Desktop Management Systems Go Mobile

Computer World –

For Jay Markanich, senior network engineer at IT consultancy Clarkston Group Inc. in Durham, N.C., system management is inescapably a remote-control process. Some 250 of his company's 300 systems are notebook computers. But when Markanich needed to distribute Y2k patches last year, he discovered that the best-known system-management tools wouldn't be much help.

"We thought that Microsoft SMS [Systems Management Server] might be able to solve our needs," Markanich recalls. "But we actually tried SMS and found that it did not handle remote users very well."

Markanich eventually found Mobile Automation software from Mobile Automation Inc. in Los Angeles. It uses remote-agent software that, at 2MB, is smaller than SMS's, he says. It also optimizes communication with portable computers that connect sporadically, often over low-bandwidth networks.

Markanich uses it to track software licenses and to download an expense database and security-related updates to consultants' notebooks. "It makes it possible for us to download large pieces of information to users without their ever knowing it," he says.

Ahead of the Curve

Mobile Automation was largely the brainchild of company president Douglas Neal, says Chairman Rod Turner. The two saw firsthand the need for mobile support while at Symantec Corp. in Cupertino, Calif. "We were noticing through our customer base a strong desire to address the mobile workforce," Neal says.

Their first product, RightState, debuted in 1998 and fizzled. Neal and Turner blame the failure on entering the market too early, and using e-mail as the transport mechanism. "Laptops weren't as pressing an issue as we thought they were," says Turner. "Companies were reluctant to use e-mail bbecause they knew the limitations of those systems."

Mobile Automation Inc.

Location: 11111 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 1220, Los Angeles, Calif. 90025

Telephone: (310) 914-9603


Niche: System management and synchronization software for mobile computers

Why it's worth watching: Growing fleets of mobile devices need to be tied into existing system-management infrastructures.

Company officers: Douglas Neal, CEO and co-founder; Rod Turner, chairman and co-founder; Jack Horner, vice president of engineering

Milestones: April 1997: Company founded September 1999: Mobile Automation 2000 launched

Employees: 15; expected to double within six months

Burn money: $5 million from Greylock and software guru Peter Norton; an $8 million second round is planned

Products/pricing: Mobile Automation 2000 Small Business and Enterprise; $5,000 per server plus a per-node charge of about $50 (varies with volume)

Customers: Advanced Micro Devices Inc., Dunkin' Donuts Inc., Ford Motor Co.

Partners: Everdream Corp., Strategis Strategic Information Systems Inc.

Red flags for IT: Mobile Automation could face stiff competition from larger management tool vendors. The company doesn't offer wireless connectivity support yet.

They changed the product's name to Mobile Automation and made HTTP, the Web protocol, the transport. That conversion brought new customers and enabled Mobile Automation to sell to what Neal says is a growing new industry: managed service providers, which provide remote management services.

The current product, Mobile Automation 2000, extends the inventory and software-distribution functions from desktops to notebooks and handhelds. It supports Palm and Windows CE devices, but they must be docked to PCs to receive updates, unlike Afaria from competitor XcelleNet Inc. in Alpharetta, Ga. Neal says his company will add wireless features within six months.

Though Mobile Automation 2000 integrates with SMS, Neal claims success in persuading customers to replace SMS on desktops.

Brian McEvoy, director of business desktops at Unigraphics Solutions Inc., a St. Louis-based computer-aided design development firm, is one such customer. McEvoy uses Mobile Automation for software distribution and license tracking on 3,000 systems worldwide, only a third of which are portable. "We realized we didn't need any of the features of SMS," McEvoy says. "SMS was causing us some problems in the build environment for developers."

Adding Remote Control

Mobile Automation plans to add a remote-control feature - commonplace on desktop-based tools - by year's end. Customer-requested changes are likely. "It's not real strong with hardware asset management," Markanich says. "It basically reports software."

Markanich and McEvoy both say they've asked Mobile Automation to improve the database-reporting capabilities. "You can get a lot of information from it, but it's not always easy to format," Markanich says.

The rewrite-to-Web open standard was key to Mobile Automation's competitiveness, says Jack Horner, the company's vice president of engineering. It makes the software easier to deploy and use, and will make it more readily deployable on handhelds, which aren't well standardized. "Our product sort of fits its way around the way your company works," Horner says.

Mobile Automation isn't profitable yet, but it appears to be on the upswing, with an $8 million round of financing in the offing. The vendor may also be making inroads with large companies: It recently signed Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich., as a customer.

The Buzz: State of the Market

Three's Company

Mobile Automation is in a three-way dogfight with Callisto Software and XcelleNet, which also sell management suites for mobile devices.

The trio also compete indirectly with data-synchronization and software-distribution vendors such as Marimba Inc. in Mountain View, Calif.; Novadigm Inc. in Mahwah, N.J.; and Synchrologic Inc. in Alpharetta, Ga. At 3 years old, Mobile Automation is the newest player.

Analysts and customers say Mobile Automation is an eager-to-please, growing company with a good product and poor marketing, which fosters an impression that it lacks staying power. "Quite honestly, I don't see much of Mobile Automation," says Ronni Colville, director of research at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn. "My take is cautious right now."

Colville also faults the company for thinking it can get corporations to dump desktop-management stalwart Systems Management Server (SMS) from Microsoft Corp. "I think it's a bad strategy," she says. "XcelleNet tried to do that."

The mobile management industry is so small that it barely shows up in Gartner's market-share numbers, but demand is skyrocketing, according to Colville. That's one reason the three will face growing threats from software distribution vendors. And before long, desktop suite vendors will turn their sights on the mobile trio, she predicts.

Callisto Software Inc.

Wheaton, Ill.

Claiming tighter SMS integration and a broader, deeper feature set, Callisto has had success selling its Orbiter software to corporate help desks.

Orbiter's main disadvantage is lack of handheld support. Becky Hjellming, co-founder and vice president of product development says all three companies could do a better job of scaling their software across large enterprises.

XcelleNet Inc.


Wireless support for the newest handheld devices may be XcelleNet's biggest advantage.

XcelleNet also appears financially stronger than its competitors, with revenue last year of $62 million and $16 million in profits.

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