In the first of a three-part series on mobile development in Australia, Simon Sharwood explores the real market opportunities for mobile applications.

It doesn’t take someone with the skill, training or intelligence of a software developer to identify mobile computing as a hot market.

The mobile phone market alone points to the potential for mobile applications: 82% of Australians will own and use a mobile by the end of the year, according to analyst firm IDC.

That consumers are interested in data services is not in doubt. SMS entries to competitions have quickly exceeded the numbers sourced from traditional means. SMS quizzes and other long-form interactive entertainment options are starting to emerge and wining customers. Arcade-style games are another hot item and downloads of ring tones and graphics have quickly become big business: in 2003 ring tone sales generated more revenue in the UK than sales of CD-singles!

Yet mobiles also show how the market is opening up for developers. Phones sold this year are more than likely to ship with a Java virtual machine, an upgrade to the national mobile fleet that makes a mobile a tempting target for developers.

This is tempting territory, as cracking the consumer market requires a marketing effort that goes beyond most developers’ and system integrators’ capabilities and competencies.

Yet the combination of increasingly developer-friendly devices and strong business interest in mobile applications has created an environment in which opportunities abound to create applications for businesses who value mobility.

-I estimate that at least 60% of the corporate market in Australia is evaluating their mobile strategy,” says Meta analyst Bjarne Munch.

At this stage, however, most deployments focus on horizontal applications such as e-mail, and deployment is largely organic. -There is a pervasive push from end users who wants this cool new technology,” Munch says. -We see it from executives down to ordinary workers. Its ad hoc deployment with no real business case behind it,” a situation in which IT departments can trumpet early wins but struggle to quantify business value.

Gartner identifies a similar trend. In an April 2004 report -Wireless When? Enterprise Deployment Intentions in Asia/Pacific From 2004 to 2008,” the company predicts -… big increases in spending on wireless data solutions during 2004, led by wireless messaging and e-mail applications.” The majority of companies interviewed intend to spend more on wireless data services and large numbers plan to implement wireless access to enterprise applications in the next two-to-five years.

Warren Chaisatien, IDC Australia’s Senior Analyst for Mobile and Wireless Solutions, says the move to mobile applications other than email signals the second wave of mobile, but also creates an interesting set of circumstances for developers and integrators to navigate with and on behalf of their clients.

-For horizontal applications the benefits are plain because they work for users where productivity and responsiveness to time sensitive issues are important.”

-In the 2nd phase business will look to mobilise line-of-business applications. And while the benefits will be great it is harder to quantify the gains.”

So what’s a developer to do if they want to chase this new wave?

Chaisatien says developers and integrators that hope to capitalise on the market will need to understand the dynamics of the enterprise mobility sale, including why workers may want or need to go mobile, so they can build a compelling business case for their clients.

The next task will be to learn how to execute a more complex development task than required for conventional applications. -You need the right device and the right OS, but there is no clear winner just yet on the device,” he says, making the choice unusually important. -You also need to choose from the wireless connectivity options.” The performance of wireless networks must be considered, as even the best networks have black spots and an application cannot assume it will always be connected, and security will need special attention, if only because mobile devices are easily lost.

Developers will therefore need to pick a platform and hope they’re on a winner. -When a company invests in an application they want to see it get to market as fast as possible and have a decent a lifespan,” says Microsoft’s Regional Manager For Mobility Harvey Sanchez, outlining the company’s belief that a single API covering the server, desktop and mobile devices makes more sense than creating standalone mobile applications that go outside enterprise standards.

Meta’s Munch agrees that the proliferation of devices, networks and standards makes life complex for smaller developers, but sees a way out. -Large IT departments are spending 12-18 months developing an architecture mobile development,” he says, in an effort to cover off all the issues and create a platform that can take all their applications mobile over time. Corporations typically acquire enterprise frameworks to enable this effort, a buying pattern that creates opportunities for smaller developers.

-I see smaller companies trying to find a point solution then aligning themselves with an application vendor,” Much says. -Then they can work to create a solution that adapts to a large range of devices.”

A partnership with these smaller players, he believes, will prove a useful alliance for most developers and integrators and may even make it possible to ignore the religious wars about which enterprise framework is best.

Partnerships will also help developers to survive a market he sees as consolidating quickly. -Early market experience is vital,” he says. -Most ingrates won’t have expertise today. So align yourself with someone who has expertise if you want to succeed.”

-There is strong, strong market demand for mobility and that will remain for a long time. But at the moment the market is so complex partnering is a great idea for a smaller company.”