence outside Japan until 2004+. Outside densely populated areas, users cannot expect 3G coverage until 2008+ in most regions."

Nevertheless, many application vendors are gearing toward what both reports call "pervasive deployments" in order to satisfy end-user needs.

In the first report, Gold wrote that over the next two to three years, a shift away from stand-alone toward pervasive deployments of enterprise applications is expected. "By 2004/2005 we expect pervasive deployments to be built on standardized enterprise platforms (similar to current practices with databases and application servers), rather than individual project-specific solutions or stand-alone mobile server platform add-ons.

"However, it is unlikely that a single vendor will be able to furnish all

Blake Harris  |  Contributing Editor