As might be expected of a man in his position, Paul Wybrow, the UK CTO for mobile giant Vodafone, is a big fan of mobile technology. But even he will admit that, at times, the sheer range of devices, connectivity mechanisms, and uses of the technology can be bewildering.
The problem, he explains, is that today’s enterprise users demand high levels of availability, scalability and ease of use, while simultaneously being charged the lowest possible price. That reflects an understandable and legitimate business demand, but there “is not one single technology that will give you all of that,” he adds.
To date, the choice of mobile device has been left largely to individuals. For the most part, mobile phone handsets have been targeted at the consumer market, with features such as cameras and music players. This vacuum has been filled by PDA makers and mobile email devices, such as the BlackBerry, that have added voice capabilities.
But now the likes of Nokia are rectifying this oversight and are busily beefing up product lines aimed specifically at the business executive. The number of devices with overlapping capabilities, using multiple connectivity standards is increasing. Senior IT executives have to accept a mobile strategy with multiple strands: traditional GSM networks; high-speed 3G networks; WiFi; and wireless LAN and WiMax technologies.
The ability of businesses to absorb and effectively utilise advances in mobile technology is hardly in doubt. A quick scout around any busy airport lounge will soon locate a troop of executives busily typing away on laptops and BlackBerrys, or chatting on the phone; they are all able to put what would have once been dead time to productive use.
The benefits of mobile working have been warmly embraced by European enterprises. For example, payments company Visa, has introduced a wireless hotspot in its London headquarters, ensuring staff visiting from its other sites can easily access the Internet.
Such opportunities for greater productivity, cost savings and more flexible, employee-friendly working patterns, have seduced many business leaders. According to IT advisory group Forrester Research, they spend nearly a third of their telecom and networking budgets on mobility on average.
But increasingly, executives are becoming aware that mobile technology must be delivered within rigorous fiscal controls; the latest mobile widget needs to prove its value before being deployed.
For example, it can be enormously complex and costly to integrate mobile technologies with enterprise resource planning systems. And yet, as Forrester Research analyst Jenny Lau points out, 80% of field workers’ communication needs can be met through mobile email.
“Mobile email alerts and confirmations of appointments can assist field service workers just as much as a complex mobile Siebel application – and it’s a lot easier to train them on,” she says.
The world of telecoms is changing fast. In the fixed-line world, the introduction of voice over IP (VoIP) telephony has heralded a new low-cost era. And there are opportunities to apply such belt-tightening strategies to the mobile world.
As councils of Islington, Westminster and Manchester have built vast WiFi clouds, the possibility of ubiquitous broadband connectivity is becoming a tangible reality. Meanwhile, mobile operators such as Vodafone and T-Mobile are building out HSDPA networks, which can crank up 3G network download speeds to 1.8 megabits per second, and further enhancements are planned to accelerate those speeds towards 3.6 mbps in 2007.
Elsewhere, the Intel-backed WiMax technology is beginning to mature, and the chip maker is promising that the technology will be both cheaper and faster than alternatives – although whether such claims can be verified is still open to question.
Clearly, in the coming years, CIOs will not be short of high-speed mobile connections. Making sense of the range of options requires a dedicated unit, suggests Leif-Olof Wallin, a research vice president at analyst group Gartner.
Such centres of excellence already proliferate in many of today’s enterprises, but they are rarely formalised. “Relying solely on people to be ‘technology heroes’ who come in and save projects is unrealistic. Processes and policies need to be developed,” he says.
However, gathering a team with skills in networks, middleware, security and IT architecture to oversee corporate strategy can help businesses to adopt cost-effective mobile strategies, he adds.
Follow the crowd
This integrated approach to mobility has been enthusiastically adopted by ecommerce parcel delivery company eCourier. It uses a mixture of global-positioning technology and a mobile GPRS network to ensure that its couriers can deliver packages as speedily as possible. The technology strategy was a cornerstone of the organisation’s start-up plan, and the company encourages all its employees to participate in that strategy.
Location-based systems are likely to become an increasingly prevalent component of mobile strategies, notes Gartner. The analyst house predicts that by 2010, 60% of the worldwide cellular population will be trackable through the user’s mobile network.
The potential to improve business operations, through more efficient allocation of resources is enormous, but organisations need to start investigating how location and sensor technologies can form part of their overall mobile strategy.