Category Archives: mobility

Mobile Browser Roundup: The SharePoint Test

Let’s be honest, mobile web browsing has been hit and miss — mostly miss. (An Opera Mini advocate should feel free jump in here and set me straight here– although Opera Mini crashes on my smartphone pretty consistently).

I recently had cause to look at how well SharePoint (the recently buzz-garnering content management, workflow, and collaboration platform from Microsoft) renders on mobile devices. This seems like a suitable benchmark for mobile browsing as of mid-2008.

  • As of today I myself use a “Blazer” browser on the Palm platform which is hopelessly slow and poor at rendering web pages of nearly every description.
  • Generic mobile browsers, including Windows mobile, don’t render SharePoint (or many other web sites) well.
  • I’ve read both that iPhone’s Safari browser renders SharePoint well, and that it renders poorly, but haven’t tested this claim.
  • SkyFire browser for Windows mobile is supposed to be much better but is still in closed beta
  • Deepfish from Microsoft is also in closed beta.
  • An overview on other Pocket IE type browsers – (replacing this older overview).
  • As an alternative to mobile browsers, using XenApp (Citrix) clients for Windows CE, Blackberry, or Symbian (possibly soon to include iPhone) one can open a “real” browser on a remote PC and simply view the already-rendered views on one’s screen. (I haven’t used this so I don’t know how well it works.)
  • RoveMobility has something called PCMobilizr, which is like PCAnywhere (3 stage – client, proxy service, server agent) which will have an iPhone client shortly.
  • Other workarounds for the inability of mobile browers to process SharePoint include alternative means of publishing the information in a SharePoint site, e.g. RSS or other feeds, emailing back information / links, and custom web parts that expose Outlook Web Parts (“OWA”) or other web parts that don’t work well outside of a desktop IE browser in a simpler (html or text) format.

At this point does anybody want to jump in with a run-down of the embedded Flash capabilities of mobile browsers?

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Enterprise, Meet Mashups: User Experience 2.0 via SOA and OBAs

[This is something I wrote recently for a partner of my company (iLink Systems) who wanted to know more about Microsoft OBA soutions based on our experience. It’s not a full-on marketing brochure, to be sure, but it’s not meant to be “objective,” either, thus this disclaimer.]

The cornerstones of “Web 2.0” are Mashups, web sites which pull information from multiple sources — open API web applications and data sources — and combine them to give the user an experience they wouldn’t otherwise get from a single online application. For example, a mashup can combine a restaurant listing with a mapping application to show a user information about nearby restaurants that are conveniently plotted on a map.

We are accustomed to thinking of mashups in connection with MySpace and consumer users rather than the internal systems of Fortune 500 companies and corporate users. But substitute “Enterprise web services” for “open API web applications” in the definition of mashups above and the concept of mashups slides smoothly over to the Enterprise domain.

Enterprises increasingly rely on web services as part of a Service Oriented Architecture (“SOA”). These web services allow access to the specific functions of Enterprise applications, including antiquated legacy applications, without using the original application user interface (“UI”). Custom UIs can be created which are the equivalents of mashup web sites because functions from multiple applications can be combined in one UI for greatly increased ease of use. For example, secure sign-on, workflow, and data functions from different applications can be merged in one simple smart phone UI.

Similarly, the key benefit of Office Business Applications (“OBAs”) is making information from Enterprise back-ends easier to get by allowing users to access it through already familiar Microsoft Office applications (Outlook, Word, Excel) and web browsers (SharePoint portals). In addition to Office’s broad range of options, Microsoft’s “Office” product line now includes SharePoint (recently renamed “Microsoft Office SharePoint”) and its content management, data connection, and workflow features, plus integration with components like InfoPath Forms and Business Scorecards (dashboards).

At my company we pride ourselves on our ability to improve “user experience.” In essence, this means customizing the parts of software that users touch to make software fit users better. In recent years we’ve been seeing increasing interest in developing systems that make more of the back-end accessible to more users, in particular making information that traditionally has only been accessible to database specialists accessible to business users. We also continue to see, surprisingly often, manual re-entry of information, even in very large companies. The solution in both scenarios often involves SOA (web services), OBAs and related Microsoft technologies. Here are a few examples:

1. A hospital system. The managers of a particular government agency’s hospital system rely almost exclusively on Microsoft Outlook (email) to obtain and share information. For better or for worse, Outlook is currently the only information tool most likely to be widely used by these managers. Additionally, these managers were frustrated by their inability to obtain real time business intelligence about how specific hospitals, and the hospital system as a whole, were performing over time.

We created an OBA to place a dashboard showing graphs and charts with up-to-the-minute business information into each managers’ Outlook home folder. The dashboard, clickable to “drill down” into more detail, connects via SharePoint to the hospital systems’ legacy database systems, reducing the technical know-how required for information access to nearly zero, ensuring that information received by managers is complete and current, and removing the middle-man bottleneck from the data flow. Authorization for access to information can be synchronized to email sign-on, maintaining simplicity without lowering security.

2. An agricultural wholesaler. A wholesale distributor in the agricultural sector has numerous farm suppliers, most of whom have limited computer capabilities. Handling supplier-provided pricing and availability information was expensive because it required the distributor’s people to do a lot of manual data entry. Extra people had to be available at peak times of the work day to manually enter data from faxes and emails while simultaneously taking telephone calls.

We worked out a custom OBA solution to enable automated extraction of purchasing information from the text of emails, email attachments, and faxes, drastically reducing manual data entry. For example, after opening an email from a supplier with an attachment containing purchasing information, the distributor’s people click on a custom button “add-in” we added to their Outlook. The add-in automatically extracts all relevant information from the Word document attached to the email, places the information in a form, and submits the form to create a temporary SQL Server database entry. A workflow is triggered which reminds the staffer to review and approve the new entry before it goes “live” in the purchasing system.

Similarly, for Word documents that originate within a company, Word button add-ins can be used to automatically generate data forms from the information in those documents as well as workflows that route those forms to different users for review or approval.

3. A telecom provider. Employees at various levels in a telecom found that the software they had been given access to was either difficult to use or didn’t allow information to be arranged in desired ways, or both, causing them to use manual workarounds. Field technicians transferred information to paper before leaving the office, took notes by hand in the field, and manually re-typed information back in the office. Business analysts manually typed information into temporary spreadsheets to prepare regular reports, then spent a great deal of time reconciling those spreadsheets with primary data before accurate reports could be submitted. All of this manual re-entry not only consumed expensive personnel time but led to hard-to-detect errors which consumed even more time and reduced individuals’ responsiveness to other important tasks.

We created .Net components and services that collect and filter information then deliver the information in the proper format for different kinds of users. Users sign on once to obtain access to multiple data sources and workflows. A browser-based mobile UI brings up precisely the data each field technician needs. Field representatives no longer need to take notes by hand then manually re-enter data after they return to the office, or place calls to support personnel while working in the field in order to obtain current information.

4. A marketing communication company. Account representatives working at a marketing communications company were spending quite a bit of time manually retrieving their accounts’ independently produced sales and marketing collateral. In addition to finding the right collateral, they found themselves trying to maintain and update duplicate sets of the latest versions of their accounts’ collateral.

To streamline this process, we designed a custom web-based application for importing accounts’ collateral automatically into the company’s SharePoint portal, with version control features that validate the freshness of the collateral. We then updated another web application that can be viewed within a “pane” (sub-window) of representatives’ copies of Outlook 2007 that allows representatives to incorporate fresh collateral from their SharePoint portal directly into outgoing email messages with no intermediate steps.

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The Citrix alternative for Mobile Access to Enterprise Applications

When I think of Citrix I think of GoToMeeting and GoToPC. They also created Remote Desktop Access, I believe. But only recently I discovered that one of their key offerings is essentially a blend of these technologies which allows mobile (e.g. smart phone) users to use Enterprise applications without installing them on their mobile device. It sounds like quite a trick. I was intrigued, so here are some notes and observations about the Citrix platform.

Citrix’s “XenApp” involves virtualizing client applications of all types, then streaming them to remote users. There are no application or document downloads to the client with this model, only a two-way streaming of UI information, which increases security and (for large documents) reduces bandwidth. For mobile users XenApp supports a Windows CE client, a Blackberry client (by RoveMobile), and a just released USB peripheral for Windows mobile smartphones that enhances / enables XenApp use (by Redfly).

They also have a component called “XenApp for SharePoint.” It allows remote users to browse both applications and documents over a network in SharePoint, and from SharePoint they can open Office and other Enterprise applications remotely without having those client applications installed on their own machines. http://www.citrix.com/English/ps2/accessAnswers/challenge.asp?contentID=25653

Idealy Citrix’s virtualization and streaming of applications allows companies to centralize and thus minimize hardware and software and their setup, maintenance, and upgrades. Improved mobility is a side effect of their model.

Specific Citrix solutions include:

Remote Access

  • for example, functionality like the remote access application in Windows (itself based on Citrix technology), allowing local computers to control remote computers.

Web-based collaboration, including meetings and VOIP

  • for example GoToMeeting (which will soon have a VOIP option, by the way).

Application Delivery Infrastructure (including virtualization of servers, storage, and desktops)

  • for example: imagine subscribing to a virtual desktop computer rather than buying the and software and doing the setup and maintenance yourself; this includes remote booting of a desktop computer from an OS disk image streamed to a remote computer from a permanent storage location on the network.

Web-based Application Infrastructure

  • for example their “Netscaler” product line offers compression, caching, security, traffic management (load balancing), and administration features for high volume web applications (note: one important function of web based applications is disaster recovery preparedness)

Secure Virtual Private Networks

  • SSL based VPNs which extend the security of closed networks to multiple locations.

IT workflow automation

  • their “Citrix Workflow Studio” automates workflow across APIs, web services, PowerShell, etc.

Value Proposition (aka PRO): When most of IT is invisibly handled on the back end, both administrators and end users spend less time arranging and implementing IT changes. Imagine even a small savings per person per year, multiply by a workforce of hundreds, or thousands, over a number of years, and you get some idea of Citrix’s value proposition. This model also gives information workers more time to focus on their core competencies instead of on IT.

Possible Downsides (aka CON): According to a colleague who worked in a corporate datacenter where Citrix was installed, license fees are very high, making it much more cost effective in that business to convert existing applications to web-based applications rather than running them in the Citrix virtualization environment. In addition, the reliability of the Citrix servers (at least in that datacenter) was inconsistent. Some applications are more compatible with a Citrix environment than others — which frequently flaked out — my colleague said.

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No gPhone :-( — but we will have Android

So I feel a little silly joining in on the speculation regarding the gPhone. But I think Android, Google’s platform for mobile devices, makes good sense and is more “Google-like” than “Apple-like” which is no doubt good for the market as a whole over the next few years.

You can track what’s been going on with Android on the official site, the wikipedia entry, and the Open Handset Alliance home page.

UPDATE: Wired published an interesting article explaining the whys and wherefores of Android. On the last page Larry Page points out that whether or not Android-based handsets come to dominate the market, Google competitive presence in this space will be a positive influence for making mobile devices more web-friendly. (My friend Chetan Sharma, mobile consultant extraordinaire, also gets a great quote on page 7, incidentally.)

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Mobile Virtual Network Hang Ups

After not following the MVNO (“Mobile Virtual Network Operator”) space very attentively for a number of months, I was stunned to learn that Disney’s much celebrated Disney Mobile service is being terminated as a money-loser.

(MVNOs are companies that offer another company’s wireless service under their own brand — for example, people who had Disney Mobile service were actually using the Sprint network, but didn’t necessarily know it.)

Last year the MVNOs were supposed to crowd out the branding and marketing presence of MNOs (Mobile Network Operators, like Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T Mobility) because the MVNOs (like Disney) “get” marketing, while the MNOs don’t. And I, like many others, found this intuitively made sense — I was just talking to another friend this morning who has a horrendous “customer experience” with his mobile carrier (I didn’t even bother to ask which).

But the truth is, MVNOs have been really stinking up the place. As reported by Cassimir Medford at RedHerring.com, besides the demise of Disney Mobile, there was another Disney-owned MVNO that shut down recently — ESPN mobile. And besides the inglorious end of somewhat lower profile Amp’d Mobile, the really telling revelation was that Virgin Mobile USA announced, on the occasion of it’s IPO, that it had accumulated well over a half-billion dollars of debt over five years time. Since the Disney marketing juggernaut and Sir Richard “Marketing-Meister” Branson have are both taking this bath, I’m emboldened to say that the common wisdom about this marketplace is way off the mark. What happened to the walled garden, where a veritable monsoon of ringtone downloads and SMS overcharges reigns supreme, where the spoils belong to whoever can herd the most sheep in the gate?

Meanwhile, hardware manufacturer and yes, quasi-MVNO Apple Computer has put together an uber-MVNO business model based on a wi-fi enabled (albeit not open platform) device. As Ari Greengart deftly points out in his 10/1/07 RCR Wireless News article, Apple receives:

  • a hefty, non-disounted hardware margin on the iPhone (Apple offers no rebates or other incentives),
  • a share of airtime (voice and data) charges,
  • the ability to drive traffic directly to their lucrative iTunes service without first passing through their MVO partner (in the U.S., AT&T; in Europe, O2, T-Mobile, and Orange),
  • a share of music, movies and ringtones downloads revenue,
  • freedom from the responsibility their MVO partners must bear to acquire and maintain network capacity, and handle customer billing,
  • shelf space in their partners’ sizeable networks of stores.

As Ari says: “Wow.”

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What will the gPhone look like?

This Information Week article by Thomas Claburn is a delightful riff on what the ideal “mobile phone” will be like: In short, the home-office of the future, minus the furniture and major appliances. He dangles titillating clues about mobile technology and business trends as well as astute observations about the market forces that are both accelerating and impeding his ultimate gratification.

Here’s his wish list for the gPhone (an idealized mobile device, in other words) starting with the best phone he can find on the market today — the OpenMoko Neo 1973:

The OpenMoko Neo 1973 is built using a Samsung S3C2410AL-26 CPU, capable of running at up to 266 MHz, 64MB Samsung NAND flash, 128MB SDRAM,Texas Instruments (TXN)’ Calypso-based GSM modem, an AGPS module from Global Locate, GPRS analog baseband and RF transceiver chips, an 8GB Samsung microSD card, a TPO mobile LCD display and a Touch Screen controller, an audio subsystem, a vibration module, support for analog and Bluetooth headsets, a Phillips power management chip, and aNokia (NOK) BL5C battery, not to mention a stylus.

The OpenMoko Neo 1973

Being idealistic about this, though, we want a multi-touch screen (making the stylus optional), a more powerful processor (Via’s Mobile-ITX board, perhaps), WiMax support (not to mention UMTS and HSDPA support), Unlicensed Mobile Access (currently being offered in the United States by T-Mobile), an 8 megapixel camera that can take video and transmit it in a live stream, optional programmable buttons, an accelerometer (like the iPhone), ambient noise sensors, a digital compass, a fingerprint sensor, an LED flashlight and laser pointer, FM receiver and transmitter, RFID read/write capability, an inductive charger, a solar recharging panel, and multiple SIM slots.

(The photo is not in the original, I added it because this thing looks cool.) I’m not quite certain (but strongly suspect) that the author meant his second paragraph to be over-the-top — just about everything on the list is recognizable as being available in some handheld device or other at present, but it would be quite a trick to get that all in your pocket at once….

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