E-commerce on the go

Is wireless unstoppable? Despite major issues regarding usability, reliability, and security swirling around wireless communications, signs are pointing to a dramatic shift toward wireless for conducting e-business. And if the predictions hold true, IT departments will be at the centre of an enterprise-wide business process reengineering effort.

At Fall Internet World 2000 in New York recently, IBM led the charge with a mobile business presentation. The company has predicted that as much as two-thirds of all e-commerce will be done via wireless devices by 2003. IBM is basing its predictions on the work it is doing now with corporate clients and Web integrators.

"This is the quiet before the storm," said JP Firenza, spokesman for IBM's Web integrator initiative, in New York. "The top Fortune 2500 companies are preparing their wireless strategy now, and we'll start to see the results in as little as six months."

According to Firenza, IBM thinks wireless is so big that even Big Blue cannot handle all the business. Behind the scenes at Internet World, IBM will, in fact, be quietly recruiting Internet professional services companies, typically competitors with its own services group. IBM will ask the companies to sign up for its "Wireless m-camps", a series of four-day seminars to be held in Austin, Texas, and Europe starting in December. The official announcement will not come until sometime in November.

The m-camps are meant to train and enlist the support of 200 to 300 professional services organisations to the WebSphere platform for wireless deployments with the integrators, in turn, helping enterprise-level companies to implement an m-commerce (mobile commerce) business component.

But not everyone believes large companies will be the first to deploy m-commerce solutions.

"Right now smaller businesses will probably deploy [m-commerce] first because it is easier to enable a few people wirelessly in your business than 130,000," said Sohrab Torabi, an m-commerce analyst at Datamonitor. "But once the economies of scale kick in, in terms of implementation and software, then we might see a shift more toward bigger businesses."

For example, BevAccess.com, an online business-to-business exchange for alcoholic beverages, is testing a wireless system from Blueflame for its sell-side exchange participants. Wholesale trading partners can tap into the BevAccess exchange via Palm VII devices to place orders and receive inventory updates and order confirmation.

According to Mark Sanders, COO at the New York-based company, despite frustrations with reliability and cost, the system does offer a competitive edge as well as an added value for partners.

"We are offering sell-side trading partners a vehicle to use the exchange to their advantage," Sanders said. "They are out on the road a lot, so [with this tool] they can generate orders wirelessly, which meets their needs."

But Sanders said the system is plagued by quality issues such as dead zones and slow speeds.

"Like when using your mobile phone, if you run into an area without connectivity you can't make your trade or place the order. That is a frustration," Sanders said.

Wireless may be disruptive at a much deeper level than dead zones and slow speeds, however.

Bob Monio, the executive director of strategic alliances at marchFIRST, a Web integrator company, believes that wireless will bring even bigger IT changes as it starts to push the technology envelope.

"Companies will see a whole new class of architectural components needed to manage the data coming in, and if you hit a home run on a wireless opportunity, be prepared that it may scale," Monio said.

Bandwidth is a prime concern as wireless commerce scales, according to Ritesh Patel, vice president of technology at Agency.com, a large wireless Web consultancy in New York. Companies such as Focal Communications, Verizon Communications, and Nextel Communications are putting fibre infrastructure around the US which will connect wireless receivers to the major switches to resolve any bandwidth issues, Patel said. These companies sell wireless VPNs (virtual private networks) with higher levels of security.

E-commerce consultant Phil Brodrock includes wireless as one of those so-called disruptive technologies, the effects of which ripple throughout a company.

Companies such as Sony are already in the process of reengineering their business process, Brodrock noted. In Sony's case, it is due to deployment this year of a wireless solution in its merchandising department, said Brodrock, the principal strategy consultant at Noblestar, a Web e-commerce consulting company that helped Sony roll out the new system.

By equipping its merchandising field force with Palms, Sony completely redesigned the way and the speed at which it gathers information about sales of its PlayStation line in retail stores.

Does m-commerce need 3G?

The m-commerce windfall expected with the development of 3G (third-generation) wireless networks may be a generation closer than widely thought, as vendors today hammer away at m-commerce systems for deployment in current second-generation networks.

The promises of 3G services include faster speeds, multimedia capabilities, and increased capacity. Although these features may spruce up mobile commerce, ease of use and security are issues that need to be addressed today, according to analysts and vendors.

"High speed is not what is keeping m-commerce from taking off. It is having the basic systems in place that make it easy to use, secure, and safe to buy online using a wireless [device]," said a spokeswoman at AT&T Wireless. "[3G] isn't a crucial factor for the stimulation of m-commerce at this point in time."

Analyst Becky Dierks, at Cahners In-Stat Group, said 3G is not a roadblock against wireless commerce, but it will help support future growth.

"Mobile commerce is not being held back by 3G. More people are expected to use mobile commerce in 3G, so the greater capacity could help support the increased volume," Dierks said.

Another analyst said he views 3G and m-commerce as closely related.

"[Third-generation] is better to have for m-commerce because it will help and enhance it. Today, even with slow [connections] and little bandwidth, you can check mail, make transactions. But taking mobile commerce to the next level is where 3G comes in. You will be able to do more, better and faster," said Sohrab Torabi, m-commerce analyst at Datamonitor.

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