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Wireless and the Instant Enterprise

Wireless and the Instant Enterprise

Instant messaging (IM) has quickly evolved from a consumer phenomenon to a vital form of business communication. Organizations from banks to the U.S. Navy are recognizing IM's potential for person-to-person collaboration and communication. Now IM is showing promise as a means for person-to-application communication as well.

The ubiquity of IM on wireless devices and networks, coupled with the science of "natural language," lets wireless users "talk" with applications in the home office the same way they talk to another person on their mobile phone's "buddy list." With an intuitive interface technology and with awareness of user "presence," enterprise IM (EIM) applications bring to bear all the benefits of wireless - personalized, location-based information and services and instant access - to extend real-time business processes to the farthest reaches of the wireless world.

Business Beyond the Ether(net)
In spite of the much-vaunted mLife we see in TV commercials - the latte-sipping day trader feeding pigeons in a Roman plaza - the wireless industry's performance over the next several years will be driven by business applications. Gartner estimates that there are 59.8 million mobile workers in the U.S. (workers who are away from the office more than 20% of the time), and wireless subscribership to data services is expected to almost double each year until 2005.

With its growing reach and instant access, wireless seems like a natural way to include mobile workers in real-time business processes, but wireless data applications so far have tended to be consumer-oriented - weather, sports, and news feeds - with little user interaction required. Businesses have not flocked to wireless data applications for several reasons. First, the myriad of devices and networks used by the mobile workforce makes it difficult to create "Write Once, Run Many" (WORM) applications. Even WAP has not been able to deliver WORM applications.

Consequently, deploying mobile wireless applications can be an expensive proposition. Second, companies already have huge investments in Web and application infrastructure, so they are understandably loathe to embark on costly new projects to create wireless-enabled applications. Third, but far from least, is the cost and effort of teaching mobile workers to use new wireless applications.

The one wireless application that has caught on increasingly in the corporate world is instant messaging (IM), an Internet protocol (IP)-based application that lets wireless users communicate through person-to-person text messages. There are a number of public IM offerings, the most popular being AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo!, with SMS messaging being offered by most wireless carriers.

Organizations from top Wall Street brokerage houses to the U.S. government have found that IM increases collaboration and productivity, speeds decision-making, and leaves a convenient communications trail that can help meet regulatory and security requirements.

With a thin-client architecture that adapts easily to any wireless device, network, or application, and with its simple text-based interface, IM now shows promise as a practical means to provide wireless access to business applications. Companies like IBM, Microsoft, and Jabber are selling secure IM solutions to enterprises, with secure clients becoming standard on wireless devices, such as IBM's secure Sametime IM client running on the Palm OS. In fact, Gartner predicts that by the end of 2005, 50% of companies will use corporate-focused IM software.

Technology WORMs Its Way Toward Enterprise IM
Enterprise IM is made possible by the convergence of several technology trends: the explosive growth of wireless devices and networks, the adoption of wireless IM standards, the standardization of back-office application infrastructure, and the standardization of natural language applications.

Increasing wireless connectivity and the growing sophistication of handheld devices, from combination mobile phones and PDAs to tablet PCs, are making wireless business applications more attractive and practical. Despite the recent media panning of "McWi-Fi" hotspots in burger emporiums, remote workers can get productive work done in airports, public institutions, wireless-enabled offices, and probably even select Roman plazas. New standards are making it possible to create applications that run across the wide variety of devices and networks available to remote workers (see sidebar, "Standards and the Wireless Village").

The appeal of IM as a medium to access applications is that the interface is the same across all devices: thin-client text messaging. Any wireless device will support text entry and display, so an IM interface can provide universal access much as a thin Java client provides application access on any Web browser. In fact, many business applications have already been architected for Web front ends, so an IM interface slides neatly into place atop the existing layered architecture.

Security is a whole other can of worms (not WORMs) for wireless applications. But because of the layered architecture, enterprise IM security can typically be addressed through existing application and system security mechanisms without a lot of additional effort. Enterprise IM offers the promise of WORM with a single, consistent application interface across all devices and networks, with the application logic and control residing within the application at the enterprise, making application deployment and maintenance affordable.

The last part of the enterprise wireless equation is natural language. Training a remote workforce in new processes and tools is always problematic, so users must be able to interact with wireless applications with little or no learning curve. IM is an inherently language-based medium, so natural language (NL) technology is a natural (no pun intended) fit to help users access applications quickly and simply.

NL technology uses predefined domain-specific grammars to enable applications to accept unstructured, conversational input, then extracts structure to create instructions to an application or information retrieval system. The field of natural language is fairly advanced, with techniques being standardized by international standards bodies such as the W3C (see sidebar).

Anatomy of Enterprise IM
Figure 1 describes the anatomy of EIM. An EIM server is the communication hub that provides the instant messaging communication infrastructure and services (i.e., buddy lists, presence, messaging, etc.). It talks to a wireless gateway that translates wireless protocols to the IM network protocol (and vice versa). The EIM application server runs on various IM networks, talking to the EIM servers using communication protocols like SIP/SIMPLE or XMPP.

The EIM application server also executes a natural language application, whose primary purpose is to take unstructured natural language messages and extract structure to create instructions to an application or information retrieval system. The NL application can be served up from a Web application server, much like a Web page, with back-end queries and business logic being run on the Web application server, much like with a Web application.

Buddying Up with Business Apps
From the user's standpoint, using an EIM application can be as simple as calling a person on their mobile device's "buddy list." The user calls and enters a conversational message requesting an action or information, and the application responds just as if there were a person at the other end of the connection. At other times, the application might take the initiative and "call" the user when some item of business needs attention. Some EIM servers can also hand off a session to a "live agent" (i.e., person) when human backup is required (see Figure 2).

Behind the scenes, an intelligent software agent on the EIM server parses a user message and creates a request to the appropriate enterprise application or data source, then forwards the request to the Web application server. Standards-based Web servers generate content dynamically using scripts, server pages, servlets, and other technologies. They also provide access to databases and back-end applications. The Web application server processes the request and responds with a JavaScript file, a VoiceXML or similar file, and a supporting grammar. The EIM server compiles these files, constructs a response, and sends it to the user (see Figure 3).

Who's Doing EIM?
A variety of industries are currently investigating or testing enterprise IM applications. Besides the obvious applications to field sales and CRM applications, financial services, health care, pharmaceuticals, and construction will be among the earliest adopters because awareness of a user's "presence" - the user's identity, profile, and availability - can be used to "push" time-critical and tailored information to the user to drive business processes.

For example, a stockbroker on the road can be notified of activity on a specific stock and prompted to instantly buy or sell, or a doctor on call might be notified of changes in a patient's condition and be able to check medication information and give instructions via an IM application. IM text messaging also leaves a trail that can be used to meet the extensive regulatory requirements in these industries.

Wireless service providers are already fielding EIM offerings. Late last year, Sprint Corp. announced its Universal Application Messaging service, designed to allow an organization's employees to access corporate applications from their IM buddy lists. Aimed at both wired and wireless networks, Sprint expects the service to be especially useful for mobile workers. Other companies provide enabling technologies such as EIM servers or frameworks that connect IM interfaces to enterprise apps and back-end databases.

For example, ActiveBuddy makes interactive software agents such as its HR Agent, which lets employees use IM to query a virtual HR representative about benefits questions. Natural Messaging, which makes EIM servers, is well represented in the financial services sector.

Several companies are already deploying EIM applications. Prudential Financial is using LivePerson's Service Edition CRM application to handle help desk calls, reducing the cost per call by almost 80% (according to a December 16, 2002, article in eWeek). A major wireless device manufacturer is arming its field sales people with a "PI Buddy" application that provides self-service IM access to product information and sales applications. The company estimates that the new application could deliver over a million dollars in productivity gains in the first year, paying for itself in just over two weeks.

Who Should Be Doing EIM?
Businesses are always looking for new ways to improve profitability and competitiveness, and universal real-time access to business information is an obvious next step in that search. With widespread wireless access, technologies, and standards that enable portable IM application interfaces, and with easy-to-use natural language interfaces, enterprise IM is a very cost-effective way to give mobile users instant access to in-house applications and information.

If a business has lots of mobile workers and/or customers, if business results depend on timely, accurate information and the ability to respond in real time, and if there is a need to track communications for regulatory or other reasons, the company should probably be considering enterprise IM.

SIDEBAR

Standards and the Wireless Village

Gartner reports that "enterprises need to support a multitude of wireless devices (phones, pagers, PDAs), many of which workers will purchase individually." Any EIM solution will need to run on a myriad of different IM networks speaking a variety of different protocols. There are a number of wireless IM communication protocol standards and interactive application development standards that have gained traction in the marketplace:

  • SIP/SIMPLE: SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) is an initiation protocol, specified within the IETF, for setting up media-based communication sessions. SIMPLE (SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions) is an extension to SIP that includes instant messaging and presence. SIP/SIMPLE is gaining a tremendous amount of momentum in the marketplace with its adoption by IBM and Microsoft's enterprise IM offerings.
  • XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol): This is a standard that was submitted to the IETF by the open source Jabber community. It is currently one of the most widely deployed enterprise IM standards in the market.
  • SMPP (Short Message Peer to Peer): SMPP is an open, industry-standard messaging protocol designed to simplify integration of data applications with wireless mobile networks. It is widely adopted in the wireless industry for deploying applications over SMS and two-way pager networks.
  • WV (Wireless Village): Founded by Ericsson, Motorola, and Nokia, WV was formed in April 2001 to define and promote a set of universal specifications for mobile instant messaging and presence services. WV has over 190 supporting companies, making it a force to be reckoned with in the IM space.
  • VoiceXML: W3C standard XML-based application language for developing interactive speech applications that leverage a company's existing Web infrastructure. Even though it was originally specified with interactive speech applications in mind, it is being leveraged to write natural language (NL), interactive IM applications. Supporting NL standards include SRGS (Speech Recognition Grammar Specification) and SLMS (Stochastic Language Models Specification).
  • SALT (Speech And Language Tags): A competing standard to VoiceXML, proposed by Microsoft. It is a multimodal (interaction modes such as text and speech) standard that extends XHTML.
  • X+V (XHTML + VoiceXML): A competing multimodal standard to SALT, proposed by IBM.
  • More Stories By Brent Smolinski

    Brent Smolinski is cofounder and chief technology officer of Natural Messaging, Inc. He has extensive experience in industry and research, including a research position with the Center for High Performance Scientific Computing at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Brent holds a master's degree in computer science from California Polytechnic University, and was a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley.

    More Stories By Anita Osterhaug

    Anita Osterhaug, a WBT International Advisory Board member,
    is director of knowledge products
    for Brokat Technologies, and an experienced freelance writer on Internet
    technologies.

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