Communication Gone Mobile

By Paul Rubens (Send Email)
Posted May 10, 2007


Mobile e-mail — the ability to receive messages on a mobile phone, PDA or Blackberry — is already a must-have business service for most people. While mobile instant messaging (IM) isn't as big yet, there's little doubt it's going to be huge.

From e-mail to IM, messaging mobility is becoming as ubiquitous as a mobile phone. What are the vendors in the space doing to adapt?

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Research house Gartner predicts that by 2009, 90 percent of people with corporate e-mail accounts (and that's just about everyone in the business world) will have an enterprise-run IM account. Gartner doesn't make a precise prediction about how many of these users will have IM on their phones, but it's likely to be a fair percentage and a very large absolute number.

Both IBM and Microsoft are preparing for this in their enterprise IM offerings. In April 2006, Microsoft released its Office Communicator Mobile client, which extends the Communicator desktop messaging client to Windows Mobile devices for IM, presence information and VoIP. IBM offers mobile access to its SameTime messaging platform through the IBM Lotus SameTime Mobile client for Nokia and Blackberry devices.

The big difference between IBM's and Microsoft's mobile communications strategies lies their respective approaches to mobile e-mail. Mobile e-mail is tightly integrated into Microsoft Exchange, and can be used, without additional client licenses, as an alternative to Outlook Web Access. E-mails are delivered using Microsoft's ActiveSync technology to end-user devices running Windows Mobile 5 clients (and Mobile 6 clients, when it becomes are available later this quarter) or devices from the likes of SonyEriccson, Nokia, Palm, Motorola and makers of Symbian-based mobiles running licensed ActiveSync clients.

Exchange

Exchange's ActiveSync technology uses both scheduled and manual e-mail synchronization (and calendar events and tasks for that matter) as well Direct Push. Introduced in Exchange Server 2003 SP2, Direct Push prompts client devices to synchronize and collect new e-mail and other information whenever they arrive at the Exchange Server.

Exchange Server 2003 also has built-in security policy and policy enforcement. Policies — such as whether the device has to be locked with a PIN, the minimum PIN length, and whether a given number of failed PIN entry attempts should wipe the device of all data — can be created and sent to devices using Exchange ActiveSync. Administrators can wipe out remotely, if a user reports her device lost or stolen. In Exchange 2007, users can wipe their own devices remotely using Outlook Web Access. To further ensure policy enforcement, Exchange can also block devices that do not accept policies sent from connecting back to the enterprise.

Lotus Notes

In contrast, Lotus Notes does not have mobile e-mail capabilities integrated into the platform to the same degree, and connectivity products like Lotus Mobile Connect (a follow-on release to WebSphere Everyplace Connection Manager) have not found much traction. This is not to say users at the many large companies using Notes-based e-mail can't access their messages on the move. A plethora of third-party middleware and end-user client vendors, such as Sybase iAnywhere, provide push technology to get Lotus Notes e-mail to mobile devices in an appropriate fashion. Some of these work with Microsoft Exchange mail as well, but this market is more limited in scope, as in a Microsoft environment with ActiveSync-compatible mobile devices the likes of iAnywhere offer far less additional functionality.

These ISVs provide much more than push technology for Lotus Notes. iAnywhere, for example, enables over-the-air deployment of client to Windows Mobile 5, Symbian, Palm and SonyEriccson devices, and secures data in transit using a VPN-like tunnel. It protects access to data on devices with a client-based power-on password and also includes on-device encryption to minimize the risk of data loss if the device is mislaid. Authentication is also handled — for example, although a complex password is generally required, it is usually valid for eight hours and must be entered on the device keypad once or twice per day.

Third-Party Vendors

Third-party vendors are also active in the IM space, bringing IM and presence to mobile users. iAnywhere supplies middleware to talk to Microsoft Live Communication Server (LCS) and IBM Lotus SameTime, Jabber OpenFire (formerly Wildfire) and XCP Reuters Messaging and GoogleTalk. It manages security and authentication while communicating with a range of mobile clients using triple DES encryption. Software from another vendor, WebMessenger, also talks to LCS, SameTime and Jabber XCP within the enterprise, and then handles security and authentication when talking to WebMessenger mobile clients on Palm, RIM (Blackberry) and Windows handhelds and mobiles.

As far as architecture is concerned, third-party solutions typically consist of a box that sits inside the firewall and has access to the Notes or Exchange servers, and a component in the corporate DMZ to which both devices outside the enterprise and servers within it connect.

In the past, many people predicted a unified inbox model of communications, with users dipping into a single location from a variety of devices to send and receive all types of communications, including voice mail, e-mail, and even fax messages. Although systems like Exchange offer this to some extent, it's unlikely we'll see a significant change in server architecture any time soon, according to Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney.

Instead, there will continue to be a number of separate communications systems, including phone, e-mail and IM, all linked together. "With no central box, it's all about interfaces and integration. The question is, who controls the boxes and the authentication mechanisms — who sets the interface standards?" Dulaney noted.

The Importance of E-Mail

As the granddaddy of data services, e-mail and the e-mail experience is likely to dictate who will be successful, Dulaney said. "Strength in e-mail is very important, indeed. Microsoft is in a good position, while IBM starts in a weak position and is losing share in the e-mail market. It has about 26 percent now, but that's likely to fall to 17 percent by 2009."

Whichever vendor dominates mobile e-mail, then, is likely to be the leading force in mobile data communications for some time to come. In light of this, Microsoft's Exchange strategy seems to be a smart one. As Dulaney puts it, "the boxes that authenticate are very important, and whoever gets to do that will be the dominant player."

And that's the type of player that Microsoft just loves to be.

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