Access all areas with any device

30 Oct 2003

Earlier this month Microsoft announced its plans to launch an improved wireless networking service in its Windows operating system early next year. The aim of WPS (Wireless Provisioning Service) is to enable operators and organisations to make it easier to connect to wireless hotspots.

The company also announced it was working with Vodafone to blend the development platforms for mobile and computing devices. Essentially, both initiatives are about setting standards to rid mobile technology of its complexity and integrate it further into the enterprise as whole.

“A big thrust of what we’re doing now and into the future is secure, integrated innovation,” explains Clive Ryan, a business group manager in the Irish office. “Those recent Microsoft announcements were about standards, about making sure we have software architecture and productivity applications that can talk to backend web services, whether they be in a connected environment from a desktop or from a mobile device.”

The notion of a seamless platform whereby employees in remote locations can access disparate business processes has given the industry one of its biggest headaches. Put simply, one set of solutions frequently hasn’t worked with another. Two or three years ago, the rumblings began about an affordable cure. Some credit the term ‘web services’ to Microsoft, others say it’s just a fancy name for something that companies have been working on for years. But just about all the vendors agree that they are the panacea for integration woes that have been costing them customers and slowing down the rollout of new business solutions.

So what exactly are web services? The deceptively simple phrase is a generic term that describes applications that are able to work with other diverse applications in a web-based environment regardless of platform. To create such an environment the industry came together and agreed a series of common protocols such as simple object access protocol (SOAP), universal discovery description and integration (UDDI) and web services description language (WSDL). But the common thread is that they all speak the same language: extensible markup language (XML), to be more specific.

The challenge, as Microsoft sees it, is to use web services and its broader .Net architecture to improve productivity by enabling the mobile workforce to become a fully functioning arm of an organisation. “The mobile workplace is evolving into a fully productive one. In the past, the mobile worker was disconnected,” says Ryan. “All they had was the information on their device, be it a laptop or personal digital assistant and some very slow connectivity options that limited their productivity. They had to go back to the office at some point and ‘hard dock’ rather than rely on the mobile infrastructure to deliver data applications.”

This is no longer the case, according to Ryan, who alludes to the new generation of devices and connectivity options that are now available.

“Speed is the enabling infrastructure. You can certainly do more things than you could before but there’s also new software architecture that can take advantage of the connectivity speeds,” he says.

The new architecture means that there is a move away from email-only tendencies that have so far driven mobile applications. “We’re moving away from just email connectivity to full application activity,” says Ryan.

He explains how Microsoft is making the mobile office a more workable option: “Why would mobile users come to the office if they’re out on the road? To meet people, maybe, or to sync up their laptops and record orders. You can remove the need to go to a physical location or a meeting through live online meetings. You can see a PowerPoint presentation or training seminar delivered in real-time from wherever you were. You can record orders from the road using pen technology, such as tablets or PDAs.”

It’s nearly two years since Bill Gates made the headlines for pitching tablet PCs centre stage, extolling their virtues, predicting that they will be the outselling conventional computers within five years. Working with the likes of HP and Toshiba, Microsoft has developed a tablet edition of the XP operating system and is feeding development tools into the IT community. The core message is what it calls ‘natural computing’, the move away from keyboard-driven interaction towards handwriting recognition and a pen-and-pad digital interface.

For Microsoft, tablet PCs are another logical step in the any time, any place, any device .Net strategy.

Tablet PCs: new tools for mobility