The Truth About Mobile and Wireless Computing

There is a lot of talk today about the potential of mobile and wireless technology. Somewhere between the hype and the naysaying lies the truth. While you cannot watch a movie on your mobile phone today, many companies are harnessing the power of mobile technology to reap significant rewards. You probably never believed the hype to begin with, but a realistic appraisal of the strengths of mobile technology will likely surprise even a skeptic. And once the limitations are honestly addressed, the real possibilities of mobile technology are more apparent.

The question is not whether mobile and wireless technology can increase worker productivity, but rather how to design and implement the right solution for your organization. The optimal combination of device, network and application design will make or break your mobile implementation. Following are four critical issues that your organization must consider when developing and deploying successful mobile and wireless solutions:

1. Think Mobile -- Not Necessarily Wireless

Don't confuse mobile with wireless. A mobile solution extends enterprise information to workers who do not have access to a desktop computer, while wireless technology is simply one of many methods of data transmission.

  • Leverage an "always available" model. Given that workers need to be productive anywhere, anytime -- even when a wired or wireless network is unavailable -- it is critical to develop your application on an always available model. This architecture leverages local data storage so that workers can access important information off-line and synchronize when convenient or when the network is available. This model increases battery life and application performance, while saving on connection costs.
  • Weigh the costs and benefits of real-time access. Depending on your users' needs for timely data collection and retrieval, continuous wireless connectivity might not be required at all. For example, Jose Cuervo International Inc. in New York wanted to leverage mobile technology to gain more timely competitive information from market researchers visiting sales locations. After analyzing the type of information that would be gathered, the executives decided that a nightly synchronization using a docking station would provide market analysts plenty of time to review the data. By designing a solution that fits their organization's exact needs, Jose Cuervo has saved on connection costs and increased application performance and battery life while enjoying a 30% increase in sales.
  • Don't get caught "waiting for 3G." The truth is the rollout of the much-hyped 3G wireless networks is still years away. Even if it were available today, the same challenges for wireless mobile computing would remain: bandwidth constraints, unreliable coverage, high cost and the presence of numerous competing network standards with varying coverage areas, costs and business viability. Your organization can be successful today by developing always available mobile applications that balance the benefits and limitations of current mobile technology.

2. Match the Device to the Application

A number of mobile hardware vendors offer a range of devices that are suited to different uses. There are laptops, PDAs, bar-code scanners, point-of-sale devices, wearable computers and smart phones available with specific capabilities and varying degrees of network connectivity and water or impact resistance. Buy the right device and you will improve productivity with a low total cost of ownership; buy the wrong device and constant repairs, user frustration and poor ROI could be the result.

  • Choose the right device for the job. For example, delivery drivers for Millstone Coffee, a division of Procter & Gamble, use specialized handhelds to enter relatively simple inventory and sales information, saving two hours per day, per driver. Mobile representatives of Foremost Insurance Group, on the other hand, use the larger screens and memory capacity of laptops to run more sophisticated sales and marketing applications, saving the company $1.2 million in the first year of deployment.
  • Evaluate wireless roaming capabilities. Most mobile devices are designed to support only one wireless networking standard or wireless carrier, and require add-on hardware to do so. This is an important consideration for many companies, especially when field workers such as delivery personnel travel widely, crossing multiple public wireless networks.
  • Stay powered up. Battery life for most mobile devices is barely as long the average workday -- much less if a modem is attached and constantly in use. Look for ways to maximize battery life, such as by not maintaining a continuous connection to a wireless network.

3. Understand Your Goals to Maximize ROI

The decision to create a mobile application for your organization usually comes from a desire to cut costs or increase revenue by eliminating slow, error-prone paper-based methods. Each organization measures success by its own standards, making it essential to map out specific cost savings and productivity goals before beginning development.

  • Measure twice, cut once. An important factor for achieving a healthy ROI is deployment time. Upfront planning will avoid serious problems after deployment. It is also important to select vendors that have a long history of successful, on-time deployments since the project cost increases with every additional day of planning.
  • Get the most out of current investments. In order to preserve your existing investment in IT infrastructure, including servers, databases, legacy systems and even disparate mobile devices, you need a flexible solution that will provide seamless connectivity from back-end systems to your people in the field.

4. Think About the Big Picture

The right mix of technology and industry expertise can help your company to overcome the challenges of mobile and wireless computing, and realize the compelling benefits. Find an experienced vendor that can support you with expertise and flexible technologies, serving your needs before, during and after deployment.

  • Plan for the future. The mobile application you deploy today may not be the same application you will need tomorrow. Because you expect your business to grow and new technologies to emerge, your mobile application should be built on an open platform that can accommodate thousands of simultaneous users and incorporate new technologies and functionality.
  • Security is No. 1. Wireless communications involve the transmission of potentially sensitive information, making security an important concern for organizations. The first step in data security is ensuring that all mobile users connecting to the enterprise server are successfully and correctly authenticated. In the second step, the communication line between the device and the server should be encrypted, and finally, the data located on the device must be protected.
  • Stay in control. For overall IT administration of mobile applications and devices, you can simplify deployment and support, enforce security standards, and save costs, by adopting a centralized management strategy. Leverage automated central software distribution to save your mobile and remote users the time and complication of having to download their own files.

The Bottom Line

While many organizations will start small with pilot applications, the benefits of mobile and wireless applications on worker productivity, customer service and operational efficiency can be significant -- and can scale up dramatically as more workers and applications are mobilized. Whether your plan is to mobilize five users or thousands, the key point is not to let the mobile application revolution pass you by.

Rob Veitch is director of business development at iAnywhere Solutions Inc., a subsidiary of Sybase Inc.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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