Going roamin'

In this current economic climate, companies are looking to implement only those information technology solutions that can save money. It's as simple as that. Conversely, telecommunications carriers are seeking out companies as customers as they desperately try to lift their revenue in an increasingly unstable time in their market. New networks, general packet radio service (GPRS) and third-generation wireless (3G), associated applications, and Bluetooth, coinciding with mobile number portability means customers are up for grabs.

Companies, which naturally have a much higher volume of data users (about 20 per cent of most carriers' market, but account for 40 per cent of revenue) than residential customers, are being swamped with offers. For these large organisations the telcos' frenzied interest can be a good thing as, according to research by IBM, about 34 per cent of Australian organisations have already begun developing a wireless Internet strategy. It appears the tide has turned and the hype surrounding the mobile market within the enterprise sector has been substantiated.

According to Pooneh Sooladi, senior analyst at IDC's Internet services program, the wireless opportunity going forward is in the business-to-business market. He said companies are looking to deploy wireless internally rather than extending it to customers. "Corporations are looking at wireless for cost savings, not for generating revenue."

Steve Bittinger, research director for Gartner, agrees. He said mobile applications are good, especially in tight economic times, as they give companies the ability to spend a small amount and get a big return on productivity.

As handheld computers and Web-enabled phones become more powerful, their value is increasing due to their ability to access centrally stored information, like corporate databases. Bittinger said most workers currently own a mobile and when GPRS becomes available, ungrading will be relatively inexpensive, allowing for broad-scale deployment at a low cost.

"We are at the very beginning of the technology curve. The clinching technology will be a GPRS card, the ability to plug it into a PDA and laptop," he said, giving communication devices access which they previously did not have.

Gavin Maxwell, platform developer alliances manager, Australia, New Zealand and Southeast Asia for Palm, said business use of mobile communications is mixed.

"The current status of the use of wireless deployments within enterprises is that some companies have gone forward and implemented solutions; a lot are just testing the waters with a PDA, phone and using infrared, but are looking at the experiment from an application viewpoint of the benefits of wireless solutions."

Telecommunications analyst Paul Budde believes take up of mobility within enterprises has been very slow. "After 10 years of corporate mobile data networks in Australia there are about 50,000 users. With new devices such as PDAs and the like, we estimate this will grow to 200,000 by 2005."

So what does the trend towards wireless mobility mean for IT professionals? Another thing to implement and look after? For organisations extending their applications to mobile wireless devices, it is really about "building a tunnel", according to Kate Bennett, general manager mobile e-commerce, business manager corporate and GPRS - division mobile systems and applications for Ericsson Australia.

"Wireless services are more often like an add-on, allowing employees mobile access. The biggest challenge for [IT professionals] is convergence."

Bennett said for companies considering wireless networks, they shouldn't panic nor think they should act as fast as everyone else is making the move. "Companies need to know what is important to the business and plan for that. They need to look at the business requirements."

For the IT department, Bennett said this means looking at ways that wirelessly enabling applications could improve business processes and staff productivity, and also looking at how workers already use mobile access.

Palm's Maxwell said IT departments should look at areas of the business where there is a lot of paperwork and duplication of data involved. "For example, inspection and maintenance, typically there is a lot of paper involved in this process. Businesses should look at areas that would gain the biggest benefit upfront."

Bittinger said once companies have decided on what sort of applications will best suit the needs of workers and fit in with the business strategy, the solution should then be rolled out on a small scale so the IT department can learn from the experience before deploying the solution company-wide. "This is the way to succeed. Mobility is a new area and it is important not to think about creating a super application first go."

Maxwell also said that standards need to be considered - whether they are well-known and adopted such as Bluetooth and 802.11. "This will ease the pain of the rollout."

He suggested also that IT professionals should go with devices and an operating system that has a large number of potential solutions, as this will offer a lot more freedom and choice when rolling out solutions.

Whether to select an ‘off-the-shelf' or to build your own wireless application will be a business decision, according to Bittinger. "Many organisations don't have the experience to build mobile gateways and the speed of development is important. There are off-the-shelf components that can help you put together the product yourself."

Bittinger said wireless applications that will go ahead within enterprises are those aimed at systems with specialised industrial strength, while Bennett believes Bluetooth and GPRS technology are key to mobility's success in enterprisesFor companies making the move to wireless, corporate office access and e-mail is of most interest.

"The reason for this is that employees are able to do such big things by being given such a small amount of access. If you think about the PC, the killer application is e-mail, so being able to access e-mail wirelessly is also going to be a winner," said Ericsson's Bennett.

However, Bittinger believes field service applications will be the big winner within the enterprise space as these applications give an immediate impact, unlike e-mail access applications. "Applications that give real productivity gains for the enterprise will go ahead."

Bennett said there are five key types of wireless applications which are blooming within the enterprise space.

The first type of applications gaining ground centre on the wireless office concept. In the main, this is being used to access corporate intranets.

Mobile e-mail, however is by far one of most popular ways enterprises are using the new breed of smart phones and PDAs. Bennett said there are a number of products available and the best ones, and the ones that will be most successful, will work off Microsoft and Lotus e-mail programs.

At present, many field service employees are using wireless application protocol (WAP) applications to access their e-mail. But with the newer technologies, such as GPRS and 3G, access to, and the sending of, information will be a lot simpler and faster.

The third key area, according to Bennett, is sales force automation, or mobile customer relationship management (CRM). With this technology, a company's sales force is able to place orders online and view customer stats in real time. Call centres are eliminated from the fulfilment process, thus eliminating errors. This sort of application on PDAs, for example, will also mean sales representatives will be able to capture customer authentication and sign off a customer's order with digital certificates.

Bennett said field service applications are very popular with enterprises. Bittinger agrees the general picture is that of a lot of movement in the field services application area. The applications currently focus around job dispatches and are being used increasingly, for example, by utility workers. These sorts of solutions give field workers the ability to capture information while they are out and about and transmit it back to the company.

Bittinger sights the ACT police WAP registration access implementation as a tearaway success (CW, August 27 2001, p3). "Every police force has their eye on this ACT innovation. There are dramatic and tangible benefits."

The ACT's Department of Urban Services delivered a fully operational system that uses WAP and GPRS to provide police, on-road vehicle inspectors and parking inspectors with real-time access to vehicle and driver data. Previously, ACT police had to radio in a request and wait for an operator to get back to them with the information. Because the system used to access this data was slow, cumbersome and prone to crashes, performing vehicle checks was, at best, time-consuming and at worst impossible. Requests for information from other states sometimes took hours or days to fulfil.

Bittinger said the project has been so successful because the ACT police had a business objective in mind. "They started out by understanding the technology and following best practice. Companies need to focus on business issues and how the technology will enable and improve revenue and increase cost savings."

He said the ACT solution was built for a PDA, but users have a preference for mobile phones and don't mind the small screen and keyboard. "These concerns are not as big a problem as people think."

The last key area, that of transport and dispatch-type applications, is similar to field service applications, but are a lot more concentrated.

As for industries going ahead with wireless connectivity, Bennett and Maxwell agree that they are seeing an abundance of activity in all industries and in all the above areas.

"Large corporations are especially looking at mobility. Companies that have an IT structure that is quite heavy and have people all over the place. Also interest within the transport and delivery industries is quite strong," said Bennett.

Bittinger agrees that a lot of interest has been shown by organisations with staff members in the field in metropolitan areas for field service applications.

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