Throughout the summer of 2004, the UK’s major mobile phone networks started an all-out marketing blitz for their 3G services. And the application the networks have used most prominently to hook business users is email on the move.
But simply slotting a 3G data card into a laptop is not a robust, sustainable approach to mobile email management. One report on email management from researchers at Butler Group found that the growth of mobile devices is helping to increase the use of email. But, the analysts added, the proliferation of devices is “creating an added risk for organisations, as it is more difficult to monitor and control the content of emails”.
For many large enterprises, dealing with mobile devices is one of the most challenging aspects of their overall email strategy. Even with the dramatically higher data speeds promised by 3G, simply enabling web access to corporate messaging is not an efficient or even dependable solution, though almost all email server vendors support this option.
But businesses are facing a turning point in the way employees use email on the move. “Two to three years ago access to email from mobile devices was most definitely being driven by knowledge workers seeking to make better use of dead time, rather than the business,” says Butler. “We are seeing businesses recognise the real value of this technology.”
That entails a move away from just supporting a handful of executives on the road, towards technologies suited to mass deployment. Relatively unreliable solutions, such as cellular phone-PDA combinations, or high cost technologies, such as laptops supporting GPRS data cards, do not scale particularly well for applications such as field sales or service.
Businesses face issues of device support, security and ensuring data integrity. Technologies such as the SynchML standard make it easier for corporate users to marry up information between their central messaging systems and mobile devices. But so far only a small number of vendors (primaraly Oracle and IBM) fully support the standard.
Cost, too, remains a problem. Although the per-megabyte fees for GPRS and 3G data are falling, increased usage is driving up the total bill, according to Leif-Olof Wallin, senior programme director at Meta Group.
Meta estimates the cost of giving a user access to email on the move runs to US$160 (£85) a month. “The cost of the device is not really the issue here,” says Wallin. “It is the monthly recurring cost. Rates are going down for mobile voice and data services, but most of my clients complain that even though they’ve negotiated very aggressively with their operator, total cost for mobility keeps going up, as consumption grows quicker than the price is declining.”
This is one reason that devices such as the BlackBerry, from Research in Motion, are making inroads with enterprises. BlackBerry users typically pay a fixed monthly fee for “unlimited” wireless access. T-Mobile UK, for example, offers £17.50 per month for data only users, as well as a 50MB monthly fair usage allowance.
A number of mobile phone companies, including Nokia and Siemens, are building BlackBerry support into their handsets, so that businesses are not compelled to buy the BlackBerry messaging device to use the company’s push email technology.
BlackBerry and alternatives such as OpenHand – a server-based mobile email management system – have several advantages over regular GPRS data access. These include lower data usage charges and the ability to deal well with holes in GPRS data coverage. This is a constant cause of complaints for heavy users of mobile email, despite the coverage claims of the network operators.
BlackBerry, though, is not a total panacea: there are mobile email problems that cannot be addressed by the device.
According to Richard Edwards, research analyst at Butler, the weak point of the smartphone and PDA category is its ability to handle attachments. He expects to see text-to-speech and speech-to-text gateways become part of corporate messaging systems, as an alternative to reading documents on small screens.
Devices will also need to support ‘opportunistic connectivity’, so they can take advantage of network connections where they are available. But if users are going to store more data on the mobile device, rather than viewing it over the network, steps must be taken to ensure that the devices are secure and corporate secrets cannot be discovered.
Edwards believes it is vital for companies to set usage rules for mobile messaging, as well as for managing personal and company information on a shared device. As yet, this is a point relatively few businesses appear to have addressed, perhaps because smartphones and even PDAs are often personal, not corporate, purchases.
But businesses will need to act if they want mobile email to be part of their operations, rather than the source of management and security problems. “We’ve been here before,” says Edwards. “Let’s learn from our past experiences in the use and management of the PC.”