Last week, the Information Technology Solution Provider Alliance (ITSPA) put out a press release about the adoption of mobile data solutions amongst small and medium sized businesses (SMBs). The release cited a study, conducted by the Yankee Group, that surveyed SMBs about their attitudes toward mobility. The study had some interesting conclusions which I went into more detail about with the Yankee Group's Gary Chen on a conference call today. According to the Yankee Group survey, 60% of small business owners have deployed, or are planning to implement, a mobile data solution over a cellular network. Like their enterprise counterparts, the majority of this work has been around mobile groupware solutions. This is no surprise as deploying a mobile groupware solution (which allows for e-mail, PIM sync and calendaring information to be synchronized between the office and a mobile device) is far easier than, say, deploying a mobile CRM system. While larger companies are starting to deliver some really compelling solutions to tie their mobile users to enterprise back-end systems, SMBs aren't there yet.
According to Chen, the majority of SMBs have installed their own servers that run software from companies like Research in Motion, Good Technology, Sybase, Nokia and others in order to deliver mobile groupware to their employees. This surprised me given the relatively high cost and complexity of such software packages. "Pricing is always a concern, so you have to balance that with the benefits of being mobile," Chen said. Right now, there's no clear winner on the backend side amongst SMBs. That said, Research in Motion's Blackberry platform is clearly popular, as is Good Technology's Goodlink platform, among others.
For those that do not have either the IT staff or budget to deploy their own mobile groupware solution in house, there are alternatives. In July, Research in Motion released their Hosted Blackberry Enterprise Server (BES) product which offers a hosted, managed version of the popular BES platform targeted at SMBs. Cellular carriers have also offered hosted a variety of solutions for mobile e-mail from companies like Visto, SEVEN, Nokia (Intellisync) and others that are designed for SMBs running on a variety of budgets. (See an article I wrote in December for more detail). As they can make deployment easier, look for more SMBs to jump on the mobility bandwagon as hosted solutions gain popularity.
What also surprised me about the Yankee Group study related to preferences for smartphones. According to the survey, the conventional mobile phone with data capabilities was the currently the clear choice among SMBs for deploying mobile data solutions. If you project into the future, smartphones start to gain more popularity. Clearly a QWERTY keyboard is ideal for applications like mobile e-mail and Chen said that "hybrid" devices (which deliver smartphone features in a more phone like form factor) will win out in the end. He cited the Motorola Q as an example. (I would add the Palm Treo and newer Blackberry models as further examples of smartphones that are more phone than PDA). I think this really relates to two points. One, size is important: users dont want to carry around a device that's cumbersome. Two, voice is still the killer app: regardless of the data features of a device, if you can't use it adequately as a phone, it doesn't do much good.
So, when will we see SMBs start to deploy true mobile applications, beyond groupware? According to Chen, It will be dependent on the ISVs (independent software vendors). "It has to be kind of off the shelf stuff," he noted. SMBs often don't have the resources to deploy and maintain custom apps that deliver access to CRM, accounting, or other legacy back end systems to mobile users. In the future, look for software vendors to start adding mobility directly into their products, similarly to how Microsoft has integrated the capacity for mobile groupware into Exchange and Windows Mobile 5.