Doing the business with mobile

31 Jul 2003

The mobile phone started life as a business tool. After all, who but the corporates could afford those weighty early handsets? Today, when phones are ubiquitous, much of the focus rests on the consumer market and indeed many of the recent innovations such as multimedia messaging service (MMS) and camera phones are aimed squarely at the consumer. In an age where SMS (short messaging service) is king when it comes to mobile data revenues it’s easy to forget that there are other mobile data applications. However, enterprise applications are coming thick and fast these days and the mobile networks are quickly approaching the point where they can offer the speed, security and reliability required by enterprise users.

Enterprise data applications can be divided into two categories. The first involves out-of-the-box solutions that can be rolled out to virtually any business environment with the minimum of fuss. The second and more complex area is bespoke solutions. This often involves integrating an operator’s offering with that of a third-party system. Out-of-the-box solutions have been coming on stream for the past year or so. Bespoke offerings are a somewhat more recent innovation. Some are already up and running, while plenty of others are in development.

When it comes to out-of-the-box products, both of the major network operators already have established offerings. In the case of Vodafone, its EmailAnywhere solution offers real-time mobile access to email, calendar, tasks and contacts. It works by accessing existing MS Exchange, Lotus Domino Server, POP3 or IMAP email accounts. The system is device agnostic and promises mobile access via the web, Wap and personal digital assistant (PDA) interfaces. Security is also an element of the Vodafone offering.

Connection between a corporate LAN (local area network) and the Vodafone network is secured using the SSL (secure sockets layer) protocol. This uses the public and private key encryption system from RSA (default 512-bit keys), which also includes the use of a digital certificate. A virtual private network also can be used. EmailAnywhere works by installing software on the customer’s email server. This picks up email for retransmission to a mobile device, optimising the email for the device in the process. The email is then securely transmitted onto the Vodafone network. Customers using a Wap phone are given a specific Wap page to visit for collecting their email messages. A username and password is required before the emails can be viewed. In the case of PDAs or laptops with conventional web browsers, a specific web page can be visited to view email.

Hardware is another element in the Vodafone offering and the recently launched Vodafone Connect Card allows users to get online directly from a laptop. It is a PCMCIA card that takes a Vodafone SIM card and allows users to get online via the Vodafone GPRS network.

O2’s standard mobile data product is known as O2 Extended Office. The package offers secure access to corporate networks and essential backend systems such as company intranets, Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes via laptop and PDA devices.

The company has also employed a number of hardware solutions to tie in with its data offerings. One of the first to hit the market was the BlackBerry email device. The BlackBerry made its name in the US as a souped-up pager that delivered email to its users. O2’s offering allows users to receive email on the move without the need to dial up and check. In addition to this there is RIM’s Enterprise Service Software that sits alongside the corporate server protected by the company firewall. This copies, compresses and encrypts the mail message before forwarding it over the GPRS network to the end user’s BlackBerry device where it is decompressed, unencrypted and ready to read.

O2 recently announced that the BlackBerry platform is also being enabled on third-party devices such as the forthcoming Nokia 6800 and xda II. The xda is O2’s own branded PDA/mobile phone hybrid. The xda II, which will be available across the group before Christmas, incorporates many of the features that were absent from the original such as an integrated camera, Bluetooth and tri-band capability. The device will also feature a removable battery, an internal antenna and will run the 2003 version of Microsoft’s Pocket PC OS. Xda users will now able to avail of xmail, O2’s new mobile email service for the device. It provides users with access to their business email, calendar, corporate and personal contacts and tasks while on the move.

On the connectivity card front, O2 has chosen to market the Nokia D211 card. It’s a PCMCIA card for laptop PCs. Essentially it’s a three-in-one device, incorporating wireless LAN, GPRS and GSM data services. The upshot is that you can use the one device to get online from virtually any location. The card includes a slot for a mobile SIM card, allowing it to act as a mobile phone in addition to being a wireless card. As such it can be seen as a direct competitor to Vodafone’s Mobile Connect Card, while also incorporating the ability to connect to O2’s new range of wireless hotspots.

Both operators are also exploring bespoke solutions. According to Vodafone, this usually involves working with third-party solutions providers. For example, the company has already implemented some systems involving merchandisers who can access their ordering system via a specially designed Palm-based interface. Information is then transmitted over the Vodafone GPRS network. Vodafone has also recently announced that it intends to work with some of the bigger solutions providers, following an agreement with Hewlett-Packard (HP) and SAP. By combining MySAP Mobile Business solutions, HP’s fully scalable servers and mobile devices and Vodafone’s business connectivity solutions, the parties intend to offer business customers the opportunity to mobilise their field sales and services forces.

O2 has been no slouch on this front either. The company has already collaborated with financial software specialists Take Five to produce eMobile. It’s a system that enables existing Take Five customers to provide access for their sales forces to their accounting systems. The solution uses the O2 GPRS network to provide the link between the end user and the accounting software. eMobile allows a sales force to access current product catalogue and pricing information while on the road. Orders can be taken and sent to the Take Five accounting system for processing, dispatch and invoicing. The solution uses a Palm PDA linked to a GPRS handset for communication.

With mobile connectivity packages now part and parcel of the network’s offerings it won’t be too long before we see more collaborations such as this. With decent data networks now in place and 3G on the way, it’s time to put that connectivity to use.

By Dick O’Brien