What's Next: Wireless

Wireless will again make small gains in business efficiency.

Rod Ghani has watched the steady evolution of wireless for the past four years. A business enablement executive at Safelite Corp. in Columbus, Ohio, he has monitored developments, analyzing how wireless technologies could help Safelite workers become more efficient.

Now, he says, "we finally feel that the time is right."

The auto glass company is rolling out wireless handheld devices to its field technicians and will provide BlackBerry devices to 80% to 100% of its 2,000 field workers this year.

"It's the No. 1 project on my agenda," Ghani says.

A Computerworld survey of executive-level IT professionals has identified wireless technology as one of the top project priorities for 2006, second only to security initiatives. Despite its prominent position on the priority list, this technology hardly promises a revolution in how business is conducted, executives and analysts say. Rather, industry leaders say they're using wireless to speed transactions and cut costs, bringing important incremental improvements to how they get business done.

Rod Ghani, a business enablement executive at Safelite Corp.
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Rod Ghani, a business enablement executive at Safelite Corp.

Image Credit: James Calloway
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"Wireless technology will help us service the customer faster and better, as well as reduce our operational costs," Ghani concludes.

Safelite's technicians currently have to call centralized dispatchers at the beginning and end of each job and submit paper forms to be scanned into the company's systems. Wireless technology will eliminate many of those manual steps, Ghani says. Already, 200 technicians in the pilot rollout use handheld devices to remotely clock in and out, get work orders and issue status reports in real time. Safelite is now adding more capabilities to its handhelds so technicians can tender credit card payments and capture signatures.

Ghani wouldn't disclose the amount Safelite plans to spend on wireless this year, but he did say he expects a payback within 12 to 18 months, thanks to productivity improvements that the company should realize as the amount of phone traffic and paperwork drops.

But, he says, "the No. 1 goal [of wireless] is to be come more efficient and effective in serving our customer."

Maximizing Wireless Use

Analysts see wireless deployments such as the one at Safelite as evidence of an evolution in how companies use wireless.

Ellen Daley, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., says companies in 2006 and beyond will give more workers access to wireless capabilities and will install more applications on mobile devices. Those applications include sales force, field service and logistics tools.

"[Wireless is] allowing the field workers to stay out in the field longer to do their job," says Daley.

Prevari, a Minneapolis-based software company, lists a wireless WAN as its biggest initiative for 2006.

"We really need to enable our road warriors with access to our trusted network," says Prevari's chief operating officer, Jerry Jeschke. "It's the need for independent, anytime, anywhere access."

As it stands now, Prevari's four salespeople and consultants must work from hotels or access the Web at customer sites, which the salespeople feel is an imposition on clients, Jeschke says. That means a delay in accessing information -- and that delay could play a role in determining whether the rep makes the sale.

Prevari soon will equip its field workers with Dell Inc. laptops and a yet-to-be-picked national cellular service so they can remotely access the company's network.

"It's about a level of customer service, an incrementally better level of customer service, which over time differentiates us from other companies," Jeschke says.

After years of letting wireless devices filter into their organizations, companies are beginning to demand more analysis of how wireless can improve their operations, says Daley. They're developing policies for how they use wireless and determining who should get what device and for what reasons.

"Companies are being very strategic about their wireless," she says.

Purdue Pharma LP is a good example. Officials there say they know exactly how wireless fits into the company's IT infrastructure and business goals.

The pharmaceutical company installed a Cisco 802.11b infrastructure in 2001 to "support the mobility of our laptop users and to support consultants and visitors who would need Internet access," explains Purdue Pharma Vice President and CIO Larry Pickett.

Stamford, Conn.-based Purdue Pharma this year plans to upgrade to support the 802.11b/g standard, which Pickett says will enable his IT department to improve the system's security and management.

He says it's a case of "getting more for less."

Purdue stands out, though, for its advanced use of wireless. Julie Ask, research director at JupiterResearch, part of Jupitermedia Corp. in Darien, Conn., says most companies still use wireless for voice, e-mail or instant messaging.

However, she says, companies are increasingly looking at wireless for applications supporting business functions such as customer relationship management and sales. And she predicts that the trend will strengthen as wireless networks get faster and as more municipalities deploy Wi-Fi that blankets entire regions.

"It's not really a ubiquitous thing yet, but it will be. We're seeing a lot of exciting stuff now that gives us a glimpse of what's ahead," Ask says. "But I don't think the market will mature in '06. I think we're just at the beginning."

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. You can contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

See more wireless predictions in Matt Hamblen's Reporter's Notebook.

What else is on tap this year in IT? See the complete Forecast 2006 special report.



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