More mobile choice

26 May 2008

More mobile solutions are becoming available and there is a willing market for them among SMEs.

The novelty of being able to pick up and send email from a BlackBerry has been replaced by an expectation of choice from businesses, according to Billy D’Arcy, O2’s head of corporate and business.

With Microsoft already going head-to-head with RIM, the makers of BlackBerry, and rumblings about Apple’s iPhone moving into the space, the much-hyped killer application for business mobile is now available in multiple guises – and O2 is happy to give its customers whichever one they want.

“They love the fact there are alternatives to BlackBerry. It means we have to stock more devices but we don’t mind doing that because there is a huge amount of activity in the SME sector,” says D’Arcy. “It’s a very vibrant sector where we have significant market share so we’re happy to put the products and services out there.”

Latest additions to the current range include the BlackBerry Curve, continuing a long tradition of email-friendly handsets, but this time adding GPS capability; and the imminent Orbit II, the latest Windows-based XDA, a product line O2 has supported for several years.

Microsoft has so far played second fiddle to BlackBerry but the software giant will expect further growth with the latest version of its new mobile operating system, Windows Mobile 6. 1. Orbit II supports this new OS but D’Arcy says O2 is also looking at other Windows-based devices to support the platform.

The Microsoft pitch proves particularly compelling to the many companies which would already have made a heavy Microsoft investment. As mobile devices grow more sophisticated, integration with the wider IT environment becomes more important, says D’Arcy: “The larger SMEs are particularly keen to have something that fits in with their own architecture, be it a RIM server or Microsoft.”

Businesses are also taking more care with their mobile investments to ensure they get the best out of handsets which have evolved into multi-function business tools. Many are careful to make sure the functions are work related.

“We have certain business customers who don’t want their staff to have cameras on their phones,” says D’Arcy. “We steer them towards some of the BlackBerrys and even older phones. It is good to see that manufacturers are wising up to this and on certain devices you can now disable the camera.”

Further choice for O2 comes courtesy of its exclusive deal with Apple and the iPhone. Apple recently announced it is opening up the iPhone to the developer community and targeting business applications.

While O2 welcomes any brand that extends its range of offerings, D’Arcy says the product may not be right for everyone. “All the signs say Apple wants to compete with RIM in that space but there may be businesses which prefer to have a more basic business tool and feel the iPhone is too content rich for them.”

The upshot of all the innovation around network infrastructure and multi-tasking handsets is that businesses are changing their attitude to their workforce, according to D’Arcy. “Our customers are far more eager to have more people out on the road, because they can still be attached to the office by email. There isn’t as great a need for them to keep coming back in.”

When it comes to network speeds, O2 will continue to meet customer expectations. In the next phase of upgrades to HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access), download speeds could reach 7.2Mbps but D’Arcy points out that email is the main data application and current speeds are more than adequate for most business users. “You don’t really need the extra speed unless you are going to be doing significant surfing,” he says.

The arrival of HSDPA networks with theoretical speeds of 3.6Mbps triggered O2, Vodafone and 3 to launch mobile modems which attach to a laptop or PC to deliver broadband speeds any time, any place.

It quickly became apparent however, that download speeds of 1-2Mbps were much more likely on busy networks. In some instances, depending on coverage, speeds can drop to GPRS speeds or lose the signal completely. This sparked consumer complaints about the modems not ‘doing what it says on the tin’.

Pressure from the Advertising Standards Authority means operators will have to tell customers the average speed they can expect over the busiest periods. O2 believes it has already addressed such concerns through its 30-Day Happiness Guarantee. If customers are not satisfied with the service, they are entitled to a full refund.

Despite the criticisms, 3G modem sales have been very strong, impacting on Ireland’s national broadband figures, and there is also growth in the adoption of HSDPA-enabled handsets. It is trend that has taken off since February, according to D’Arcy.

“Business users can get mobile broadband on their phone so they don’t have to have multiple devices. You can use the phone for data connectivity and at the same time receive and make voice calls.”

Taking mobile broadband a stage further, O2’s customers include small firms that use routers to distribute the HSDPA connectivity to as many as 10 users in an office. “It works very efficiently,” says D’Arcy. “We just have to make sure the signal strength in the location will support it.”

But the real buzz is about what else mobile broadband can deliver to road warriors and other mobile employees. D’Arcy says Software as a Service (SaaS), where hosted applications are delivered to users as and when required, are starting to gain traction and that 3G and HSDPA are the great enablers.

“It seems to be gathering pace. Speed is a driver but the devices and the platforms are also now here that can support it. It makes sense for a new start-up which wants as much a competitive advantage as possible.

“If it’s a company of just five or six people, it is an effective way of making sure the right people get the applications they need without a huge software investment. We’re now seeing a lot of interest in this from our customers.”

By Ian Campbell