Speeding up the possibilities

30 Oct 2003

With the exception of a small band of companies that use HSCSD (high speed circuit switched data), Vodafone’s souped-up data service, the concept of mobile business applications stalled at the starting post because it was just too slow. That’s the view of Larry Banville, general manager at Datapac, a systems integration specialist and Vodafone reseller.

What changed everything was the arrival of GPRS. The GPRS networks went live last year in Ireland, enabling data transfer to hit speeds of 40Kbps and providing always-on access. The cost of the service is based on volumes of data rather than call duration and it’s described as 2.5G, the link in the evolutionary chain that will take us next year to 3G.

“The philosophy of always-on and being available anywhere has been around for the last number of years in marketing terms,” says Banville, “but the reality of delivering it on the ground has only begun to happen in the last six to eight months. Now, genuinely, you can have analogue type dial-up, averaging about 45Kbps which is very useable, as opposed to 9.5Kbps on the GSM networks.”

He also thinks that the cost factor plays an important part in winning the confidence of customers: “With GPRS you only pay for the amount of data you download. You can actually have it sitting in your car and on all day and it doesn’t cost you anything until you use it.”

Datapac sells and installs Vodafone’s Mobile Connect Card and the Email Anywhere solution. “It needs a dedicated, independent server but it doesn’t have to be a very sophisticated one,” he explains. The benefits, he believes, are enormous and can fundamentally change the way company employees communicate. “I’m not advocating they read all their mails on their mobile phones but the calendar end of it is very useable. With Email Anywhere you don’t have to be in the office to have your diary updated.”

In the Datapac experience, enthusiastic customers have so far been the mobile professionals, sales people on the road. Further up the chain they are starting to see companies with virtual private networks using the Mobile Connect Card to dial directly into their corporate networks, using more sophisticated IT solutions remotely. Mobile sales reps are starting to upgrade to tablet PCs with larger A4 screens, though Banville admits adoption is still quite slow.

“They haven’t taken off to the extent that the vendors thought but there is a core that will use them,” he says. “You need a combination of the application and the hardware to get this market going. I’m not convinced the applications have caught up with the hardware yet.”

But Banville has no doubt that it will: “Laptop sales are now outpacing PC sales, so how far can we be from a situation where companies wonder if they need any wires? They may choose to go totally wireless.”

The fact that it looks likely to be a slow and steady migration to a wireless world is evidence of lessons learnt, according to Banville. He believes operators are now mindful of over-promising on what technology can deliver.

“In the past there was too much hype before the deliverables were there,” he says, referring to services like Wap, the first attempt at mass-market mobile data. “But now, with GPRS the networks are ahead of the applications that are actually available.”

While he looks forward to the arrival of 3G and possible data speeds of 256Kbps, he firmly believes that GPRS is more than adequate for most company needs. Speed may no longer be a problem, but the ongoing concern of company CEOs is security. The prospect of adding a layer of mobile applications on top of an existing IT infrastructure is enough to send a shiver down the spine of many an IT manager.

This is where the Vodafone offerings really score, according to Banville. “If you have a good corporate IT policy then you don’t have to worry about the mobile user. The problem with something like a Hotmail account is that you are going outside of your corporate standard. You are far more likely to have problems when downloading an attachment than you are with Email Anywhere.

“The Vodafone solution comes through the corporate gateway and it ‘obeys’ the corporate policy. It has been scanned for viruses and has been through whatever mail monitoring process a company might have. There is no more danger than on a corporate LAN,” he says.

“Our sales managers find security has been the hot topic of the last two months,” he adds. “The good thing about Email Anywhere is that it’s set up inside the corporate standard. That is a key selling message.”

Business partners: Patrick Collins, head of data solutions, Vodafone Ireland, and David Laird, managing director, Datapac