March of mobile reaches business processes

27 Oct 2004

Delegates heard conflicting messages from speakers at last week’s IDC mobility conference, reflecting the uncertainty around where the mobile business sector is heading. While there were some refreshing insights into the practical deployment of mobile solutions, there was also some salesmanship about who held the key to the core technologies of tomorrow.

Vodafone’s head of corporate and business, Colm McVeigh, talked of 3G as the de facto mobile network – not a view shared by the participants in an IDC annual survey. According to research director Lars Vestergaard 33pc of companies interviewed three years ago had said that they would be interested in 3G. Last year this figure fell to 15pc and in 2004 it had dropped to as low as 8-10pc. Nortel’s director of enterprise solutions, Trevor Deering, chipped in to the debate with the observation that 3G was what you use when you can’t get a Wi-Fi signal.

Defining the relationship between Wi-Fi and 3G may be an ongoing challenge for the likes of Vodafone, who continue to say it’s a complementary technology through gritted teeth, but Vestergaard made it very clear that there was only one winner as things stand: “If I get a 3G card and travel to another country it will cost me €5 per megabyte in roaming charges. That works out at around €50 for half an hour online. It’s outrageous. You are sending people straight to a wireless local area network. The 3G business case doesn’t work.”

He later told “Wi-Fi is a complementary technology but if players play their cards wrongly it will be substitutional.”

McVeigh conceded that 3G roaming was expensive but argued that most people still tend to access their email via the hotel when travelling abroad, which can be even more costly. In a neat and tidy view of the mobile landscape he saw a place for Wi-Fi in the office and on the business campus, with 3G serving urban zones and 2.5G filling in the gaps across rural areas.

While speculation on future networks gave the audience of IT and communication managers plenty to think about, it was the here and now deployments of mobile solutions that was the main business of the day. Geoff Chaplin, business development manager with Fujitsu services, identified two distinct avenues for the mobile enterprise: personal information management (PIM) and line of business.

He described PIM, the ability to run contact databases, email and diary functions from a handheld device, as the “low lying fruit” of mobile solutions. “It’s the holy grail in terms of saving dead time, a simple way of pushing data to devices such as the BlackBerry,” he said. But there is a problem.

“It’s impossible to put forward a traditional business case for PIM-type applications. It’s a ‘puppy dog’ sale. You get a BlackBerry and you discover you love it and can’t live without it. But how do you justify it as a business case that you can put in front of financial directors?”

He said that most organisations give their employees the cheapest phone possible but was optimistic that there will come a time when smart phones and PIM applications become standard armoury in everybody’s working day.

More complex and potentially much more significant are the line of business solutions that penetrate into an organisation’s core processes. According to Chaplin, there were real opportunities here for companies to increase productivity and save money at the same time. He described how the Gas Board in the UK did away with service centres by issuing laptops to their engineers. All their service calls were now managed wirelessly, which has massively improved response times. In another example, a Fujitsu client had transformed its business of selling blinds by providing its 600 sales staff with Xdas and customised software to take and manage orders.

A local example was also showcased at the conference when chief superintendent Louis Harkin of An Garda Síochána talked through the deployment of handheld devices to assist traffic police, a project undertaken in partnership with Fujitsu Services. According to Harkin, the solution fulfilled the “challenge of increasing enforcement while maintaining visibility”.

Chaplin said there was a trend for mobile solutions to dig deeper into core enterprise processes, interfacing with SAP and Oracle systems with the minimum cost and change to the organisation. Lars Vestergaard argued that this area was happening too slowly. He referred to a partnership announced a year ago between Hewlett-Packard, Vodafone and SAP that was still to deliver a service. And he was less than complimentary about a Vodafone application that worked with Oracle’s 10g database.

“It enables salespeople to get an SMS on a regular mobile phone that will contain information on the client such as how much discount you can give them, but that’s just not good enough. It’s not always on; it’s not instant,” he said. “SMS is clever but it doesn’t go to the next level where you would expect Oracle applications to go. With SAP it’s a similar story.”

Vestergaard’s contention is that another skillset is required to marry up the enterprise and mobile world. “IBM and some of the larger system integrators have been lagging in this area,” he argued. “It’s a bottleneck. Can you imagine having a large intranet-run application that does not require a system integrator to be involved? Operators want to do it and deliver value-added services but it’s a hard thing to trust to them. They might have ambitions but it’s not their core business — it’s the core business of system integrators.”

In Vodafone’s defence its head of corporate and business, Colm McVeigh, had a long list of enterprise solutions that it had successfully deployed. Many of them were simple but effective, such as the Department of Agriculture using SMS to communicate with farm inspectors. “It’s about extending a process outside the bricks and mortar,” said McVeigh. “It doesn’t have to be big. You don’t have to build the Taj Mahal.”

Aside from the scale of deployments everyone agreed that managing a mobile strategy as part of the bigger business picture was crucial. Chaplin and the Fujitsu Services experience had a simple but effective approach: “You start by focusing on the current business problems, make them more efficient and then add other features later,” he said. “You have to keep the process similar to begin with and then add value with new applications.”

Not for the first time, it sounds like the impact of mobile technology will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary — not least because it’s easier for employers and employees to handle.

By Ian Campbell