Corporate portal vendors ready for wireless

Portal software vendors Plumtree and Hummingbird later this year will announce wireless services that will let users have unlimited access to enterprise information portals and resources.

Plumtree will unveil its Internet Device Server, an add-on to its portal package, which will enable wireless access to portal e-mail, databases, the Web and other resources. As part of a phased rollout, Hummingbird will offer a subscription-based service that will send content to wireless devices.

Portals are becoming increasingly important as businesses strive to organize the vast amounts of information and capabilities available to employees, customers and partners over the Web.

It's not surprising, then, that as the use of wireless devices increases, businesses will want to ensure their corporate portals are accessible from anywhere.

Plumtree and Hummingbird aim to use their technology to get a leg up on competitors such as Viador, iPlanet, Epicentric and Yahoo that have rolled out wireless access to their portals in recent months. Analysts say Plumtree, whose customers include Ford Motor Co. and Kmart, is one of the top portal vendors in terms of wired portal deployments. Hummingbird also has a large customer base with clients such as New York law firm Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky.

Larry Hawes, senior analyst at Delphi Group, says while overall wireless adoption may be slow, it's important for portal vendors to be offering some mobile capabilities. "The question is how ready are the businesses, the people who actually will be deploying wireless technologies," he says.

The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia is gearing up wireless portals. As wireless devices become more prevalent and technology advances to the point where more rich, content-heavy data can be transmitted, organizations will have to make sure they provide wireless access to their resources, says Evan Crawford, executive director of e-transformation/e-medicine and Web strategist.

"Being ready for wireless is extremely important," Crawford says. "If you're not thinking wireless when you're developing portals, then it's almost too late."

Creating portals for patients

Crawford is using portal vendor CoreChange to create portals for patients, physicians and clinicians at the hospital. Via the portals, patients or medical personnel will be able to check appointment schedules and medical histories, among other services. Crawford says he's planning to slowly build out his wireless infrastructure and eventually have customized portals for patients and employees within different departments of the hospital.

The limitations of today's wireless technology -- such as low bandwidth and spotty network coverage -- have caused some trepidation among some users, experts say.

"But Plumtree has long recognized that alternative delivery methods for portal content are going to be important," says Phil Soffer, Plumtree's senior product manager. "We've been working on wireless for a quite a while."

He says what might be delaying adoption is that vendors are still struggling to find the best way to get portal content to wireless devices. Some use transcoding, simply transferring content that is accessed through a URL from HTML to wireless formats such as Wireless Application Protocol or Wireless Mark-up Lannguage (WML). Others, such as iPlanet, a company formed by Sun and Netscape, use a wireless server to give users centralized access to information from mobile devices.

That's the route Plumtree is taking. The biggest difference between what Plumtree is planning and what others have done, Soffer says, is Plumtree is not trying to translate content. Instead, Plumtree is using so-called gadgets, and modifying them for the wireless world.

Plumtree delivers applications using these gadgets, modular software components that embed information and services from databases, e-mail, the Web and other sources into the portal view.

Plumtree's Portal Network Architecture distributes the gadgets to multiple servers that converse via HTTP over the Internet or corporate LAN. Soffer says its Internet Device Server will debut in the third quarter.

The Internet Device Server will serve up wireless-ready gadgets, says Sasha Aicken, the senior engineer on Plumtree's wireless project.

"We're trying to make sure that we create structure, gadgets that can be written and deliver different subsets of content to different devices," Aicken says.

"We've been very careful to separate out the data access layer and the presentation layer for our gadgets, so essentially [what the wireless device is getting] is a different presentation layer," Aicken adds.

For example, a user accessing the portal with a Palm Pilot may see the calendar for the week, while a user accessing the portal with a small-screen wireless phone will see a day or two.

In addition, Soffer says, users will be able to set up their customized portal once and be able to access it from a PC or a wireless device -- all with a secure, single sign on.

As for Hummingbird, the software vendor released a wireless document management product last month, enabling users to access their document repositories from handheld devices. John Bellegarde, Hummingbird's director of product strategy, says the company plans to add wireless capabilities as it releases new versions of its enterprise information portal each quarter.

In the first phase of wireless, Bellegarde says, Hummingbird will offer a subscription-based service that will send content to wireless devices via Short Message Service (SMS). Content could include an hourly report of outstanding calls in a call center, stock prices, flight schedule changes and earnings figures.

Bellegarde says Hummingbird plans to use SMS instead of transferring content into wireless formats such as WML because SMS is more widely accessible in the U.S.

As technology advances, Hummingbird will shift its wireless capabilities into a two-way realm, where users can request specific information, based on summaries that are sent to a handheld device, Bellegarde says.

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This story, "Corporate portal vendors ready for wireless" was originally published by Network World.

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