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Running mobile ERP on smartphones

As ERP and supply chain software moves to smartphones, developers are learning to navigate each platform's limitations for running mobile ERP.

Analysts, vendors and manufacturers report growing interest in smartphones as enterprise platforms, and some companies already use them for  transportation management systems (TMSs) and sales force automation. But as developers begin to write apps for the Apple iPhone, Motorola Droid and other smartphones, they are learning each phone's strengths and limitations as platforms for mobile ERP and supply chain management (SCM) software.


But that hasn't stopped ERP vendors from placing big bets on mobile devices, including smartphones. For example, last year SAP began porting components of its Business Suite to smartphones with technology from  Sybase, a company it plans to acquire this year.

Meanwhile, SCM vendors are responding to customer requests with new smartphone business applications. "The two devices that are most in demand are the Droid and the iPhone," said Mona McFadden, product manager of transportation products at RedPrairie. "The Google technology that the Droid is based on is being picked up a little more heavily, we think."

In May, RedPrairie acquired SmartTurn, an on-demand warehouse management system (WMS) that some customers run on iPhones, according to a RedPrairie spokesman. RedPrairie also demonstrated a Droid app that connects with the company's TMS. It's targeted to small shipping carriers, which are less likely than larger carriers to have expensive alternatives like  electronic data interchange (EDI), according to McFadden. "It's one guy, his truck and a phone," she said. "Some already have either a Droid or an iPhone."

Other phones have disadvantages for RedPrairie developers, McFadden said. It has proven difficult, for example, to write apps that can run reliably across the wide variety of Windows Mobile handheld devices and phones. "We're not getting a lot of demand for applications on the BlackBerry," she said, "and we think that's because the BlackBerry is seen as more corporate-driven."

Small companies also tend to lack the IT heft to maintain a BlackBerry server in-house, according to Dustin Radtke, RedPrairie's senior director of development. "The best way for them to interact with us is over the [Droid] smartphone," Radtke said, adding that the company would support the BlackBerry if enough customers demanded it.

The application programming interfaces (APIs) and other support that Google provides Droid developers made it relatively easy to write the app, according to Radtke. "You can also run a virtual device on your computer, so you can test without putting the app on an actual device," he said. Apple's iPhone tools are more proprietary and Macintosh-centric.

But the Apple environment was an advantage to D.W. Morgan, a transportation and logistics provider that has outfitted drivers with ChainLinq Mobile, an iPhone TMS app it developed in-house. "We were searching for a mobile solution that could be tied to a single GPS and track shipments in real time, but all of the other options were expensive and not customizable," said Grant Opperman, the company's president and chief strategy officer. "Since we've been a Mac-based office for 10 years, the iPhone is not just compatible with our existing software -- it syncs seamlessly."

BlackBerry Enterprise Server reconsidered

While relative newcomers like the iPhone and Droid have been grabbing headlines, BlackBerrys are also finding their way into manufacturers' SCM and ERP systems. "I do think there's an uptick," said Michael Gruber, RIM's director of platform alliances. Much of the activity centers on WMS, where the BlackBerry is often seen as a cheaper alternative to ruggedized devices.

"Windows Mobile dominates the ruggedized device space," said William Clark, a research vice president at Gartner Inc. "That's pretty much the only game in town. On occasion, we see someone using a RIM BlackBerry."

Gruber cited shippers who use BlackBerrys in their trucks, sometimes replacing or supplementing more expensive, mounted units. In a 2009 study for RIM, ABI Research described four examples of companies, including Coca-Cola Enterprises, which moved field workers off laptops, ruggedized handhelds, or personal digital assistants (PDAs) to BlackBerry Curve 8300s. All saw improvements in total cost of ownership and worker productivity.

"For many field workers, ordinary smartphones can perform many of the required tasks at a fraction of the cost," despite the phones' higher replacement rates, ABI said. Besides cost, the companies said they were motivated by the phones' wide availability, ease of use, and always-connected status.

Gruber touted the BlackBerry's behind-the-firewall server as an advantage over other smartphones, saying it gives IT better control over applications and security. "There's only an outbound hole in the platform," he said, adding that the phones are easier to upgrade remotely.

Gartner's Clark said, however, that RIM has lost some of this advantage to mobile device management vendors such as Sybase and Odyssey Software, which support most platforms, including the BlackBerry. Still, when military-grade security is a prerequisite, the BlackBerry remains the best choice, he said.

Usability makes some developers choose the iPhone over the BlackBerry, despite the latter's history as an enterprise platform, wrote Adrian Gonzalez, an analyst at ARC Advisory Group, in a blog post on "The BlackBerry may be a great platform for email communication," he said, "but when it comes to surfing the Web and interfacing with applications, the iPhone is still king."

Smartphone mobile computing limitations

Despite the recent growth in enterprise use, smartphones' constricted screen and keyboard size, processing power, and storage puts limits on the kinds of applications that can run on them.

Steve Banker, ARC Advisory Group's service director for supply chain management, described how a company tried to use the iPhone camera to scan barcodes into WMS and manufacturing execution software from BabbleWare. Users reported inconsistent results, with some saying that scans took too long, had problems in low-light conditions, or required careful alignment.

But developers like RedPrairie are learning to work around such constraints. Radtke said the Droid app's interaction with the TMS server is limited to simple activities like status updates and appointment scheduling that don't require reading and writing large amounts of data. In addition, the TMS server caches transactions if a Droid is out of service range, sending them in batch mode when it is back online. "The device has a small database itself that we can retrieve data from," said senior software developer Matt Schrader.

As for smartphones' durability, opinions are mixed, and some third-party vendors specialize in ruggedizing the devices. "I haven't heard any complaints about durability," McFadden said. "There has been pretty strong adoption of the devices." And Clark said that durability is less of a problem for workers with easy access to replacement phones that can be shipped overnight.

But Banker questioned the iPhone's durability in warehouses. "An industrial-strength scanner needs to survive a four-foot drop test onto a concrete floor without breaking," he wrote on Radtke would also like more ruggedization (including longer battery life), better security, and optical scanners that can capture signatures reliably. He predicted that smartphone capabilities will improve as rate plans for data become more affordable and faster cellular networks alleviate congestion in populated areas. Clark added that tiny pico projectors with fold-out screens will significantly improve display sizes.

He advised IT managers to focus their smartphone initiatives on applications outside the four walls of the warehouse or factory that can take advantage of the phones' texting and email features to provide error and exception alerts or update field workers on fast-changing conditions.


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