By now, companies that have put business applications on smartphones or other handheld devices know of the competitive advantages they can gain. The more detailed and relevant the information at hand, the greater the opportunity an employee has to close a sale, improve delivery times -- or even save a life.
But these are early days for enterprise mobility, and most companies stop short of realizing its full potential. While they may be delivering customer relationship management information, field service updates and other critical data to mobile devices, they're probably not delivering as much relevant information to users as they could.
To make the data more relevant, context awareness is key. In a context-aware environment, wireless devices such as environmental sensors, radio frequency identification tags and smartphones send location, presence and other status information across the network. Specialized software captures, stores and analyzes the data, sending it back over the network to provide context at the end device as needed.
"Context-aware computing has one exciting future," says William Clark, a Gartner Inc. analyst. By 2013, more than half of Fortune 500 companies will have context-aware computing initiatives, he predicts, noting that mobility is a subset that accounts for 80% of the context-aware field.
Think of context in this way: "It is something that can help people or other systems make decisions faster," says Chris Thompson, senior director of mobility solutions at Cisco Systems Inc. "The vision for context awareness is to expose as much of this sensory information as possible to business applications so it can be correlated with existing business roles."
Context-aware technology is available from companies such as Agito Networks Inc., Appear Networks Inc. and Cisco.
"For me, it's a no-brainer that context will become by default a requirement for mobile solutions," says Sébastien Fabre, head of innovation and planning at SITA, an airline IT provider based in Geneva.
Some of the earliest context-aware mobility projects have involved the integration of location information into wireless applications. For example, Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare Inc. (TMH) in Florida has been using location services to track assets since 2006, says Jay Adams, the health care provider's IT enterprise architect.
As of this spring, TMH had tagged about 2,700 medical and wireless devices and updated the wireless infrastructure to make it possible to track supplies anywhere in its 800,000-square-foot hospital. Now information about an item's location is accurate to within four feet, Adams says. Using an asset-tracking application called MobileView 4 from AeroScout Inc. in Redwood City, Calif., nurses can locate equipment like IV pumps by drilling down to floor maps that were imported into the Cisco Mobility Services Engine (MSE) and then delivered to MobileView 4.
With context awareness, the hospital's asset-tracking initiative has gone from so-so to highly effective, says Adams. In the early days of asset tracking, nurses could determine whether a device was available but still needed to spend precious time rummaging through storage closets to find it. And all too often, the system would show a stash of infusion pumps on, say, the sixth floor when in reality they were two levels below, says Adams. He attributes that problem to the hospital's first-generation wireless network, which at the time wasn't capable of pinpointing locations.
"Because we were such early adopters, we and others didn't understand how critical the back-end wireless infrastructure is to asset tracking," Adams says.
For its initial location-aware wireless deployment, TMH had selected omnidirectional antennas, with the intent of covering multiple floors and lots of square footage from a single access point (AP). But by 2008, it was apparent that antenna coverage was a problem and that an overhaul was in order, Adams says.