For years, analysts have predicted that mobile computers – whether PDAs or smartphones – would become universally deployed business tools, linking directly to core enterprise applications and taking their rightful place alongside the PC and the laptop as the next personal computer ‘form factor’.
But in 95% of cases, devices such as Palm Pilots and Compaq iPAQs have been used as little more than glorified Filofaxes. Their primary function as a platform for PIM (personal information manager) applications, providing contact and diary databases, may have been augmented with email access, low-grade office programs and cumbersome web access, but these have barely appeared on the IT department’s applications radar screen.
But in the last six to nine months, say industry insiders, the barriers to wider enterprise use of PDAs have been falling. Suppliers and their partners have begun to successfully address many of the problem factors that arrested the development of the PDA as a tool for enhancing mobile business processes. For example, connectivity has been improved, application development (for independent software vendors) has become easy and more standardised, and the cost of the devices has fallen while the sophistication has improved.
The shift has been as quiet as it has been profound. “We are now into the period where we can say with conviction that the technology does work,” says, Keith New, VP of m-business professional services and operations at business applications service provider Aspective. “We are just at that changing point where organisations are moving from generally not believing, to an acceptance that it works. Now they are considering how the technology might be brought to bear on business problems.”
Reference sites are coming out of the woodwork. The most common deployments of dedicated-use applications are in field service and sales, in mobile transportation and delivery, and in asset management; but mobile applications are also springing up at pharmaceutical companies, for managing clinical trials, in medical centres for providing doctors with bedside patient records.
“Outside of PIM, PDAs have only scratched the surface in the enterprise,” says David Smethurst, enterprise director for EMEA at Palm. “In the last six to nine months, we have seen enterprise customers accept that the mobile is here.”
A series of drivers lie behind these changing patterns. First, the devices are now much more suitable for supporting mobile business processes.
Unlike the generic applicability of the PC to the white-collar workforce, there is no concept of ‘one-device-fits-all’ in mobile devices. “There is absolutely no device appropriate to everybody,” says Aspective’s Keith New. “Mobile devices are not much use by themselves, except for keeping your diary or addresses. It starts to really become exciting when it gets connected to the organisation.”
But the device has to fit for the purpose. “There are different working conditions that need to be addressed, with different form factors, different levels of robustness, different degrees of security, different data interfaces,” says New.
That has resulted in a proliferation of mobile device types from companies such as Intermec, Itronix, Symbol, and Panasonic, as well as more standard PocketPCs from Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Palm. As the variety has gone up, the cost has come down, dramatically in some cases. A GPRS Windows PocketPC that might be used by a field services engineer costs between £1,000 and £1500; at the other end of the spectrum, a low-end Dell Axim – without connectivity – costs just under £200.
Form factors are important. But what most enterprise customers have really been waiting for is dependable connectivity.
Up until 2002, only specialist and expensive devices had integrated network connectivity. Now GPRS, the ‘always-on’ enhancement to standard GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) networks is commonly available – and affordable. This supports the transfer of data at 20 to 30 Kbps.
“Before GPRS, you had to buy data on a connectivity charge, which was expensive and slow. If you were sending any kind of data it was costly and painful to use,” says New. Now, he says, GPRS has started coming out of the marketing camp and into the product camp. “It was talked about for such a long time when it wasn’t real, that many people still don’t appreciate that it now does what it says on the tin,” says New.
But the area that really needs to catch up before the technology becomes ubiquitous is applications. “The devices are now on the road, the network is now on the road with GPRS.
Now it is down to the back office functionality and the understanding of the different business processes that you have to put in place to have a connected workforce,” says New. “We are still in early days on that.”
In order to make use of the technology now, many organisations are looking for development partners to build bespoke or semi-custom applications for them – and for business software vendors to deliver packaged solutions.
Simply mobile-enabling SAP or Clarify or Siebel is not a panacea, although ERP vendors are progressively augmenting their applications with new mobile functions. And, at the same, a raft of applications, specifically designed for mobile workforces, is emerging from companies such as ClickSoftware, Dexterra, ViryaNet, and ServicePower.
Much of the applications work to date has been bespoke. That may be a more expensive approach, but the cost of developing mobile applications and integrating those with existing business systems is also coming down.
“Few organisations want to build everything from scratch, but they do want an application that meets the particular needs of the business that is going to use it,” says James Pankiewicz, head of mobility at business systems developer Conchango.
“It is becoming quicker and easier to develop applications that are targeted at mobile users,” he says, “because there are new toolsets coming out that are much more interacted across platforms.”
He cites Microsoft’s .Net Compact Framework as allowing developers to write code once and deploy it to a laptop, a smartphone, a tablet PC or a PDA. “There are enormous economies there, because previously you had to develop at least a new front end, if not a new application for each,” says Pankiewicz.
“Microsoft may be leading the way, but Java environments are also allowing developers to use the same skillset to develop applications for mobile devices as for desktop applications,” says Pankiewicz.
An example is IBM’s WebSphere, which, says Jonathan Prial, vice president for business development for IBM’s pervasive computing initiative, enables developers to write applications for more than 80% of all devices available.
WebSphere Everyplace Access provides links mobile applications to corporate applications, while Everyplace Connection Manager is designed to address the difficult problem of seamless roaming between, for example, wireless lans and mobile phone services.
The availability of such products means that developers who, up till now, have been desktop developers “can almost immediately become mobile application developers,” adds Pankiewicz.
The lower barrier to entry has made organisations take a fresh look at how they can use mobile applications to attack major areas of inefficiency in their dispersed workforces.
“We have never yet found an ROI [in a mobile application] that did not pay back in less than a year,” says New. “The business processes that are going on with mobile workforces are so out of control; the level of inefficiency is really pretty shocking.”
While the efficiency of a company’s call centre will be judged on very clear metrics – number of calls an operator makes, the average time spent on a call, and so on – only one in ten companies can tell you who their most productive field service engineers are, he says.
The upshot is that mobile – after a long adolescence – is at last arriving in the corporate IT mainstream. “Mobile has been treated as very much a niche, single business application deployment area. That is changing,” says Pankiewicz. “We are moving from mobile being viewed as tactical, to it being included as part of the strategic plan of IT provision.”