Inbox in your pocket

27 Feb 2006

Email’s status as the internet’s ‘killer application’ has long been established and now that the technology exists to marry it with mobility, there seems little danger of that particular crown slipping.

A conference last week organised by the security specialist Entropy carried the appropriate title Mobile email: out of office but not out of touch.

Also called push email, this technology isn’t new – effectively it’s the same concept as that of the BlackBerry email device – but the signs are that it could be on the verge of a breakthrough beyond the initial users.

There are an estimated 1.2 billion email inboxes worldwide. BlackBerry has enabled about three million and there are around 10 million mobile inboxes thanks to efforts from other suppliers. “The reality is, we’ve just started,” said Glenn Dale, EMEA product marketing manager for Nokia.

The greater pace of doing business now means that email by itself is not enough to close vital deals and make critical decisions, said Tom Keane, product manager with the retail store 3G.

“It’s very important to get key information very quickly to whatever device you’re using,” he continued. “With push email I don’t have to wait to get back home or into the office the next day to get my email.”

Although there was some divergence between the conference speakers as to how many minutes of the working day can be clawed back through using push email – anything from 20 to more than 60, it seems – all agreed that time saving is a definite benefit of using the technology.

Other inhibitors have meant that the technology hasn’t yet reached a wider audience. The first, security, “has got to be a fundamental building block for any mobility,” said Dale.

Conall Lavery, managing director of Entropy, chipped in by observing that the reaction to push email so far within Irish companies has been that business people want it whereas IT managers are worried about security implications. “Early adopters have let that go to the side or made the conscious decision that the business benefits outweigh the security concerns,” he said.

Dale added that a second obstacle to adoption has been price: “The cost of devices and the tariffs generally dictate that only the top 10 or 15pc of people in an organisation get mobile email,” he said.

Continuing on the cost theme, Barry Tierney of Sigma Telecom acknowledged that mobile tariffs can be complicated and businesses implementing push email should consider this issue carefully. “There is a significant variation in data pricing depending on the upfront commitments you make [to the operator] and the volume of data you send,” he said.

He then turned the question on its head by asking why a business even needs to tie its mobile email to just one network provider. “Mix suppliers based on the best deals or coverage,” he urged. Using Nokia Business Centre technology means that a company can easily switch mobile operators with a minimum of hassle, securing the best deals for itself. “It’s simpler than having to migrate a system that is tied in to one of the operators,” Tierney pointed out.

Brendan O’Reilly, managing partner with Daysha Consulting, said any business where staff are using phones or faxes to send information back to the office would be prime candidates for using mobile email.

He added that this could be a stepping-stone to making other business applications, such as databases or customer relationship management programs, available to mobile users. In fact Gilbeys has taken the reverse approach and first implemented a mobile sales order entry system for its sales reps around the country.

Mike Sheehy, IS manager with Gilbeys, noted that the application was designed purposely to involve sending the minimum amount of data via the mobile device, to keep down the costs to the network operator. “I’m paying for everything that’s pushed,” he remarked.

While he acknowledged the steep learning curve in the project, he considered it a success: “110,000 orders in 18 months is proof that it does work,” he said, adding that Gilbeys’ project shouldn’t be seen as an isolated example of mobility.

“I believe this is going to be beneficial to a lot of SMEs going forward, regardless of whether the application is email, sales order entry or for engineers in the field,” he said.

Businesses should not make the mistake of focusing on the device or gadget as a starting point for a mobility project, O’Reilly said. Instead, the question should be: “What’s the business problem you’re trying to solve?”

The complexity of the application and the technical sophistication of the user should be two of the most important considerations, he said. “Don’t focus on the technology,” he added. “Do focus on people, process and rollout. ‘Soft’ issues kill projects. Working with end users in partnership is critical.”

Businesses looking to implement mobile projects should focus on return on investment [ROI], O’Reilly suggested. “ROI is often based on efficiencies brought to existing processes, driving either cost savings or incremental revenues.”

He concluded by saying that all the elements are in place, so businesses have no reason to hesitate. “Do something,” O’Reilly urged. “It’s prime time: the devices are there, the networks are stable – it’s the right time to make a start.”

By Gordon Smith