Context-aware mobility: What is it and how will it change the business world?

Employees can save time by more quickly finding goods on warehouse shelves or supplies buried in storage closets

By now, companies that have mobilized business applications for 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, speed time to delivery -- 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, field service and other critical data to mobile devices, they are probably not delivering as much relevant information to users as they are capable of.

To provide this relevancy, 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  mobility

[Read a story about how the Pittsburgh Penguins are using context-aware technology to deliver on-demand video footage to fans.]

"Context-aware computing has one exciting future," says William Clark, a Gartner 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 what's happening in this arena.

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.

Ferreting out hidden supplies

Some of the earliest context-aware mobility projects have involved the integration of location information into wireless applications. For example, Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare (TMH) in Florida has been using location services for asset tracking since late 2006, says Jay Adams, IT enterprise architect for the hospital.

As of this spring, the hospital had tagged approximately 2,700 medical and wireless devices and updated the wireless infrastructure to make tracking possible anywhere in the 800,000-square-foot facility. The result: Accuracy now falls within four feet, Adams says. From AeroScout Inc.'s MobileView 4 application, nurses can more accurately locate needed IV pumps by drilling down to CAD-based floor maps imported into the Cisco Mobility Services Engine (MSE) and delivered into the asset-tracking system.

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