Mobile technology has reached a inflection point, according to Glenn Morgan, head of service transformation at British Airways.
He should know. Each year, BA travels 33 million miles around the world, and nine out of 10 flights carry more mobile devices than passengers.
The airline sees a huge potential for mobile devices, not only to provide better services to passengers, but as an essential tool for airline workers.
BA made its first foray into mobile technology in 2001, when it introduced mobile phone check-in.
But it is the arrival of smartphones that has really opened up new possibilities for the technology, Morgan told IT leaders at Computer Weekly’s 500 Club.
Mobile services for passengers and staff
The airline is issuing its airport staff with consumer devices that allow them to take payments or scan boarding passes in an airport – something that has not been easy to do until now.
“Airlines take a lot of money, but we are not really very good at taking money inside the airport. That is primarily because we are tenants, we have to share some of the technologies,” said Morgan.
Check-in staff can now use a mobile device which combines an iPhone attached to a Chip and PIN card reader to take payments on the move.
Each year, BA travels 33 million miles around the world, and nine out of 10 flights carry more mobile devices than passengers
The technology has another advantage too. Using Chip and PIN allows BA to move the liability for fraud back to the banks, rather than carry the liability itself.
Because the devices use 3G for communication, they are not reliant on airport Wi-Fi systems. BA uses multiple carriers, so if coverage from one network fails, the device can move to an alternative network.
Morgan is looking at other potential applications for mobile devices that could benefit staff and passengers.
Currently, pilots are required to carry 30 pounds of manuals with them on every flight. These could be digitised and stored on a tablet. “We can make a business case purely on weight and fuel,” Morgan told the meeting.
BA has worked with a computer games company to produce a mobile app that allows passengers to compare different types of seat in the aircraft. They can "fly through” a 3D simulation of the aircraft interior, rotate the picture and check the leg room.
“You can see your seat, see the dynamics, see what sort of room you will have and what the difference is between a club seat with a flat bed and an economy plus seat,” he said.
Airlines have always struggled to explain to passengers the benefits of different seat classes, so apps such as this could make a huge difference, he said.
Planning for future technology advances
In the future, Morgan envisages aircraft engineers using similar 3D models to view engineering diagrams.
Ultimately, he said handheld devices will be replaced by intelligent goggles that will allow aircraft engineers to keep both hands free.
“In our situation, on the ramp, it’s a disadvantage having something in your hand, and technology like Google glass will come into play. It's only a matter of time.” he said.
As digital technology develops, mobile workers will not be limited to interacting with the 4in screen of a mobile phone or the 9in screen of a tablet.
Organisations need to start thinking about screen sizes that could extend from 1in for a screen on a sensor, to an interactive screen the size of a wall.
Tesco, for example, is trialling interactive screens at Gatwick airport that allow customers to point to images of the products they want to buy on virtual shelves.
“Your mobile workforce could be interacting with any surface. You might have people go up to clear walls and use that to interact with,” he said.
In future, businesses will make more use of other senses, apart from sight, to allow employees to interact.
The iPhone, for example, contains 19 built-in sensors that could be used to help employees interact, and there are 30 further sensors in the SIM card network.
Companies should also think about how they can use the second screen phenomena – the tendency for people to sit in front of their television with a tablet or a mobile in their hands, says Morgan.
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In-flight mobile services
BA is looking at ways to provide in-flight mobile services to passengers.
Under current rules, mobile devices have to be turned off below a height of 10,000ft, to minimise the risk of radio frequency emissions interfering with aircraft systems.
However, a major study is underway by the US Federal Aviation Administration, which could lead to wider use of mobile devices on passenger flights.
“It is definitely changing,” said Morgan. BA already provides mobile phone services on flights from London’s City Airport to New York.
Mobile phone services are common on US flights, but US planes have the advantage of flying over land masses, where ground-based mobile phone connections are available.
“There is not much land surrounding the island that we fly out from. There is quite a lot of sea. So we have to point upwards. And satellite gives an added dimension of complexity,” said Morgan.
BA for example, records a huge amount of personal information about its travellers, including who they are travelling with – information that people may want to keep private.
Technology can be helpful in this area. For example, BA geofences some of its data, so it can only be accessed by staff from a mobile device when they are in a particular area.
But most security issues can be solved by having adult conversations with the users, said Morgan. He suggested IT teams should identify the 100 biggest users of sensitive information within their organisations, and go and talk to them.
“Have a conversation with them. Sit down, take them for a coffee. Get them mentored with one of your graduates. Give them the right brief,” he said.
You have to invest in all the security technologies, he said, but some of the biggest security wins come from talking to people who are just trying to get their job done, and may not be aware of the risks.
Ovum: Mobile working is the future
Employees will use their mobile devices at work whether you allow them to our not.
Ovum research among top FTSE companies in the UK revealed that nearly 60% of employees use their own devices at work. And 80% of those are using their own devices unofficially, without following any guidance or policies from their employers.
“I am not hearing bulletins saying companies are going bust left, right and centre because of misappropriated information,” he said.
Digital rights management (DRM) technologies are already available that allow people to read documents remotely without having the right to print them or copy their contents.
Ovum, for example, regularly uses DRM to share the contents of reports and spreadsheets.
The end of the desktop
Video interview: Richard Edwards
For Edwards, the locked-down desktop has had its day, as mobile technology and cloud services open up new possibilities for the mobile worker.
Bupa nurses, for example, are now using electronic pens and paper to record assessments on patients. The data is transmitted back to Bupa as it is written down.
And an Ovum client responsible for clearing snow from hospitals and supermarket car parks in winter is testing mobile devices for its snow-clearers. “They have tried them all, and they have all failed spectacularly – dropping out of cabs, batteries failing, and not really being the best thing for the brute of a guy who was trying to thump the touchscreen wearing woolly mittens,” he said.
Now the company is using electronic pen and paper, and cannot see itself going back to the old-fashioned notebook and pen.
Overcoming connectivity issues
Connectivity can still be a problem, Edwards told the meeting. Travelling down to London from York to the meeting, Edwards had to alternate between the on-train Wi-Fi and a mobile wireless hotspot on his phone to maintain an internet connection. Even then there were gaps in the coverage.
Satellite technology could be an answer, though there are still latency issues to deal with. Satellites in low earth orbit could provide coverage to areas of the world without good internet access, he said.
“That kind of satellite technology may be the next big leap forward for many of us. Perhaps by the end of the decade we will not be scratching our heads any more,” said Edwards.
In the meantime, he said businesses should not be afraid to experiment, and to discard technologies if they don’t take off.
“Consumerisation means that the real winners are where you have mass adoption – it drives the price down and you get that viral adoption,” said Edwards.
This was first published in October 2012