The third platform is a term that has been bandied about by industry pundits to describe a computing model that will revolutionize the way we work. Generally speaking, tech analysts and vendors agree the first platform was the mainframe, the second the PC and the third encompasses several big technological trends, including mobile computing. (Over the next couple months we'll look at how each of the other trends is impacting the channel.) Thanks to mobile computing, IT organizations and lines of business are grappling with a revolutionary change in how business gets done.
For the IT channel, the movement toward enterprise mobility solutions cannot be ignored. And value-added resellers (VARs) that focus on a hardware resale model will miss most of the opportunity around mobility, experts say.
[MDM and MAM] are required but extremely low-margin products. The VARs make very little, but they have to do it because it's good for the customer.
The opportunity in chaos
What may be surprising to VARs is how dynamic the enterprise mobility market is -- and how much of a paradigm shift it represents.
"The first thing that comes to mind for me is the saying 'In chaos comes opportunity.' That, to a T, defines what's going on with mobility. Mobility has led off this whole consumerization of IT trend, which in and of itself is a completely different way of getting IT technologies and solutions into the hands of employees," said Matt Vlasach, director of strategic products for Phoenix-based Unwired Revolution, a mobile solutions integrator.
"Now with the consumerization of IT, you have a much larger population of potential devices and employees that you're dealing with, so the impact of these solutions and mobility is much, much greater than in the past, where it was limited to field workers and lines of business," Vlasach said.
Getting caught up in the same old song and dance
According to Alex Zaltsman, who co-founded a technology services company and is now CEO of Piscataway, N.J.-based InnoviMobile, a mobile application development firm, IT channel companies are responding to mobility similarly to how they reacted to the Web -- and they are shortchanging themselves. "Solution providers were working with the infrastructure, desktops, servers. Few were in the software business. They missed that opportunity to develop Web apps in addition to maintaining servers, antivirus, Windows, desktops and all that stuff. They didn't know about this Web world," he said. Solution providers have the same attitude about mobility, Zaltsman said. "More are just seeing it as 'My customers are asking me about an iPad. I'll call my distributor and order an iPad.' They make almost nothing on that deal. They have a lot more to offer customers than just selling these devices."
Finding ways to add value around mobile devices themselves is difficult. "There isn't a whole lot you can do as a value-add at the device level," said Robin Layland, analyst for Layland Consulting in West Hartford, Conn.
Seth Robinson, director for technology analysis at CompTIA, a vendor-neutral IT training and certification provider, suggested that solution providers could segment the mundane device-level resale and service work around mobile devices from higher-level mobile enterprise solutions work. "People are very focused on the devices right now, and we see companies that say we're doing device reselling or repair and not doing much beyond that, but it's a tangible need. So I think carving off that device piece from the rest of the strategy could be a way to think about it," he said.
One, two, three platforms
Comparing the third platform with the two it follows provides a picture of how big the third platform will be. Giant mainframes dominated the computing universe for decades, followed for another few decades by smaller computing engines in the form of PCs. In the third platform, as represented by enterprise mobility, the engines are even smaller and much more numerous.
"Each of those previous eras lasted 25 or 30 years, and we're maybe only five years in [to the third platform]," said Seth Robinson, director for technology analysis at CompTIA, a vendor-neutral IT training and certification provider. "So we can expect another 20 to 25 years where these models will be changing and shifting, and people will be reacting to them and getting comfortable with something that looks different from today but using the same players doing the same functions."
There is also little value to be added to the resale of device and application management technologies. Zaltsman likens them to antivirus products. While customers require them, reselling mobile device management (MDM) or mobile application management (MAM) doesn't offer VARs a significant business opportunity. "These are required but extremely low-margin products," Zaltsman said. "The VARs make very little, but they have to do it because it's good for the customer."
Ditch the device-level work
The path to higher-margin work around enterprise mobility seems to lie in consulting and integration. "The real mystery of [mobile enterprise solutions] is in that strategy piece: figuring out what policies should be around applications or around the use of public Wi-Fi networks, what will happen with data, and I think cloud comes into the picture here -- mobile devices tied into cloud systems in the back end, what are the policies with the cloud. This is where things get very complicated very quickly," Robinson said.
"There are tons of integration opportunities. It's an opportunity to get on the side of the customer and help them find the best fit for their objectives while navigating through all the vendors. There is an increasing subset of products that traditionally had nothing to do with mobile that now have some elements of mobile," Vlasach said. "There are more security requirements, networking challenges, a bunch of those considerations that haven't been much of a consideration on the LAN or WAN before," he said.
"The notion of serving the needs of the customer as they're moving to this new front-end form factor is where the channel's primary opportunity lies today," said Robinson. "Moving forward into the fairly near future, the channel can help drive things in helping end users think proactively about mobile devices. Now it's a reaction happening as employees bring in mobile devices. In order to avoid a lot of changing policy, a lot of confusion and overall operational change moving forward, the best thing for a business to do is to think about 'What do we want to achieve and how can mobile devices get us there?' Then you build your policy around those things instead of working at it from the other direction. The channel firms who are the primary technology resource for their customers have an opportunity to drive the discussion in that direction."
Layland agreed that channel companies should help their customers be more proactive in their mobility strategies and stressed the need for VARs to help companies run an app store and certify mobile applications. "At some point all applications have to be funneled through a process to make sure they're secure, they're compliant, they conform to regulations and are ready for performance monitoring. Then the apps have to be put in the store and policies set up around them. All that is not done well right now," Layland said.
Layland is careful to differentiate this from mobile application development, which he said is also a significant opportunity for solution providers -- with a caveat: "There is a huge opportunity to help write and customize applications for businesses, but these efforts are aimed at two different groups within the enterprise. Just because you have one doesn't mean you have access to the other," he said.
In other words, just because the IT department has contracted with a solution provider to run its app store, that doesn't mean that the application development department will contract with the same provider for custom development projects. It requires another skill set -- mobile application development -- that many IT channel companies may not have.
So where does that leave solution providers? How do you know what to pursue? "The most lucrative facet of any new technology tends to be the more complicated. These are the areas where more companies that do not have technology expertise are going to struggle," Robinson said. "For mobility, that's the integration, figuring out how these devices integrate in with the business. The buying and reselling, repair of devices will tend toward the commodity side. Integration will be highly personalized and take a specialized skill set that's not abundant on the market right now, especially if you're moving into application development. That's where the greatest complication is, which is where the highest financial opportunity tends to be."