By Brian Albright, Field Technologies magazine
More SMBs are deploying mobile business solutions, but they still face resource challenges.
A number of factors are driving increased usage of mobile technology within SMBs: lower device costs, increased wireless coverage, and employees bringing their own devices to work, just to name a few. When research firm SMB Group surveyed the market for a recent “Small and Medium Businesses Mobile Solutions Study,” it found that plans to deploy new mobile solutions among SMBs were nearly triple current use. “Regardless of company size, we found that use of mobile devices was almost universal,” says Laurie McCabe, analyst and cofounder of SMB Group. “That doesn’t mean they’re equipping everyone in the company with a mobile device, but at least some employees have mobile devices that the company is paying for.”
Service delivery also drives adoption. “More SMBs are adopting mobile technology to stay competitive,” says Bradley Wall, director of mobility sales at Datalogic. “In recent years, SMBs could get by without using mobile devices since having access to real-time information wasn’t as critical as it is today.” That’s no longer the case. As mobile computers become accessible for more applications, the performance bar is being raised. “As a result, SMBs are increasingly adopting bar code-based mobile solutions and seeing dramatic business results tied to faster workflow, improved asset management, and tighter coordination of data, operations, and back end systems,” says Douglas Lloyd, sales and business development at Janam Technologies.
Cost was once an obstacle for smaller firms that wanted to take advantage of mobile technology, but the growth of consumer mobile devices has driven down prices and given smaller companies access to an array of options. “What has drastically changed in mobile is that a software solution that runs on an iPad or a smartphone that’s based in the cloud costs a small business and an enterprise the same for each license, just like cloud PC software,” says Dave Yarnold, CEO of ServiceMax. “Mobile business software is no longer just for the companies that can hire an expensive implementation team.”
Unique Mobile Deployment Challenges For SMBs
SMBs face some unique challenges when it comes to mobile deployments that should be kept top of mind to ensure a successful rollout. For instance, often these companies don’t have the luxury of running a pilot program because they either don’t have the time or resources to run the new solution in parallel with existing processes, or they can’t spare the staff or time to conduct the testing, and their internal IT resources are limited. “They usually don’t have a dedicated IT person, and if they wanted to create a role like that, they would have to compete with larger companies for those staff members,” McCabe says. “They frequently rely on third-party consultants and systems integrators, but the capabilities of those companies can be all over the map.”
Off-the-shelf software solutions typically need some modification to work with small deployments. Conversely, those solutions that fit well with smaller firms sometimes aren’t easily scalable when expanding. If they have the option, smaller companies may be well advised to seek some outside help. “It is important for SMBs to find and work with a VAR that understands their business, can help assess needs, identify the best solution, and support the SMB’s growth and future needs,” Lloyd says.
While costs have fallen, SMBs may require financing to deploy these solutions — financing that has been difficult to come by the past few years. “Larger companies have multiple financing options available to them, which may not be available to the SMB, so the total cost of ownership could end up being higher for the SMB, due to constrained options,” Wall says. Fortunately, smaller firms can sometimes work with VARs or vendors to establish alternate financing methods.
Cost of voice and data services remains high for smaller companies, too. According to SMB Group’s survey, 40% of very small businesses said these costs were the top barrier to broadening mobile solution use. “The costs really add up,” McCabe says. “And unlike a larger company, where they might have more opportunities to get a discounted plan based on volume, there are fewer options like that available for smaller companies.”
SMBs may restrict their own mobile horizons by limiting themselves to simple applications deployed on existing smartphones. There are multiple opportunities in an organization to improve efficiency through mobility. “Mobility is more than staying in touch with remote workers. It’s about improving productivity throughout the business,” Lloyd says. “To leverage the efficiencyboosting power of mobile technologies, SMBs must identify operational processes that can be automated, simplified, or extended to the point of activity. The most successful SMBs will deploy data capture and wireless technologies at those points, wherever core business activities can be done better, faster, and more accurately.”
Emerging Mobile Technology Offers Options
Mobile technology continues to evolve, to the benefit of SMBs. Flexible applications are available from a number of vendors, often optimized for a variety of device types. “There are more and more mobile-friendly applications, and that makes deployment easier,” McCabe says. “The devices themselves have also gotten nicer, and the tablets have really sparked an interest among SMBs.”
There are also more opportunities to leverage social media capabilities with new mobile devices, even for lineof- business applications like field service. “Social collaboration wasn’t possible before the emergence of mobile devices, and collaboration tools and the demand for these capabilities will only grow,” Yarnold says. “FaceTime on the iPad and Salesforce Chatter, for example, are powerful tools for technicians, allowing them to broadcast a customer problem from the field back to the entire company in the main office in real time.”
Cloud computing platforms and hosted software also have lowered the cost of entry when it comes to enterprise software solutions. The cloud gives smaller companies access to the same type of software that only large companies could previously afford. Cloud solutions offer a ready-made infrastructure that meets the cost requirements of SMBs and can help reduce the strain on already limited (or nonexistent) IT resources.
“In my opinion, the smaller companies are more comfortable with cloud solutions than their larger counterparts, mainly because the scope and size of their deployed solutions are much smaller, making them easier to manage,” Wall says. “Larger companies may not be willing to take the risk with their data. Larger companies also tend to have the resources to store their data internally, where the smaller companies don’t.”
Smaller companies also seem more open to newer mobile platforms. Windows is still the standard because so many business applications are written for that platform, but there is a risk in that approach, particularly for applications where traditional rugged devices (which are predominantly Windows machines) are required. “As Android’s potential business value continues to be a topic of discussion, there is no escaping the fact that developers are restricted by its architecture, its security issues are real, and elements that impact total cost of ownership overwhelmingly support traditional rugged mobile solutions,” Lloyd says.
That said, for many small firms, “bring your own device” has become standard, so their mobile applications have to support a number of different mobile devices, including employees’ personal phones. That means device management will be increasingly important. “I have a feeling that in 2012, device management is going to be a bigger issue because more of these devices are being used in businesses, and that could put a strain on an SMB’s IT capabilities,” McCabe says. With line-of-business applications deployed across a diverse range of devices, SMBs will need a way to manage provisioning, version upgrades, and OS compatibility.
SMBs have to take a more organized approach to their mobile deployments, develop device-support guidelines, and deploy device-management technology. This will be even more important as many companies ditch their desktop platforms altogether. “Mobile doesn’t have to just be an add-on to a bigger software solution anymore,” Yarnold says. “Mobile has become a platform unto its own; companies can skip the PC and go straight to mobile. Small businesses often don’t need a robust and expensive PC program. They want a complete and intuitive mobile solution.”