When you're carrying a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, writes Rob Bamforth of Bloor Research. Databases provide a very useful way to manage and access potentially huge amounts of data.
Mobile networks from wireless LANs to third generation cellular are providing increased bandwidth, and handsets have client browsers and thin applications to connect back to the enterprise core. So why would anyone need a database on a mobile device?
Most established large system database companies provide mobile and embedded versions of their products, and there are some additional companies who specialise only in this field, so is there really a need?
Well, firstly I suppose it depends on how much value you place on the information you might wish to store on your mobile device, and how much you or your company wants to be able to manage it. It can be quite easy to store data in an unstructured way, but then it's still just raw data, and not necessarily useable information. On a mobile device, usability is key when there is so little time or functionality for fiddling with menus, pop-ups or mousing around.
Then there's management to consider. The data might not be yours, but belong to the company you work for. There may be many reasons a company wants to keep control of information. Clearly there's a need for secure management to protect against loss of intellectual property, valuable assets like customer account lists or other secrets.
But what about the effects of data protection legislation? If a company holds personal contact information gathered for one purpose, it cannot be wantonly used for another. When data moves onto mobile devices the risks of this increase, so managing this type of data through the controls of a mobile database becomes valuable. With all sorts of concerns surrounding corporate governance, the audited use of data, and protection of its access, become even more important.
One way to assess this is to decide whether the mobile devices are an extension of the corporate infrastructure, with all the management controls and overhead which that implies, or a standalone tool to be managed by the employee. It was an easier decision to make when mobile devices were either mobile phones with the capacity to store only a few dozen frequently called numbers, or an intermittently networked PDA diary replacing a paper one.
Now smartphones and wireless PDAs are creating new applications, as they become slim mobile clients. Not quite as fat as a laptop, with desktop operating systems, the standard office applications and familiar full function user interfaces. Not quite as thin as a 'network computer', after all, network access limitations dictate some standalone capability is required. For the applets and applications on the device this poses some challenges. Among them, secure management of data, given a limited memory footprint, low processing power and a wider variety of operating systems on the client, and potential networks for connection.
It's this hybrid role that sets the requirements, and the limitations of mobile database technologies. It's a challenging environment, but with no current dominant platform, and high growth in volume of mobile devices, it's potentially a very lucrative one.
Small wonder then that big players are keen to do small things with mobile data.