The market for mobile email is growing. While Research in Motion (RIM) has stolen a march on its rivals with its BlackBerry product, a wide range of firms - neatly referred to as CrackBerry companies by analyst Strategy Analytics - are vying for market share in a western European market that is potentially worth €3bn.
It is likely to be a rich hunting ground for resellers, although not without its problems. Traditionally, this has been mainly direct-selling territory, or territory dominated by mobile operators acting as the sole third-party distribution partner.
The new wave of CrackBerry companies may be changing this model, but there is confusion, as well as a slight technical shortfall.
It is a dilemma. On the one hand you want to help customers mobilise their email and perhaps other applications, but on the other hand you don't want to risk burning their fingers.
Mobile email could become big business for IT resellers. IT departments are claiming any mobilisation of office applications comes under their jurisdiction, so that the contacts remain the same. Finding the right solution, however, is not simple.
The choice of mobile email, personal information management (PIM) and collaborative groupware solutions is increasing. A number of entrants over the past couple of years could make things in the UK more interesting as they all try to grab market share.
Companies such as Extended Systems, Good Technologies, Visto and Smartner are making moves to target Europe and its increasingly mobile-centric business community, while RIM continues to make the most of its early lead.
This will increase competition and reduce pricing, and ultimately it will also create market demand. At the moment, demand comes mainly from a few early adopters, and the concept has to be sold.
According to Chris Atwell, UK sales director at Extended Systems, mobile email, and mobilising office applications in general, are now very relevant to IT resellers. Extended is setting up a two-tier structure, with operators on one level and distribution on another. It is in discussions with Hugh Symons to extend its reach into SMEs and verticals.
However, Atwell is also very aware that there has so far been little demand from SMEs.
"There isn't a lot of pull [from SMEs] at the moment, but this will change quickly as customers become more educated about how mobilising their applications can actually be beneficial to their bottom line," says Atwell.
"It is also in our interests to make it as low-risk and easy to use as possible. We need to remove any barriers to entry."
According to Cliff Raskind, director of wireless enterprise strategies at Strategy Analytics, removing barriers will be a tough challenge. "Looking beyond early adopters, most companies are not willing to make significant sacrifices to gain wireless access to email," he says.
"BlackBerry is clearly the current gold standard as an elegant, secure, behind-the-firewall, push-based solution, but inclusion in the CrackBerry club carries a price.
"The chasing pack of vendors smells this opportunity and is snapping at RIM's heels with a wide variety of products and pricing strategies, although none have hit the mark for broad deployment." Email has become as indispensable as the telephone, and Raskind believes mobilising email "is a natural first step towards mainstream adoption of wireless data". But enterprise-grade mobile email remains the preserve of a few, generally high-end users, estimated to represent less than five per cent of the workforce.
"Ultimately, the success of players such as Good, Smartner, Visto, Extended Systems, Seven and Xpherix, as well as RIM, will be limited without eradicating the trade-offs between security, cost and the range of available devices," says Raskind.
He notes that neither mobile operators nor the IT big hitters have the end-to-end capabilities to address the full spectrum of user needs. "There is a significant opportunity for outsourced or managed solutions in the SME space," he says.
"However, operators lack the IT expertise and experience to meet this need alone, while the big guns often struggle to reach down to smaller organisations."
This leaves a gap in the market that IT resellers could fill. Strategic Analytics is not the only analyst to highlight the potential of this sector. Analysys, Frost & Sullivan and IDC have all been watching it closely.
Analysys, in its report Mobile Data Solutions for Businesses: Maximising Take-up and Revenue, found that about 40 per cent of people with a business mobile phone (about 21 million in Europe) will use mobile email by 2008.
Mobile service revenue generated by email is expected to increase from €49m in 2003 to €2.9bn by 2008. Overall business spend on mobile data services will increase more than four-fold to €8bn in 2008.
"Businesses have been slow to start using mobile networks for other services than voice," says Katrina Bond, lead author of the report. "But mobile email is set to lead the way as solutions to enable it become more widespread."
However, Bond points out that there will continue to be a wide range of devices on the market, and that with "email's applicability to a broad range of companies with different needs, no single type of solution is likely to dominate".
This is important because it may remove the objections many businesses have to standardisation. Waiting for standards? They may have to wait a long time.
Of course, this is not just about mobile phones. While some businesses like the idea of using a combined phone and PDA, many don't. They see the use of PDAs as a separate issue, and this is where many of the RIM competitors are aiming their ammunition.
The PDA is very much in the realm of IT, which is why the CrackBerry gang is so keen to enlist IT resellers.
"We want to work with the IT resellers that are already working with enterprises and SMEs. Mobility is just the next level," says Atwell.
The emerging pattern is one of increased channel focus. As well as Extended Systems, other vendors are targeting the channel, although many already have relationships with mobile operators, and in some cases, management consultancy firms.
There are also some OEM deals knocking around, such as those from Visto and PalmOne, allowing resellers to get hold of products through other vendors.
Relationships with mobile operators have to be resellers' biggest concern. A new entrant to the UK market, Good Technologies, already uses mobile operators as a sales lead generator and not a fulfilment house.
This is also in the interests of operators that may not want to become systems integrators and resellers, but are just keen to add value to mobile handsets and airtime in their perennial quest to increase average revenue per user.
"Good sells directly to the customer as well as using VARs," says Sue Forbes, Good Technologies' vice-president of marketing. "However, the channel is of key importance to Good in the UK. We are in talks with a number of value-added resellers and we hope to announce relationships soon."
Forbes adds that Good is keen not to exclude reseller involvement on the mobile operator level too. "The relationship with operators consists of co-selling," she says. "Operators will sell the mobile devices and the data plans. However, we sell the software licences directly to the company or through resellers.
"Good's experience is that companies are less keen to discuss enterprise IT issues with network operators. They prefer dealing with an enterprise software company and its channel partners."
That is a key reason why resellers are being viewed more favourably by mobile data companies such as Good. They are keen to reach customers that otherwise would be difficult to sell to, let alone fulfil.
Forbes is also very aware of mobile email's image, and believes the general perception that buying into mobile email means being tied down to one device is unfounded.
She points out that Good can provide mobile messaging, including full over-the-air synchronisation, removing the need for cradles or desktop software, from a PIM client such as Microsoft Outlook, and can make it work on a variety of platforms, including the PalmOS and Microsoft Pocket PC Phone Edition 2003, and mobile devices such as the PalmOne Treo 600 and Pocket PC.
"Some competitors will attempt to lock companies into their hardware solutions. An industry standard-based approach gives companies plenty of room to manoeuvre, as the software licences can be easily transferred to new devices as they become available," adds Forbes.
This is important given the fast-moving nature of the IT industry. Maybe some businesses will remember how it felt to standardise on a 486 PC only for Intel to bring out the Pentium. Businesses are finding it more difficult to justify mobility unless there is an attractive return on investment.
This may be a little more difficult to measure for mobile email than, say, for a vertical application.
The range of applications being written for mobilising businesses is also increasing as software developers begin to recognise that mobility is more than just about email and PIM.
Sales automation and mobile CRM tools, service management tools, GPS tracking for logistics, mobile accounting tools for expenses and compensation management, and retail point-of-sale systems are just some of the vertical applications that have already been targeted for mobility.
The area of field sales, mobile CRM and logistics is where companies such as Dexterra, Orsus, Solarvista and Commontime operate. These sectors offer good reseller opportunities, as a growing number of businesses look to increase the productivity of an increasingly mobile workforce while retaining control by centralising the data source.
Resellers will inevitably find their own paths as customers discuss their particular needs. One networking VAR, for example, has written its own mobile application for RIM's BlackBerry. Sales of Lotus Domino on BlackBerry were being hampered by server-to-device connectivity problems, so LAN2LAN launched its own software solution, called Roam.
The initial problem was that when a BlackBerry device moved out of the range of GPRS or 3G reception, it could not be used. Roam allows users to continue to use the device, and then updates all of the information once it is back in range.
Gary Duke, sales director at LAN2LAN, told CRN that the company will sell Roam itself and through other resellers as an ISV product. "This is a massive opportunity because we already have more than 100 customers using Lotus Domino," he says.
This is an indication of two things: one, that there is a healthy market for mobile data applications; and two, the devices and software are still not foolproof. Like all new markets, the mobile market will continue to develop rapidly and iron out its problems. New entrants will arrive and some casualties will occur before it consolidates and settles.
While the CrackBerry contingent crowd around RIM like flies on a fruit bowl, there is no mistaking the important role that RIM has played in helping to create the mobile email market, and establish it as a recognisable and easily usable technology.
RIM has flexed its marketing muscle in a way that would make even Microsoft proud.
However, like any new technology, the mobile email/PIM space is not immune to competition, and RIM could find it has a struggle on its hands.
Moves to separate work and personal calls, and automate billing for it through systems set up by companies such as Martin Dawes Systems, will go a long way to convincing management that deploying mobility in the workplace is not the equivalent of creating an expenses black hole.
Dexterra (0193) 289 5444
LAN2LAN (0870) 787 4001
Martin Dawes Systems (01925) 555 300
Orsus (020) 7072 8600
PalmOne (0118) 974 2700
RIM (01784) 477 465
Chief exec Jens Montanana claims Logicalis performed well despite 'currency headwinds'
All the photos from last night's event, which saw over 600 people congregate at the Hilton London Bankside
Five year deal with Essex NHS Trust will cover 400 sites, including hospitals, clinics and GP practices
18 individuals and three companies walked away as winners at CRN's inaugural Women in Channel Awards last night