A moveable office that stays in touch

24 Feb 2003

The mobile worker has been the mainstay of many businesses since time immemorial. The development of new tools such as the laptop computer and mobile phone has helped sales personnel, field engineers and delivery staff keep in touch with the office and keep their work up to date.

Now the companies that brought us those innovations are going one step further and enabling companies to integrate their fixed and mobile networks.

Vodafone has recently launched a new product called Email Anywhere. “This is our hero product,” says Jonathan Byrne, head of product marketing at Vodafone. “We launched the service in November and it promises access to corporate email over any device such as a laptop computer, PDA [personal digital assistant] or Wap-enabled phone. The service is available to companies with Lotus Notes of Microsoft Exchange.”

According to Byrne, a piece of software is installed on the company’s server. Remote workers would then log on to the network either by using a laptop/mobile phone combination or by using a Wap phone. They key in their username/password or a four-digit PIN and they are granted access. Not only that but they have the same functionality they would have if they were accessing the mail from their desktop.

“We are trying to position this product as agnostic in terms of device. We’re not saying you have to invest in particular hardware. It works with any existing Wap-phone, PDA or laptop that can access Notes or Exchange,” Byrne explains.

The company also offers a number of VPN (virtual private network) products that can integrate a company’s mobile phones with its fixed-line system.

O2 may be the second mobile operator in the State but the company has been no slouch when it comes to introducing new products such as the xda and BlackBerry. “We are seeing generic email applications being used more with these devices,” says O2 product director, Campbell Scott. “As people get used to the devices we are seeing them taking opportunities to use vertical applications such as sales force management and customer management. For instance, we work with iTouch to provide workforce management to NTL so its field engineers can get field information on their PDAs.”

According to Scott, the company is currently trialling a new product called Group Worker, which has similar functionality to Vodafone’s mobile VPN product.

“If anything, Group Worker has more functionality,” he says. “There are two aspects to the product. One is functional benefit such as short-code dialling. You can have four-digit dialling within a company’s dialling plan but if you put a prefix in front of it you get through to the person’s mobile.” According to Scott, this type of functionality is available on O2’s VPNs, which are only cost feasible for larger corporate clients. With Group Worker, however, it is available to companies with as few as two phones.

The other aspect to Group Worker is billing. “There are two ways of working,” says Scott. “You can put a prefix in front of all personal calls and they will be charged to a personal pre-paid account or the business can configure its own lists using a web interface so that pre-determined numbers go directly to the user’s personal pre-paid account. We think this is becoming important if the mobile is used for personal and business use. Individuals also benefit as their personal calls are charged at a preferential pricing.”

Siemens has also been taking a close look at the mobile-fixed interface. In 2000 it introduced a strategy called HiPath, which Damien Murray, sales support manager at Siemens Ireland, describes as being about “convergence between the traditional voice and data communications and the new world of voice and data communications”.

As part of this HiPath strategy, the company is introducing a number of new products that integrate mobile and fixed-line communications.

“One of the key problems companies face is a fragmented communications landscape. People have an office phone, home phone, office email, personal email, mobile phone and so on and you have to manage those. The problem relates to the fact that you might have to make or send five or six phone calls or emails to reach the person you want to talk to. Over the last 18 months we have looked at developing applications to overcome this and we call the result the MobileOffice Suite,” he adds.

According to Murray, Siemens took some existing applications such as its telework platform and unified message platform (HiPath Xpressions) and added some new applications: HiPath Corporate Connect, HiPath ComResponse and HiPath ComAssistant.

HiPath Xpressions allows users to dial into a single inbox for all communications. “Xpression will tell you how many messages you have and who they are from. You can also opt to have your emails read to you,” Murray explains.

ComAssistant allows users to set rules as to when and where they can be contacted. It can interface with calendaring information so that if, for instance, a user is in a meeting, it will know not to forward calls unless they are from pre-approved persons. ComResponse gives users the benefits of a personalised call centre, according to Murray. It gives everything from DTMF (dual tone multi-frequency) auto attendance to speech recognition. It’s also web-based.

“I can dial my own auto-attendant and make a document available to a specific person. When that person calls they will be given specific instructions for retrieving the document,” he explains.

“Most of these new applications are being facilitated by changes in technology and fuelled by the growth in acceptance of IP [internet protocol] telephony,” says Murray. “We don’t see VOIP [voice over IP] as the endgame because having a VOIP network won’t give you more functionality. It’s integrating it with other applications that gives the productivity benefits.”

Aoife O’Reilly, corporate account manager, O2 Ireland, Derek the bull and Dr Brian Wickham, chief executive of the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation