IBM makes mobile push

August 8, 2008, 5:16 PM UTC
The Palm 800w, carried on the Sprint network, is among the smartphones getting new functions in IBM’s latest mobile push. Photo: Palm

When it comes to big-business technology, you could argue it’s not a party until IBM shows up. Not only is Big Blue the top seller of business software, its services division is also the biggest global provider of hands-on tech advice. So when IBM makes big mobile announcement, it’s worth a listen.

On Friday, the tech giant is announcing Mobility@Work, a new push to get its software and services divisions working together to transform business phones into pocket computers. In my briefing on the announcement, an IBM executive described it as the company’s declaration that phones are ready to do most everything PCs can – they just need a healthy dose of grown-up enterprise software development. To make that happen, IBM executives say they’ll focus more resources on helping companies to access complex data and use social networking features on phones.

You could argue that IBM is a little late here. Apple has recently used its iPhone to argue that a well-designed phone can be a powerful computer, while Research in Motion’s Blackberry and Microsoft’s Windows Mobile have begun to gain traction in some markets as business tools capable of more than just e-mail and casual web surfing. Meanwhile,  Google , eBay and (CRM) are pushing their web-based software onto mobile devices.

But IBM says this announcement shouldn’t be interpreted as its arrival in the mobile space – various software and service groups have been doing mobile projects for quite a while. Rather, Mobility@Work represents the company’s decision to throw more weight behind mobile, and coordinate the efforts better across its vast workforce. In typical IBM fashion, Mobility@Work won’t be tied to any one platform, and will work with BlackBerry, iPhone, Windows Mobile and Symbian.

IBM has a lot of pull when it comes to bringing tech into the enterprise, and executives there imagine a time when the little old cell phone will replace PCs for many business tasks. The phone’s business clout is certainly spreading. A recent report from the company’s Institute for Business Value says the number of mobile Internet users will hit 1 billion this year, up 191 percent from two years ago. Two-thirds of workers today say they’re using their phone more as computing tools. That smells like opportunity to the profit hounds at IBM – with that many Internet-enabled computing devices in the hands of the workforce, there have to be some serious moneymaking opportunities.

IBM told me that in the last three years, they’ve seen a 50 percent jump in clients in key industries asking for advice on making their businesses mobile-ready. “First it was just banking and finance,” says Sherri Sirotzky, a consultant with IBM Global Business Services. “But then pharma companies with big sales forces, and even oil and gas companies started to inquire.”

Along with the Mobility@Work news, IBM announced an agreement with AT&T and Sprint to bring enhanced Lotus Notes and Domino functions to select smartphones. The affected devices are the AT&T 8525, AT&T Tilt, Motorola’s Moto Q Global, Palm’s (PALM) Treo 750, the PantechDuo (Mustang C810), Samsung Blackjack, Samsung Blackjack II (i617), HTC Touch, HTC Mogul, Samsung Ace, Palm 700w and the Palm 800w.