Mobile Portals are Just Around the (Long) Corner

July 30, 2007 at 10:30 am | Posted in Mobile and pervasive computing, portals | 1 Comment

The case for utilizing portals on mobile and pervasive devices is a good one. First, consider the driver of portals on the desktop. In a standard web-based portal that is accessed from a desktop PC, the portal helps pick out and display the several applications, pieces of content, and navigation links that are useful for the user out of the huge number of sources the portal has access to. It’s a great answer to the problem of information overload. And, even if you know where all your content and applications are, it is a big timesaver to have them all in one place with single sign-on in front of them. It keeps the user from having to hunt through a “web” of pages (ah, that’s where that word comes from!), scanning them all and clicking in and out of them to get to the needed pieces of content.

That same set of drivers goes double for mobile devices. With smaller screens on PDAs and smart phones it is even tougher to scan through web pages. Combine that with slower access times and it is even more painful to load large web pages to view bits of content and click through several levels of pages to get to it. And that’s why mobile use of portals is going to take off …

… At least, that’s what I was told in 2002. I saw some impressive technology for it as well, mostly from Sybase but also from IBM and Oracle. The technology went beyond simple transformation of pages into WAP and actually provided design-time selection of deprecated page elements, matrices of style sheets for different devices (many pre-provided), and emulators for testing the pages.

The problem is in practice it just hasn’t caught on. Vendors I spoke to a few years later were a bit peeved that significant development effort was spent on features that wound up not being used very much. Mobile portal features appeared as needs on lots of RFPs, so maybe the vendors won some deals they wouldn’t have otherwise, but this code was supposed to be actually used, not just artwork.

There have certainly been inroads into mobile access to information in certain industries, like utility field service and medical. But those are mobile applications and don’t need to leverage portal infrastructure for personalization, application integration, single sign-on, and page assembly.  There is a lot of room for inroads in mobile computing separate from portals.

I think this is a case where it just takes time to catch on and the vendors were expecting a big bang. The drivers are still valid and while I haven’t seen stats, I’m sure mobile use has increased slowly but steadily, although it’s still at a low percentage of overall usage. Maybe a better browser like in Apple’s iPhone will be the breakthrough. Salesforce.com is designing for it successfully. And once the AT&T network that Apple uses upgrades to a higher speed, the improved web page viewing with better resolution and gesturing may be the catalyst for mobile portals finally taking off.

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