When it comes to making the most of a new generation of mobile solutions, the sums don’t add up and it’s been bothering Vodafone.
“We reckon there are 150-160,000 laptops out there in Ireland,” says Paul Donovan, the company’s CEO (pictured), “the vast majority of which are not exploited in the way they should be. I do believe as we go through 2004 there will be an increasing focus on it. The interest we have seen in the Mobile Connect Card makes me very confident that it will be unusual if someone with a laptop will not be using its inherent mobile features.”
Donovan’s confidence stems from tackling head on the barriers to companies adopting mobile solutions. A basic lack of understanding has discouraged people from actually trying them out. It’s a problem that has been magnified by a long history of devices that have failed to deliver, as Donovan explains.
“We have to ask ourselves as industry if we’ve made it easy enough to exploit the opportunities,” he says. “A lot of the early productivity tools, such as Psion organisers, never actually got to the point of being relevant and indispensable for the way that people actually choose to work.”
Making itself an indispensable part of the business landscape is very much on Vodafone’s agenda. Its Email Anywhere service and Mobile Connect product demonstrate its commitment to taking the hassle out of the technology.
“A lot of people don’t understand the basics of getting the most from their mobile phones,” says Donovan, taking it right back to the most basic interaction. “It’s about making devices genuinely user-friendly and making it easy for customers to use a service. There is a big issue on getting people to the point where they feel comfortable with technology. Success for us is not about how many cards we sell, it’s about what proportion of people who have them, understand and use them.”
Only when the human interface becomes intuitive can organisations begin to look at the bigger picture. “This is when you want to make sure it gets embedded in the enterprise-wide systems of the company,” says Donovan, “be that the email server of an SME or the inventory control system of a large consumer goods company.”
While it may seem a long way from single users mastering their mobile to an enterprise solution, Donovan believes it’s a journey companies should take on a step-by-step basis. “It requires education, patience and it need companies to pilot things in a phased approach. You start with productivity solutions for voice,” he says.
He cites the example of virtual private networks, deploying short code dialling that can mirror internal fixed dialling plans. He also makes the case for the greater adoption of basic text services as another step up the ladder.
“In my view, SMS still has a huge amount of mileage in the corporate space,” he says. “If you employ 1000 people you might have 200 company mobile phones but you can pretty much bet that the other 800 have their own mobile phones. The ability to use that as an internal communications tool is critical.”
He draws on his own experience as an example: “Every day I would receive daily sales numbers and network quality performance statistics on my phone. My secretary has things set up for group messing on SMS so we can get messages out to discrete communities.”
As far as the business market is concerned, the goal of Vodafone is to penetrate the heart of the enterprise. This throws up many new challenges. “Our customer relationship has moved beyond the telecoms manager towards the IT director and the sales and marketing director,” says Donovan.
“Mobile has been seen traditionally by telecommunication managers as a cost. It now needs to be embraced by the business in a broader sense as a means of unleashing productivity. We are very much headed in that direction as a business. It’s early stages but the introduction of much higher bandwidth with 3G is going to be important,” he adds.
But isn’t there a danger that the tech-weary companies that have invested heavily in IT infrastructure that hasn’t always delivered will regard the mobile enterprise as one solution too many?
“It’s true that a lot of organisations are fundamentally readdressing the way they architect themselves,” says Donovan. “At the end of the day, everyone recognises that it’s tough out there and we need to run our businesses more efficiently and effectively. Some of the companies that have adopted our solutions have fundamentally changed the way in which their costs are structured by getting information to the right people at the right time.”
Again, he stresses the phased approach to selling these solutions: “Traditional adoption cycles say you convince the chooser, then move into a pilot scenario, then you’re into a limited rollout. Finally, you are ready for the enterprise-wide rollout. We are now at the stage of having multiple pilots and we’re getting good feedback from customers.”
In Sweden, Vodafone has taken its solution sets even further, developing a new kind of mobile office that challenges whether a business needs to bother with a substantial number of fixed-line phones. In a particular type of organisation, where lots of people work in fluid project teams, for example mobile communications, can free up space and enable people to reorganise themselves faster and cheaply. Employees are no longer chained to a particular desk and phone.
Such a vision may seem a long way away from most companies, but Donovan believes the next 12-18 months will be a telling time for the mobile market. “At the moment a company looks at wireless penetration and wonders if it’s really worth doing. In terms of evolution we’re entering a critical period.”
The time span takes in the arrival of 3G and the rollout of wireless LAN hotspots in Ireland. Central to both is an environment for the rapid growth of mobile data. Donovan believes Vodafone has a head start in this area.
High speed circuit switched data (HSCSD) is only available in Ireland on the Vodafone network and was launched some years ago, providing greater bandwidth and giving its customers faster data transfer speeds. “Our experience with it has helped accelerate the uptake of GPRS,” says Donovan. “As a business we got to grips with data perhaps earlier than other mobile companies and many of our HSCSD clients have recognised that they have got a lot of learning under their belts and feel quite comfortable about moving forward.”
Moving forward inevitably means 3G. The Vodafone network is already ‘live’ but handsets won’t be readily available until next year and it will take until 2005 before it really takes off, according to Donovan.
“Business applications will be at the forefront of 3G,” he says emphatically. “There will be more applications for business than consumers and by the middle of 2004 you’ll have a customer that can optimise between 2.5 and 3G. And when they happen to be in the right place, they could even access a WLAN hotspot. The landscape will fundamentally change in terms of what people can do.”
Vodafone has announced that it will build its own hotspots in Ireland but it will also enter into agreements with other service providers to enable its customers to roam on to their sites. Donovan is very clear about wireless LANs’ place in the scheme of things: “It’s a complimentary set of technologies to what goes on in mobile, but it’s effectively a fixed mobile computing solution — you have to be in a location to use it while 2.5 and 3G allows that basic mobility.”
He does, however, see an opportunity for operators to mix and match technologies to create a compelling service offering. “Any company that offers all bandwidths with the widest possible geographical coverage is going to be in a very strong position. The critical thing is having a simple and transparent billing arrangement. We’ll be in a good position to do that,” adds Donovan, with a knowing smile.
Vodafone’s Email Anywhere service allows workers to pick up their email when on the move, on a variety of devices such as laptops, handhelds or Wap-enabled phones. The service sits alongside a corporate email server and picks up email for re-transmission to a mobile device. 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. A username and password is required before the emails can be viewed. In the case of PDAs (personal digital assistants) or laptops with conventional web browsers, a specific webpage can be visited to view email. A registration fee of €25 for up to 25 users or €15 for more than 25 users applies. After that a monthly usage fee of €15 per user for up to 25 users and €10 per user for more than 25 users is payable. GPRS or HSCSD usage fees will also apply.