Managing email on the move

IT Pro Guide: Guy Matthews looks into the constantly-changing world of mobile email and its implications for larger businesses and enterprises

More and more corporate employees now expect to be able to access their email inbox while out of the office. But mobile email can present a considerable challenge to the enterprise network manager.

In this guide we look at the tools and services available that allow businesses to provide enterprise-class mobile email access to employees and address the key issues surrounding it.

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Want to know how an application so firmly rooted in the world of the personal gadget be turned into a useful corporate asset? Read on for the full lowdown...

From niche to mainstream

The year 2006 will go down as the year when mobile email moved from niche application for the gadget freak to mainstream corporate tool. The first practical challenge for enterprises is to bring about a similar change in their thinking on accessing mail on the move.

Corporate strategy on email management and access should be extended to include wireless access to mail before any choice is made about which technologies and devices to choose. Ask yourself who gets access to mail on the move? Those who need it most, or everybody? Should there be restrictions on what sort of email is sent and received on the move? Should devices owned by individuals be allowed access to mail, or just company-approved devices? Can any of these rules actually be enforced?

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Assessing the options

The future may judge that a key turning point in the corporate acceptance of mobile email was the successful conclusion of the legal dispute between RIM, makers of the popular BlackBerry device, and NTP. Not only can all BlackBerry users breathe easy once more, but the whole case has helped bring home just how dependent many mobile workers have become on a device that gives them 24/7 access to email from anywhere.

This is also the year that will see RIM faced with a whole raft of new challengers on the corporate mobile email front. RIM's 63 per cent hold on the global business wireless email market looks set to take a dive as entrants such as Microsoft and Nokia plan to meet growing demand with their own versions of messaging on the move.

In fact mobile email for the enterprise is predicted to represent at least 25 per cent of total business wireless expenditure by the end of the year, according to consulting firm Strategy Analytics.

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The practical challenge is how to decide which technology to back. Along with dependable names such as Microsoft, Nokia and RIM, a lot of smaller players with niche technology will also prosper initially.

In the initial land grab, however, these could well be acquired by larger concerns and be absorbed by bigger brands, leaving businesses potentially unsure exactly what they've bought into. If in doubt, wait.

Pushing it to the max

Before adopting mobile email on a full company-wide basis, many businesses will, quite rightly, want to satisfy themselves that the whole mobile email experience delivers something similar to regular deskbound email. What you don't want, however, is a two tier email system where, for example, mail seen by mobile workers is available at a different time to the same email sent to desk workers.

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One solution could be push email, which automatically sends new emails straight from a corporate mail server to mobile devices as they arrive. Microsoft is a prime mover in delivering push email to businesses. Mobile services providers such as Orange are following suit with push email services being made available on Windows Mobile 5.0 devices backed by Microsoft Exchange Server 2003.

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Intelligently, Orange's service solves another corporate concern by including tools that let network managers configure a large number of devices in use across the organization without having to call them in for a complex refit. A range of pre-set configurations can match the needs of different groups of users within a company and signals can be sent to handsets from once every three minutes up to just once per hour.

Making mobile email as business-like as possible

Simply taking technology that works for individuals and small businesses and broadening its availability across a major enterprise does not constitute a mobile email strategy, however. You need to ask how much thought the makers of the technology you have in mind have given to your specific needs.

RIM, for instance, is working hard to develop its platform for deployment across major enterprises. It has just refreshed its BlackBerry Enterprise Server platform with the addition of corporate instant messaging and has improved administration capabilities. It has also added developer tools that make it easier for corporates to build links of their own between BlackBerry devices and enterprise applications.

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RIM's IM tool helpfully links to existing corporate IM systems such as Lotus Sametime and Novell GroupWise Messenger as well as Microsoft's Live Communications Server and Windows Messenger.

Whatever technology or service you choose, you'll need to make sure that you're opting for something that works with the corporate email system you already have.

And if mobility means roaming abroad, does your network of choice allow this and what does it cost? Is the service you have in mind 2G or 3G? And what provision does it make for security?

What's next?

If mobile email sounds like a headache for the enterprise network manager, then get ready for what's coming next. After all, mobile email is just one application. With its new HSDPA-based services Vodafone is talking about moving business customers beyond simple mobile email and turning them into "true mobile enterprises". In the context of porting the whole gamut of enterprise applications over to full mobility, getting mobile email right is really just the tip of the iceberg.

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