Mobile Business Part II: Remote email working for you

12 Oct 2004

Does everyone grit their teeth when they see the current Vodafone TV ad where a rather snooty woman tells her business contact that it’s not her problem that she’s out of the office but she needs a reply to her email by the end of the day, or is it just me? Fortunately, such demanding customers can be put in their place thanks to the range of mobile email applications available on the market today.

In the five years or so since email has become the accepted norm for business communications, it has gone from being a purely desk-based medium to one that we expect to be able to use on the move. Vodafone may have used a very annoying actress to get the point across but the message is clear – email is the basis of any business that wants to be mobile.

The experience of email on a mobile phone used to be a fairly basic experience but large colour screens and more processing power have made the experience much more palatable on the current generation of handsets.

Connectivity between PDAs and mobiles has become much simpler, while phone/PDA hybrids – such as O2’s XDA II and the Palm Treo 600 smartphone – have GPRS connectivity built in.

The BlackBerry handheld email device from Canadian firm Research in Motion (RIM) has also demonstrated the value of having email sent to your handheld over a GPRS connection. RIM’s email client is now also available on certain Nokia phones, such as the Nokia 6820 messaging phone which has a full QWERTY keyboard.

“At the moment email is the killer app,” says Chris Handley, product manager for business data products with Vodafone, “but as mobile operators we still have some way to go in giving people the maximum value out of it. Rather than having to check your email, people want it delivered instantly.”

According to Orlagh Nevin, head of business services with O2, most large Irish organisations are now involved in having their in-house applications enabled for mobile access. Large enterprise application providers such as SAP and Oracle are supporting this move to mobile by releasing mobile support for their enterprise applications.

“Mobile can be a very quick win for organisations,” says Owen Hughes (pictured), business development manager for technology products with Oracle Ireland. “People see a large application and wonder how they can do that but you don’t need to mobile-enable the whole thing – you can just expose a portion of it.”

Oracle’s Collaboration Suite is one such application that allows organisations move beyond basic email access to a deeper level of collaboration on the move. Email can be accessed over a mobile phone or PDA and voice capability in the former of Voice XML support means that travelling staff can dial in and have their emails read out to them. It also provides conferencing and access to files stored on the corporate network.

“It extends the office out without the need for expensive VPN solutions – you simply log on to a Collaboration Suite portal and you have access to everything,” says Hughes. “Having mobile access to applications is highly advantageous. If you have a sales rep in Kildare at an appointment and something else comes up in the area you can simply stick an appointment in his diary and re-direct him to it.”

Vertical applications that target fleet management and other specific markets have also found traction with mobile users. O2 in particular has been very strong on building relationships with third-party mobile developers. It has a consulting business that matches these solutions to its customers’ needs – the upside for O2 is that the applications ensure data traffic on the operator’s network.

One of the first own-branded products is O2 Instant, which provides connectivity to back office systems for sales and field-based staff. “It removes paper from the sales, order and delivery process,” says Nevin. “We’ve also strived to make it easy for the customer to set up and install. We’re addressing a large marker with O2 Instant and there’s a big requirement for this kind of technology.”

According to Petri Manninen, head of sales for business devices with Nokia in the EMEA West region, the next phase of mobile business will not happen until organisations take mobiles into consideration when planning business processes. “For example, if you are a utility company with engineers in the field you need to start thinking about managing them in a mobile way, rather than constantly having them return to the office,” he says.

While email and access to corporate application such as financial and CRM systems are the current hot topics, Chris Handley believes that in three to four years email will be replaced by instant messaging (IM) as the preferred method of communication for mobile users.

“Email is an asynchronous form of communication while IM is synchronous – it is much more like a conversation,” says Handley. “Email inboxes are very crowded so it is losing its effectiveness – becoming a to-do list. IM is the next generation of text messaging. A manager can tell everyone on his sales team that they have a meeting at 2pm and that message will be delivered to a PC, phone or PDA depending on how the user is connected to the network. And he can also see if and how they are connected to the network through the ‘presence’ functionality.”

By John Collins

Next week: the convergence of fixed and mobile communications.