Match mobile technology with business needs: are fears of choosing the wrong mobile devices and services keeping you from taking your company mobile? Here's where to start to make the right choices.
Half the battle is knowing the right questions to ask. This article will reduce your mobile "fear factor" by preparing you with a list of questions to ask when planning your mobile strategy.
Getting the big picture
The following are the main variables you should consider when adding mobile computing to your organization's business processes:
1. What is your main objective for going mobile?
2. What type of information do you want to make available to mobile users?
3. How far away from "home base" do your mobile users need access to this information?
4. How often do your mobile users need access to the most up-to-date information?
5. Which devices match your requirements?
6. Which service and/or service provider best meets your needs?
First, is your objective to increase sales, customer satisfaction, reporting accuracy--or something else entirely? The answer to this question will guide you in deciding what information you need to mobilize.
What type of information do mobile users need?
What type of data will make your mobile users more productive? is it simple e-mail, calendaring, and contacts, or do your users need access to other corporate data within the company network? The answer to this question will help you decide what type of mobility platform will work best for you. The market offers platforms that range from simple POP e-mail forwarders to sophisticated application-driven delivery sub-systems.
Before you take the plunge, you need to weigh all the costs and benefits. For example, the degree of management required by these solutions varies dramatically. Some solutions require a full-time administrator, while others can be self-administered. Generally speaking, pushing out corporate data through a dedicated application-driven delivery sub-system can be technically challenging and may require more time to install, configure, and manage than you're prepared to invest. On the other end of the spectrum, access to e-mail, calendaring, contacts and address books, reminders, and tasks may not be enough to give you a real advantage. In short, you need to strike the right balance here.
How far away from "home base" do your mobile users need access to this information? Decide how far your users need to travel while maintaining access to the information you've identified. You may only need a local wireless strategy to achieve your goals. A local Wi-Fi network can increase productivity and efficiency at a reasonable and calculable cost because data transmission is free within the WLAN. And, you might already have hardware resources, such as laptop computers, that allow for campus roaming. Certain models of PDAs have built-in Wi-Fi capability and will connect seamlessly to any WLAN you create and may be better suited to your objectives than a laptop.
Some users might need to travel well beyond the campus to achieve your objectives. These users require computing devices that can communicate using GPRS, GSM, CDMA, 1XRT, iDEN or other over-the-air (OTA) or wireless communication protocol. Your device choice will depend on your answer to questions 1 and 2. Ask your mobile users what type of mobile information they feel they need to make them more productive and efficient. The answers may surprise you. In the majority of cases, providing access to the user's personal information such as e-mail, calendar, and contacts can dramatically improve efficiency and customer satisfaction.
When it comes to choosing a device, part of the decision depends on what type of information and how your mobile users plan to use that information. If they need to read extensive reports or contracts in the field, you'd best be looking at a device with a large viewing area, such as a laptop or tablet PC. Nobody wants to edit a spreadsheet on a cell phone screen that's only 1.25 by 1.5 inches! (And, you definitely won't see a reduction in reporting errors.) If personal information is all they need, a smartphone or PDA, rather than a laptop, could work well.
If your mobile users need to travel internationally, you must choose a device and service plan that meet that objective. It's important to know that CDMA technology is used only in Canada, Japan, Korea, and the United States. GPRS is more the global standard and is used in virtually every country in the world. However, not all North American wireless service providers have sharing agreements with foreign wireless service providers. A worst-case scenario is that users might be able to "roam" on the host network but at prohibitive costs--think $600 for one week's worth of e-mail!
It's important to understand the difference between "sharing" and "roaming." Simply stated, roaming is the ability to connect to any carrier signal; sharing is connecting at a preferred rate. Roaming issues tend to be of a technical nature, while sharing issues tend to be of a contractual nature. The bottom line here is that roaming is expensive, especially overseas. You can mitigate these costs by ensuring that your wireless service provider has a sharing agreement with another wireless carrier in the area you're traveling and that you understand how to access that network to take advantage of the preferred roaming agreement (in other words, learn how to manually set your phone to the selected network rather than letting it "auto-detect" the available networks).
Even with GPRS, there are four frequencies used by the various wireless carriers (850/900/1800/1900MHz). For trouble-free international roaming, consider a tri- or quad-band phone. Also note that SIM cards used in smartphones aren't as interchangeable as wireless carriers might lead you to believe.
How often and when do your mobile users need to access?
The answers to these questions help you further determine if mobile users need full wireless capability with a service plan from a wireless carrier, or if they can get by with access to Wi-Fi hotspots. Keeping in mind the overall objective of your mobile strategy, you should be able to decide where on the upward scale of connectivity (figure 1) your users' needs lie. With the proliferation of Wi-Fi hotspots in coffee shops, hotels, restaurants, and lounges, airports and public buildings, mobile users have an "as-available" wireless option. But, this strategy can be more expensive than a full carrier wireless plan. For example, users can get 24 hours of T-Mobile HotSpot service for $9.99, and existing T-Mobile customers can add unlimited T-Mobile HotSpot service to their monthly wireless voice and data bill for $19.99 a month. If mobile users need access to data that is refreshed only once or twice a day, this strategy is viable. On the other hand, an increase in synchronization frequency requires more sophisticated technology. (i.e., more expensive).
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
Now that you've started to develop some answers to your questions, your fears should be gradually subsiding. I'd like to recap before moving on: You've determined your overall objective for a mobile strategy, decided what type of data to make available to your mobile users, and established how far into the field, and how often, your mobile users need access to the most up-to-date data. Now, you have to choose devices to meet these needs.
Which computing devices match your requirements?
This step should be relatively easy. You can narrow the field by deciding what type of mobility your users require; this will help you pick your network type, carrier, service plan and, finally, device type At this point, you should be able to recommend to your users devices that work within your overall mobile strategy.
The best advice I can offer at this step is to get "buy-in" from your mobile users. Without it you'll have a challenge getting users to take full advantage of the tools that make up your mobile strategy. Some of your users will want to continue with a laptop while others have a favorite PDA or cell phone. Your users will appreciate guidance in this area based on your extensive research. You can bring your influence to bear on purchase decisions by helping your users understand the advantages and disadvantages the different device types. You may wish to narrow choices to a single platform for ease of administration, but even within a single platform like Pocket PC or Palm, users have a variety of device types to choose from.
In addition to all the previous factors, your mobile solution must allow for the introduction of any type of computing device. With an open device strategy, you might even find users are willing to provide their own 'gadgets" to help perform their jobs better. Each January there seems to be an influx of new hardware that executives ask to have integrated into their work environments so they can increase access to vital data. One of the advantages provided by the latest mobility software is being able to add any type of compatible hardware as it becomes available. That includes accommodating individuals who are willing to use their own personal devices to make them more productive at work.
From my experience, device choice often comes down to the issue of battery life. Surprised? Think about it. When your users are on the road, it's all about battery life. None of your best-laid plans will matter if the device is unable to communicate due to a dead battery. I've seen one smartphone (Sony Ericsson P900) run non-stop for 8 hours, pumping out just under 30MB of data, while another similarly tested PDA could only manage less than 4 hours and 12MB of data. Without additional battery packs, even a laptop will only give 4-6 hours of continuous use, so you must be aware of battery life and manage it accordingly. Managing batteries may be as simple as having a car adapter handy or having lunch by an AC outlet ... that also has a Wi-Fi hotspot!
Choose a wireless carrier, network type, and service plan.
Next, you need to choose a service provider. Understand that some providers have the lowest priced voice plans, while others offer the lowest priced data plans. You also need to consider how much voice and/or data you plan to use. Do your mobile users talk more or send more e-mail? Do they need unlimited data or do you know how much data they'll transfer in a given month?
If you're able to pick from any wireless service provider, then you should create a spreadsheet to compare their options. Here's what you need to compare:
* Number of voice minutes allowed during business hours * Volume discounts for subscribing to multiple plans * Amount of data transmission allowed during business hours * Roaming plans and/or roaming fees
Choices for growth
The mobile landscape is changing rapidly as providers evolve their networks with more and cheaper data services. We're just entering the era of 3G telecommunications and will see rapidly increasing demand and supply of OTA network services. It's only natural to have a fear of commitment for any project with such far reaching implications as a mobile computing. Although far from exhaustive, examining the questions this article poses should provide you with enough information to overcome most fears you have about developing a mobile computing strategy.
My final bit of advice is to try and look as far into the future of your mobile strategy as possible. You may not see a need as part of your business process to transmit pictures or streaming video today, but consider that may be the next "big thing" in your industry, taking the visionaries to the next level ahead of the competition. As we say in the mobile software development world ... if you don't like things now, wait a week!
MOBILE BUSINESS BENEFITS
The technology choices you make today will determine whether or not your mobile strategy is a success. You can make good choices only if you understand the variables influencing the outcome of your decision. This article helps you define these variables and provides you with information to make a sound choice when choosing a mobile strategy.
Rick Newcombe is director of sales for Omni Technology Solutions. He's been working in the computer industry since 1994 and sales since 1980. Rick worked for Telus in small business Internet marketing, prior to two years field experience in wireless systems integration with his own business. He moved to Omni to focus on GWmobile, the world's first GroupWise client for BlackBerry devices. Rick rapidly developed GWmobile business unit until it was acquired by RIM in December of 2003. He's now involved in development of Omni Mobile, a GroupWise client for all commonly used mobile devices, www.omni-ts.com