Pragmatism Reigns

E-BUSINESS ROUNDTABLE: Excerpts from a special report produced by ebizChronicle.com, an online daily focused on e-business strategy and a content partner of Computerworld.

Vague ideas that wireless technology would let you conduct e-commerce transactions on an airline flight or stay connected across the continent are giving way to more realistic notions. For example, the most powerful applications may be ones in which the proverbial traveling salesman stops to sync up his wireless device with back-end systems only once a day. That's the pragmatic message from a panel of wireless industry observers assembled for a "virtual roundtable" on wireless strategy. The participants were:

Howard Beader, director of product marketing at the Waltham, Mass., office of SAP America Inc.'s mobile business unit

Victoria Burke, senior marketing manager at SAP AG

Dennis Gaughan, research director at AMR Research Inc. in Boston

Mark Guibert, vice president of brand management at Research In Motion Ltd. in Waterloo, Ontario

Chris van Loben Sels, director of mobile product strategy at PeopleSoft Inc. in Pleasanton, Calif.

Joe Sims, managing director of the wireless practice at BearingPoint Inc. (previously KPMG Consulting Inc.) in McLean, Va.

Has wireless lived up to the hype of two years ago?

Joe Sims of BearingPoint Inc. (previously KPMG Consulting Inc.)
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Joe Sims of BearingPoint Inc. (previously KPMG Consulting Inc.)
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Sims: It's not a matter of "lived up to it," but a matter of what the current economy can support. The idea of the broad category of mobile enablement as a separate technology or approach -- where you were going to be balancing your checkbook on the phone while on an airplane -- has gone away from the hype of two years ago. That's just not going to happen right now.

What will happen is that people will extend the infrastructure they have invested in over the last several years to where their people are, because their people are increasingly mobile. We're looking at it as a channel, not as a separate technology.
Guibert: I think there was an overblown sense of expectation [for] wireless e-commerce. In the B2B space, where the use of wireless is a productivity tool, I think the answer is a resounding yes, it has lived up to the expectation. The difference is that I don't think there was hype around those expectations two years ago. The hype that I saw was more focused on the e-commerce side.

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Victoria Burke of SAP AG
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Victoria Burke of SAP AG

Ultimately, the lesson that people learned, which is always straightforward in hindsight, is that a mobile device is not just a little PC. There are different issues that need to be addressed. From an infrastructure standpoint, you're dealing with less bandwidth, networks that operate at different bit rates. You're working with milliwatts for power supply, limited screen size, so the application needs to embrace these limitations. I think during that period of hype, a common [phrase] heard was "We're entering the post-PC era," which was inaccurate. What was interesting was watching companies that believed we were entering the post-PC era using PC-era strategies to go to market. Wireless is fundamentally different.

Burke: The reality is that a mobile solution needs to be able to work in disconnected mode. That can be anywhere from 100% disconnected - where they're just syncing up once a day when they are in a fixed location like their home office or their truck -- up to 99% connected, where you are pretty much online as long as you have a connection. You still have the ability to have some data on the device so you don't lose anything. You don't stop your business because you have to go to the next block to get a network connection.

Chris van Loben Sels of PeopleSoft Inc.
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Chris van Loben Sels of PeopleSoft Inc.
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Where do you see the return on investment coming from wireless technologies?
Chris van Loben Sels:
Sales and field service. That's where we've seen immediate opportunities to unlock value. Salespeople are almost never at their desks, yet they have to be able to review information before a call. The same for the field service personnel. For them, there is an added incentive: completing a sales call with remote entries. Bills which might drop through the cracks now get into the system. There's a direct benefit to the bottom line.
Gaughan: Business-to-employee applications. That's where we've seen demonstrated ROI and productivity increases. If you take some of the early successful [applications], they're in the areas such as sales force automation and field force automation. Delivering information where it's needed. These are also areas in which delays and miscommunications occur often and have a detrimental effect on the bottom line.

But isn't bandwidth and network coverage a constraining factor in these areas?

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Dennis Gaughan of AMR Research Inc.
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Dennis Gaughan of AMR Research Inc.

Gaughan: Network coverage remains an issue. But if you design the application so it requires small sips of data vs. huge files, low bandwidth isn't an insurmountable problem. Also, don't forget, one does not have to be in wireless mode all the time. With a cradle or Internet connection at the end or beginning of the day, wireless networks for [ad hoc] updates are perfectly acceptable. I'd like to stress that implicit in this model is a device which is more than a handset, in that it should be able to store and process data.

Which industries or operations are starting to adopt wireless applications?
Guibert: There are vertical cuts at this and more sectoral cuts. CRM is not so much an industry but is an application area with a high degree of interest. Extending [sales force] applications to a BlackBerry is a priority for a lot of folks. In terms of sectors, we're seeing a strong uptake in the legal sector, the financial sector and other vertical areas like real estate.

Mark Guibert of Research In Motion Ltd.
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Mark Guibert of Research In Motion Ltd.
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What's common across a lot of these vertical sectors is a high focus on customer service. To find the ROI, you're either going to have to reduce cost, or create competitive advantage, or increase customer service, or some degree of all of those things.
It's all about defining in a particular sector or application area what is the information that a mobile user will value and will pay for. Stay away from approaches that will only browse [the Web] or replicate their PC.
Sims: Any [operations] that have a mobile workforce, like the insurance industry, government, health care, sales force automation and field service support. I haven't seen as much uptake on CRM as people talk about, but it is definitely there.
Beader: One of the other things we are seeing a great need for is a mobile time-and-travel solution. Consultants in the field have to enter their expenses, for example, and that has to integrate easily into the back-end systems. Some of the larger consulting firms are using this with all of their consultants, ensuring better billing and employee reimbursement.

Is the concern about security holding back the wireless industry?
Gaughan: Last year, very much so, wireless LANs especially. There were highly publicized attacks on 802.11 standards. Many companies cracked down hard on the Wi-Fi applications; others moved to virtual private networks. But technology is getting pretty strong in this area, as is our knowledge of firewalls and other preventative measures. Full-strength cryptography is available.
Beader: I'm hearing a lot of talk about wireless security, but I haven't seen many customers, outside of the [Defense Department], deploying a fully encrypted application on a mobile device. That would tend to slow down the device's capability. People are using authorization and pass-code capabilities, but I haven't seen it go the step further. As devices improve processing power, I expect we'll see more.
Guibert: That's probably No. 1 on a CIO's mind when it comes to wireless. Ask the tough questions about security. It's not enough for a vendor to say, "Trust me."

What's the timeline for wireless adoption now?
Sims: The big unknown is the health of the carriers. I would hope that the telecom industry, in particular wireless, would [turn the] corner in 12 to 18 months. I don't think it's six months. If it's 12 months, a lot of the things that people are investing in now will show their benefits in the second quarter next year.


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