Mobility 2003's watchword

Stick a vendor, a technologist, an IT manager and an analyst in a room together and ask them to expound on IT trends and you might be surprised at the amount of agreement that emerges.

Stick a vendor, a technologist, an IT manager and an analyst in a room together and ask them to expound on IT trends and you might be surprised at the amount of agreement that emerges.

When Computerworld tried this stunt a week or so ago, differences were economic rather than religious.

In other words, the vendor – a systems integrator, in fact – tended to see things from the point of view of how he’d make a buck out of them, while the IT manager’s interest was how he’d get a return on investment. The analyst, meantime, was busy running his ruler over every market segment, looking for the fastest-growing (with the thought, no doubt, of passing that positive data on to the market players -- for a price). And then there was the CTO: in the happy position of having to know all about everything but without responsibility for making it work, he was enthusiastic about the lot.

I might be projecting motives somewhat on to the other three, but I don’t think there’s any doubt of the IT manager’s preoccupation.

“I need a business case that enhances the bottom line to justify any IT spending,” he said. And who doesn’t? Even the systems integrator could relate to such thinking, although he comes it at from the other direction. So, asked about the potential for open source software, the integrator answered “What’s the business case that makes open source work?”. It’s safe to say an answer that satisfied the vendor would be less likely to please the IT manager, although they should both understand the best business is that which is mutually beneficial.

Differences of inflection aside, the four occupants of Computerworld’s think tank didn’t once break into argument. Mobile and wireless technologies are tipped to become increasingly common. With their wider deployment, however, a variety of issues rear up. One is security; and another is … security (let’s pretend there are two kinds). Our IT manager, whose employer has a fleet of vehicles tearing about town collecting materials for recycling, has a clear application for mobile systems. Handheld devices for data entry, with wireless links into the company’s production system, and GPS transponders for fleet tracking, would make the business more efficient. But no way would the bosses give their blessing to a system that wasn’t totally secure. He’s still to convince them that it is.

The size of that challenge – and the rawness of radio frequency-based technology – is demonstrated by an experience the company has had with fixed wireless links. Their flakiness was brought home by problems establishing wireless connections between two of the company’s facilities. It turned out that the wireless data network was being interfered with by cellphone signals. A different sort of insecurity to that of the physical loss of a data-laden handheld device – an unstable network, in this instance – but with the same effect of putting the company’s data at risk. (See WiFi network brought down by cordless phone.)

The analyst’s take on mobile computing was straightforward: it will spread – wirelessly. But tablet PCs – launched last year by Microsoft and partners with great fanfare -- won’t be leading the charge. PDAs and notebooks will be doing that. However, there’s a caveat on notebook uptake: while at a price and functionality point where they’re competitive as desktop PC replacements, they’re not as durable.

Curiously enough, when the subject turned to web services, the vendor was the most circumspect about their uptake. Declaring himself a “healthy sceptic”, he had few customer deployments of web services to report, although some are making preparatory moves. Server consolidation, thin-client projects and partnering were bigger money-spinners for him.

No such web services scepticism on the part of the CTO. He forecast a world in which systems would consist of web-delivered applications (from niche application service providers – the analyst agreed that services would be a high-growth activity) and applications assembled from open source components. In a concession to reality he warned that security would become a bigger issue as outsourcing became commonplace.

The word from the IT manager on web services? “Amazing potential but they haven’t yet gelled for us.” Vendor and customer were agreed.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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