Magazine Article | July 1, 2002

Mobile Enterprise Enablement (With Less Hype, More ROI)

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Too many mobile implementations have fallen short of their early promise, but wireless vendors say now that the hype is waning, enterprises are realizing ROI from practical solutions.

Integrated Solutions, July 2002

Wireless software and hardware vendors admit that wireless applications may have been over-hyped. Part of the problem was that the solutions themselves weren't optimized for the real world. As the industry addresses issues like network availability, hardware limitations, and software shortcomings, these vendors believe enterprises will find it easier to realize increased efficiencies and significant ROI from mobile enterprise enablement.

Take A Realistic View Of Wireless Access
A solution that relies on an uninterrupted wireless data connection may not be realistic for many end users based on both availability and cost. There's no question significant improvements have been made regarding uptime for wireless data carriers, and ongoing infrastructure investments and the looming availability of 3G networks promise of continued enhancements. Nevertheless, is 100% availability a realistic expectation?

"You can't presume that you can build an application on a wireless connection that's always available," says George Bayz, president and CEO of Thinque Systems (Universal City, CA). "The guy in a warehouse is often lucky if he can get his cell phone to work, let alone connect via a PDA [personal digital assistant] with a 14.4 modem. It's even worse for the mobile worker who is not only inside buildings, but also has to worry about geography and traveling to areas that don't have coverage." Bayz points out that not only is universal, constant uptime unrealistic, it's often expensive as well.

Bayz says that many users can get by with just-in-time wireless deployments. For example, one Thinque customer delivers beverages to various outlets. It isn't mission critical that mobile workers know the exact warehouse inventory in real time. The company cuts costs by advising workers to sign on three or four times throughout the day to synchronize the local database on the mobile computer with the enterprise database. Even less critical information, such as the name of a new outlet manager, is batch collected and synchronized in the evenings.

A hybrid solution that includes real time and just-in-time can be developed to meet specific customer needs as well. Bayz gives the example of an inspector who uses a mobile device to record safety facts about a site without being connected in real time. With a robust application and a database on the unit, a certain combination of safety facts could generate an exception report that connects the worker in real time and reports the incident to the appropriate authorities.

Store and forward functions are other ways that users can minimize the effects of a lost wireless data collection, says Simon Backer, senior VP of wireless services for MDSI (Richmond, BC). "Much of what was attempted early on was with a wireless micro-browser," notes Backer. "That works well for a demo, but when you try to use it for mission-critical processes, you run into issues. For one thing, wireless connectivity is inherently unreliable. A data application with a simple micro-browser shows no indication of coverage." Middleware can be used to address the problem of intermittent signals by saving the information and then forwarding it when the connection is resumed. A time-stamp function can show when the data was saved and sent. Backer believes there will be a need for this kind of solution even when 3G networks are available. "Some of what's written about 3G suggests that it will be a panacea," says Backer. "But it will still be wireless, and it will still be intermittent."

Diverse Hardware Meets Needs Of Diverse Users
For many remote workers, the right hardware is also important to make sure work gets done and it gets done effectively. Ruggedized computers meet specific needs of mobile field service workers who work in harsh or dangerous environments, but more workers recognize the need to protect a device that carries mission-critical data. "We're seeing a growing demand for more semi-ruggedized computers as well," says Rance Poehler, president of Panasonic Computer Solutions Company (Secaucus, NJ). "As users load more applications, there's more concern about uptime, especially for people like sales reps who live and die on their notebooks." Poehler advises that mobile units of all kinds should include integrated antennas and PC cards in order to stand up to any kind of field work.

For other workers, the size of a notebook is prohibitive to its use, and leaving the unit in the car doesn't allow them to realize the advantages of wireless enablement. In some cases, workers have begun to use small wearable wireless devices that weigh about a pound. Poehler cites the example of a service technician who must climb a utility pole. He can enter data in the wearable device, which can be connected via WLAN (wireless LAN) to a mobile computer in a vehicle up to 300 feet away, depending on geography. The mobile computer can be connected to the enterprise via a wireless carrier.

Greg Cicio, VP of strategic planning for Astea International (Horsham, PA), points out that smaller units may have better user acceptance and offer much more than the ability to push data. "Traditionally, in sales force automation, the standard has been a laptop," observes Cicio. "Look how much more value they can get by simply opening a PocketPC to access pricing rules, manage time, and view the parts inventory?" Applications optimized for the small form factor allow for point-and-click functionality, eliminating the need to complete time-consuming data entry. Cicio points out that allowing users to choose options on a form also eliminates the need to enforce data entry rules which, if violated, result in dirty data. Point and click is also preferable to "fat fingering" a keyboard.

Software: Where The Real Work Gets Done
Even a great wireless carrier and the best hardware can't compensate for software that isn't up to the task. "Too many early applications didn't really understand what it means to do a true enterprise application," says Bayz. "Most were based on grabbing corporate data from a database and reformatting it to display in the wireless form factor. What was missing was workflow and how to use the data." In order to cost justify a wireless solution, remote workers must be able to do something with corporate information and use it to make intelligent decisions.

More wireless applications are being developed, but users have to be certain that they aren't just the desktop version rewritten for the mobile worker. "Most enterprise applications are still written with a LAN in mind," says Backer. "So they assume a 17-inch or 19-inch monitor and a large bandwidth pipe at low cost. If you have to send 10 messages back and forth to sign on at your desktop, who cares? If you're accessing software through a wireless carrier, you sure will."

Perhaps the most important aspect of a software installation is the ability to integrate with existing back-end processes. "Many look at mobile applications as what they see on the screen, but it's really about the workflow and integration capabilities," contends Bayz. "Assuming that the back end is robust enough to be connected all the time may be a big mistake. Is your ERP [enterprise resource planning] system even capable of assimilating data in real time? That's not always the case."

"A lot of IP [Internet Protocol] applications already work well in a wireless environment," states Poehler. "Siebel and others in the enterprise software market are providing wireless 'hooks' to enable the integration." Poehler feels that the need to stay competitive will encourage more software providers to support the mobile worker effectively. As this trend develops, it will make the integration process easier for the IT staff that has to oversee a wireless rollout.

If your enterprise is still evaluating a mobile solution or has been disillusioned with one in the past, this may be the time to take another look. "With bigger pipes, more speed, better coverage, and lower costs, end users are going to begin realizing ROI over this year or next," predicts Poehler. "Many already are."