The Long Arm of the IT Department

By Gerry Blackwell

August 10, 2004

A mobile device management service like AirPrism's could be the only thing preventing a stolen network client from divulging all your company secrets.

A road warrior sits in a Starbucks hotspot, downloading the latest sales figures and pricing data from his company's intranet, along with a double latte. Weary from days on the road, he makes a tiny, costly error in judgment.

He gets up for a refill and leaves his fancy new Wi-Fi-enabled Pocket PC sitting on the table. His back is turned for less than a minute, but that's all the time it takes for the nimble-fingered creep at the next table to pocket the PDA and abscond.

Never mind that the PDA is worth $600. More important is that it contains all his contacts, his schedule, sales and pricing information for his company's products, as well as e-mails discussing sensitive negotiations with clients and strategy with colleagues.

This is not something you want to fall into the hands of a competitor, or anybody else.

Luckily for Mr. Road Warrior, his company's IT department has implemented the award-winning Mobility Management Suite, a mobile device management (MDM) system from AirPrism Inc.

One of the innovative features of the AirPrism solution is that it lets network managers reach out over a cellular or Wi-Fi network and lock a stolen device, preventing the thief from using it or accessing sensitive data.

Mr. Road Warrior makes a call from Starbucks to the mother ship, and the network manager flags his device in the AirPrism database.

The next time the thief turns on his new Pocket PC within range of a supported wireless network, software on the device automatically sends an I'm-here announcement back to the AirPrism server -- which responds with the lock-down signal.

Dealing with stolen or lost devices is just one of a myriad of headaches now facing IT managers in organizations that have adopted mobile computing -- including use of Wi-Fi hotspots -- for mission critical applications.

AirPrism is marketing its solutions -- directly and through OEMs and resellers like Symbol Technologies -- to major enterprises with hundreds or even thousands of mobile data devices in the field, including pharmaceutical company sales forces, field service technicians and truck fleets and their drivers.

"What we're offering is a fairly full suite of software for IT people who have to manage remote computer users," says AirPrism president and CEO Steve Sommer. "There is a whole set of new challenges for those people to support mission critical mobile applications, and our solution automates a lot of that work."

The AirPrism solution helps network managers remotely deploy new software and patches, track and manage assets and configurations, diagnose and heal malfunctioning devices, manage and secure data on devices, and back up and restore data.

The technology works over Wi-Fi WLANs and hotspots and on GSM/GPRS and CDMA/1x mobile wireless networks. It mainly supports ruggedized laptops and handhelds, but smart phone support is coming.

AirPrism is by no means alone in the MDM market. It faces stiff competition in particular from two bigger and better-established competitors, XcelleNet, a Sybase company, and Mobile Automation.

Still a small company with just 26 employees, AirPrism received its first round financing in March 2002, and is looking to go out for more in the third quarter of this year to fund a push into international markets. It has its work cut out for it, though, if it hopes to stake a claim in an increasingly crowded market. IDC predicts the MDM market will grow from $140 million per annum in 2003 to over $900 million by 2008.

Sommer says the company boasts a few key market differentiators that will help it win business. The Mobility Management Suite is a second-generation solution built on open standards. It's written in Java (client) and C++ (server modules). It features modular functionality and supports widely deployed, industry standard databases and operating systems such as MySQL, Linux, Solaris (Sun Microsystems), Windows, Microsoft SQL Server and WebLogic servers.

AirPrism's Continuous Management Architecture -- which makes possible the remote lock down functions -- solves numerous other problems that IT departments have when managing devices that are frequently off net.

The company and the product also have a "tremendous amount of wireless depth," Sommer says. The suite incorporates sophisticated technology for detecting network bandwidth, managing bandwidth through bandwidth throttling, as well as data compression technology and checkpoint/restart and uploading continuation mechanisms.

"And we can remotely diagnose problems down to the NIC [Network Interface Card] level," Sommer notes.

The recently announced deal with Symbol -- the number two company in enterprise WLAN equipment sales -- also helps put AirPrism solidly in the game. Symbol will incorporate parts of the AirPrism solution in its Mobility Services Platform (MSP). According to Sommer, Symbol owns a commanding 60 percent of the market for ruggedized laptops -- the devices used in many mission-critical mobile applications.

The AirPrism software is being tightly integrated with other components in the Symbol platform. "We've had eight engineers working on this for about six months," Sommer says. "And [Symbol has] had a lot more people working on it."

Symbol is using the AirPrism intelligent agent technology that sits on client devices, several server modules, the communications infrastructure for communicating between agent and server, as well as remote software and patch deployment, and security and asset tracking modules. In the future, it may also use the AirPrism backup and restore and fault management and diagnostic modules.

The deal with Symbol is huge for AirPrism. Symbol has already sold its platform into several Fortune 100 companies. It is not, however, an exclusive arrangement. AirPrism is free to sell the technology to and through other OEMs and resellers, and had already done so before the Symbol deal was complete.

Its first OEM agreement was with Orsus Solutions, a mobile data applications developer, which has already sold the AirPrism solution into "a couple" of Fortune 100 clients. Sommer sees AirPrism working with other vendors of ruggedized mobile devices, such as Panasonic, makers of the Toughbook line of ruggedized laptops.

AirPrism is also selling the Mobility Management Suite direct to enterprises, though not many so far, Sommer admits. The company only started shipping final product in the last four to five months, he notes. One direct customer is a police department that will use the software to manage laptop computers in squad cars.

AirPrism sells the solution for about $25,000 for the server components, plus about $80 per user for the client module, which takes up about 500 KB of storage space.

The data footprint of the intelligent agent client software means the solution is not yet supported by smart phones with limited memory resources -- although it may work with some Pocket PC-based smart phones.

The smart phone will become an important mobile data platform, though, Sommer believes. He notes that some market watchers predict vendors will be selling 20 million smart phone units a year by 2007. "Generally, the area where we see a fit with next is Microsoft operating system-based smart phones," Sommer says.

That companies like AirPrism are including support for Wi-Fi in their mobile device management products is a sure sign -- if one was needed -- that Wi-Fi is going mainstream in the enterprise market.

IT departments don't like corporate data and devices to be out of their control. The availability of AirPrism's Mobile Management Suite and similar products should remove the last barriers to big organizations safely deploying Wi-Fi enabled devices for mission-critical applications.

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