FirstHand’s Smart, Behind-the-Scenes Technology

We reported last summer on the initial release of the Enterprise Mobility Solution from Ottawa-based FirstHand Technologies (which you may have known in its former life as SIPquest). In the intervening months—and especially the past few weeks—this technology has started showing up in product lines bearing the names of some of the world’s biggest and best-known communications technology suppliers.

Only you wouldn’t necessarily be aware of it.

If you read last week’s press announcement of the IBM-branded unified communications suite—its System i Integrated Collaboration solution, built on the 3Com PBX software platform—you wouldn’t have seen any mention of FirstHand, but that company’s software is an essential component of the solution. Working with 3Com, the company recently finished porting the software from its native Linux format to IBM’s System i flavor of UNIX.

FirstHand doesn’t have a problem with this. “That’s exactly the way we’ve structured ourselves: to be an anonymous, in-the-background OEM supplier to the big boys,” FirstHand president and CEO David Hattey told .

FirstHand’s technology uses open-standard SIP (session initiation protocol) to facilitate communication between—as Hattey put it—”the very chatty, very secure, very high-bandwidth world of the corporate LAN,” and the spare, slimmed-down world of telephone handsets.

A key capability of the Enterprise Mobility platform—reflected in the IBM product name—is to simplify the integration of PBX features with other collaboration and business applications running on the converged network.

“This is something that’s drawing a lot of excitement from folks like IBM and 3Com, and Nortel, and NEC,” Hatty commented, “because far be it from a group of 50 guys in Ottawa to launch into helping large enterprises improve their business process, or integrate communications with it.” But that is exactly what’s happening.

Business process integration (BPI for short) is a theme we’ve been singing on with increasing frequency of late, and it’s centeral to the FirstHand solution.

“We structured our [Enterprise Mobility] Gateway in three layers,” Hattey explained. “The bottom layer talks out to the cellular handsets, so it understands our cellular protocol. The center layer is the messaging layer—the logic that connects the top and bottom together. And then the top layer is adapters.”

FirstHand has written adapters that talk to unified messaging servers, PBXs or call control servers, corporate directory servers, and instant messaging and presence servers. “Our partners could just as easily write an adapter that knows how to talk to a CRM system—or knows how to talk to an ERP system,” Hattey pointed out.

Although it hasn’t been implemented in this IBM/3Com rollout, mobility is the essence of the FirstHand solution (as in Enterprise Mobility Solution). That is, not only integrating all these communications and business functionalities, but making it happen on mobile phones in the field.

Not only can the platform duplicate wired-network functionalities to cellular and Wi-Fi phones, it can move data bilaterally, from back-end to phone and from phone to back-end. The Gateway “even understands concepts like ‘the cell phone is out of range,’ ” Hattey told, so that data flows can be buffered to the LAN until a reliable connection is re-established.

It would seem that FirstHand has got ‘the right stuff’ going here. There are some 150,000 System i customers around the globe, from medium to very large enterprises. And IBM’s brand and marketing muscle will be pushing this technology to that customer base—and more.

And back at the end of February, FirstHand announced an agreement to partner with NEC, another company you’ve heard of. “NEC is a pretty reasonably sized player here in the U.S.,” Hattey remarked, “but they’re by far the number one enterprise PBX player in Asia. So we’re very excited to have NEC as a partner –taking our products into some of the world’s largest markets.”

Not bad for 50 guys from Ottawa you’ve probably never heard of.

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