Cellular providers would like us to believe that we can have perfect reception anywhere we travel. But, anyone who's ever dropped an important call on a cell phone knows that this is more myth than reality. Transmitting data over a WWAN (wireless wide area network) leaves even more to be desired. Not only is coverage nonexistent in some areas, but most connections can boast roughly 11 Mbps (megabits per second) transfer speeds. These factors are legitimate obstacles that must be addressed by enterprises that want to go wireless.
Many Fortune 1000 companies are waiting for WWAN coverage and bandwidth to increase before rolling out enterprise-wide implementations. But, these obstacles aren't stopping some companies - especially small- to medium-sized enterprises - from capitalizing on what wireless mobile computing has to offer now. Field service and field force automation applications in particular are being rolled out largely by enterprises in the $100 million to $1 billion revenue range. So, why are these companies treading where their larger counterparts dare not?
The Right Questions Yield Mobile Computing Answers
Smaller companies are questioning how mission-critical it is to have real-time access to data and how necessary it is to wirelessly transmit large files. After taking a hard look at these criteria, many companies realize that it's not so much always-available wireless connectivity that provides the real benefit of mobile computing as it is just being mobile. "We've discovered that the majority of companies with wireless mobile computing installations operate in a disconnected mode 90% of the time," says Jeff Eiberger, CEO of Equential Technologies (Wichita, KA), a mobile computing solutions provider. "Typically these companies find that it is much cheaper to connect three to four times a day to upload and download data versus updating data in real time every time the opportunity arises."
Smaller companies also have a greater need for the efficiencies that wireless mobile computing can provide. "Field workers from smaller enterprises are often required to wear multiple hats during the workday," says Greg Cicio, VP of strategic planning and corporate development for Astea (Horsham, PA), an equipment-centric customer relationship management (CRM) provider. "For instance, a salesperson may also be the order taker, the delivery person, and the customer service representative." Trying to successfully fulfill all these roles at once leads enterprises to adopt the latest available technology to assist with multitasking. Mobile computing addresses this need by allowing workers to automate data capture and to navigate through electronic records, as opposed to sorting through stacks of paper.
A third component driving the mid-market's adoption of wireless mobile computing is the affordability of wireless handheld devices. "Two to three years ago enterprises were paying $2,000 to $3,000 for handheld devices," recalls Janet Boudris, CEO of Broadbeam (Princeton, NJ), a wireless data software platform provider. "Nowadays, there are a wide variety of devices available on the market for about $150, and even the more sophisticated devices are selling for about $1,000."
Know Thy Customers
One tier 1 enterprise that serves as a role model for smaller enterprises to follow is frozen foods distributor Schwan's. Schwan's uses wirelessly-enabled handheld devices as an integral part of its daily activities. And, as many small- to medium-sized enterprises are discovering, Schwan's solution doesn't need constant wireless connectivity to be successful. "Like many smaller companies, the Schwan's driver is a salesperson, a delivery person, and a bill collector all in one," says Eiberger. "Schwan's delivery person is in a perfect position to build relationships with customers."
With the aid of wireless mobile computing, the Schwan's driver can enter a customer's order into a handheld device and send the order to headquarters wirelessly when a wireless signal is available. Additionally, the Schwan's driver can check out a customer's purchase history and get feedback on the customer's previous food choices. The driver may find that the customer enjoyed previously ordered items, but forgot what the names of all the food items were. The driver can access that information from a CRM database, and he can reorder the items for the customer. If the customer didn't like the last order, the driver can capture the reasons for the customer's dissatisfaction and provide the company with valuable information about particular products.
Additionally, if the customer inquires about a food item that is not available in the driver's truck, the driver can access an inventory database and verify that the product is in stock and when it can be delivered. Finally, before the driver leaves, he can close out a sale by recording the customer's signature electronically and then printing out an invoice via a mobile printer. None of the aforementioned tasks requires perfect wireless coverage. In fact, even if a field worker needed to process a credit card payment on the spot, he could ask to use the customer's telephone.
Problem-Solve And Up-Sell In The Same Visit
Another example of how enterprises are benefiting from wireless mobile computing is with their field technicians. Using handheld devices equipped with bar code readers, field technicians get access to diagnostic menus, complete with drawings, tips, and parts information. Because the information is electronic, it is less cumbersome than a large repair manual and much quicker to search for repair answers. "After fixing an appliance, the repairperson can offer the customer an extended warranty on the appliance or on other appliances the customer owns," says Janet Boudris. "Contrast this scenario with a customer who gets a call during dinner, two days after the repairperson visited the house, and is read a script about the value of extended warranties." Mobile computing can help close the deal before the narrow window of opportunity is shut.
One already available technology that enables data synchronization while using minimal bandwidth is syncML. "syncML is an open industry standard that uses XML (extensible markup language) to synchronize data with any device," says Scott Stingley, alliance manager for Extended Systems (Boise, ID), a mobile infrastructure software provider. "SyncML can deal with special challenges of wireless synchronization like relatively low reliability of the connection and high network latency. Additionally, SyncML enables synchronization over fixed networks, infrared, cable, or Bluetooth."
Still Waiting For Faster, More Consistent Coverage?
Okay, so we've seen that enterprises can benefit right now in spite of temporary drawbacks with wireless bandwidth and connectivity. But, let's also be realistic about the benefits that increased bandwidth and better wireless coverage would offer. For example, if an appliance repair person is at a home fixing a washer, he may need access to a troubleshooting manual. If the customer's particular model is not stored on the repairperson's handheld, he may be out of luck. Within the next few years, however, advances in wireless technology will enable the repairperson to wirelessly access a content management repository and download an entire manual, complete with troubleshooting tips and detailed diagrams, in just a few minutes.