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So you want to run third generation (3G) network applications today, not tomorrow, and steal a march on your rivals in these lean and mean economic times? Well you can, even though commercial 3G networks are still two years away from deployment because of technical hitches. There are an increasing number of wireless software integration packages coming onto the market capable of enabling 3G-style business applications to run over second generation (2G) global systems for mobile communications (GSM) networks and general packet radio services (GPRS) networks, which are a mid-way step in generation terms and so are referred to as 2.5G.
"Current wireless software solutions, such as Birdstep's, can eliminate a lot of the complexity involved in rolling out corporate information across multiple wireless devices of any make, both over and between 2G GSM and 2.5G GPRS networks," says Alan Eager, an independent consultant working in the mobile solutions sector, and a key speaker at September's Mobile Commerce World show in London.
GPRS provides many of the benefits of 3G - "always-on" Internet access, higher networking speeds, push technologies - making it a perfect way to test 3G-style services, according to ICL business development manager, Geoff Chaplin.
"Smart companies will use GPRS to develop and test new services and get consumers using their handheld devices - phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and notebooks - to gain familiarity, as well as to start to build revenue streams. As 3G services become available, the increased bandwidth will enrich the services and not fundamentally change them, at least not initially. For example, a consumer may send a still picture to his pals back home while on holiday over GPRS, but eventually might send a video clip with a 3G network," he says. "2.5G is an evolutionary step to 3G, not an alternative."
The key role that GPRS will play in preparing the business world for 3G will be as an enabler in getting users to adopt mobile applications that are actually useful to their organisation, and on a large scale. The first raft of these applications is likely to include those we are all familiar with - productivity-based applications such as e-mail, to-do and calendar functions - predicts PMP Research. These will be followed by sales force automation and customer relationship management tools, providing the mobile workforce with access to real-time information on customers so that they can complete deals and transactions on the spot.
"When this evolution gains momentum, businesses will begin to see that GPRS-enabled mobile applications can give them considerable business advantage," says Miles Powell, director of mobile business at Aspective, which specialises in software providing user-friendly, wireless access to corporate Lotus Domino applications through a variety of GPRS-enabled mobile devices, PDAs, laptop computers and wireless application protocol (Wap) browser phones.
However, Jouko Ahvenianem, a consultant specialising in the mobile Internet and 3G in Cap Gemini Ernst & Young's telecoms, media and networks business practice, warns that users must carefully consider how they use wireless services and packages in their businesses, since it takes time for employees to accept and start to use new processes and services. "Wireless solutions can change the processes and the culture of the company significantly," he says. He suggests rolling out wireless services phase-by-phase now, and then adapting them to GPRS and 3G. These could include:
- Dispatching and field services (fleet management and field sales)
- Telemetry and remote monitoring (video monitoring)
- E-tracking/supply chain (whole logistics chain, mobile workforce and remote inventory control)
- High speed access
- Access to corporate data
- Mobile Internet/Web browsing
- Personal information management (calendar, address book and reminders)
- A unified portal.
There are many business benefits to being an early adopter of 3G-style applications running on GSM and GPRS networks. These include first-mover competitive advantage in your market, cost savings on current wireless networks, more effective use of legacy systems, and the creation of a secure wireless network infrastructure that supports more flexible, adaptive and mobile business processes capable of meeting the expectations of your customers and shareholders.
Users should not let their disappointing experience of Wap GSM technology put them off trying out these applications. "Certain words and phrases, like Wap, the wireless Web and 3G have lost popularity in recent months. They were victims of delays, poor implementation and low customer interest," says Ken Hyers, a senior analyst with high-tech market research firm Cahners In-Stat Group. "However, the long-term outlook for this space is favourable with total 2G and 3G-based combined mobile commerce projected to grow considerably through 2005."
Europe will dominate the 3G-based mobile commerce market, predicts In-Stat. As 3G wireless networks are rolled out, mobile commerce will become a substantial source of revenue for wireless carriers. Furthermore, Europe, by virtue of its size and choice of a single unified 3G wireless standard, will be the largest market for mobile commerce services, closely followed by Japan, whose per-capita consumption of m-commerce services will exceed even that of the Europeans.
While in the recent past the focus was on extending the Internet to any desktop device, today it is about making enterprise information systems available to mobile workers and customers and maximising investment from data assets. Reports from US research firm IDC speculate that those who invest in effective wireless technologies now could see the productivity of their mobile workers increase by up to 30% by 2004, while those slower on the uptake can expect to see the productivity of their mobile knowledge workers decrease by 20% in the same timescale.
In Western Europe the number of remote and mobile users will swell from 8 million today to 27 million by 2004 predicts IDC. The supporting equipment will be substantial, with 70% of all new cell phones and 40% of PDAs able to use some speed of GPRS technology by that date, says research firm the Gartner Group, while about 13 million Europeans will be using GPRS by 2003, according to analysts at the Yankee Group. Where today only 5% of companies in the world are running mobile applications, in four to five years' time this will grow to between 50% and 70%, according to analysts at the Meta Group. By 2005, IDC predicts that 60% of all e-commerce transactions will be made through wireless mobile devices.
Clearly, many users are poised to exploit 3G wireless technologies on a large scale. Users willing to run small, inexpensive three-month trials of 3G-style business applications on GSM or GPRS could have a headstart on the rest of the pack. Such trials would be ideally suited to those companies that sell or service products and employ many mobile workers countrywide, for example utilities, pharmaceutical firms and those with extensive supply chains.
A major benefit of GSM and GPRS networks is that they have always-on capability but are charged by the byte, not by the second, so you don't have to pay through the nose for slow downloads. This means that a ruggedised smart phone, PDA or handheld device - whichever best suits the worker - can be permanently connected to the company's central information systems to receive updated information cheaply, automatically and in real-time without the end-user having to dial in or travel back to the office to synchronise data at the end of the day. "One large utility claims that 50% of its 1,000 field-based engineers waste up to two hours travelling daily to and from the office just to update data," says Eager. "That doesn't just represent wasted working hours but also vehicle and fuel expenses."
The intelligent handheld devices also save power by switching to hibernation mode when not in use and can work offline in areas where the signal is weak so workers can continue to access applications anytime and anywhere.
The devices are also user-friendly with rich interfaces and few screens to navigate to gain fast and easy access to targeted information. In addition, all transactions are secured by rigorous authentication systems, while central management also has the ability to switch off the device at source.
All of these can dramatically streamline customer transaction cycles, improve staff productivity and knowledge, and boost customer service.
Recent research by communication software specialist Comverse shows a strong desire among businesses to access multimedia services, such as picture and video messaging, over 2.5G as long as image quality is good and there are fast transmission speeds. Many want to create their own pictures in addition to downloading or forwarding content, highlighting the potential importance of upcoming mobile devices with integrated cameras. Business respondents also want intuitive user-friendly interfaces such as voice recognition, touch screen, and keypads to suit different occasions.
Zeev Bregman, chief executive officer of Comverse, says, "The results of our multimedia messaging survey clearly indicate that subscribers are expecting to replicate the same short message service experience they are used to, and have their messages be transparently pushed to their handsets.
"In addition, they're expecting to have full control over the terminal their multimedia messages will be sent to, be it a PC, a mobile handset or alternative devices such as digital TV."
Clearly, the future is mobile technology whatever generation of network it runs on, and it seems there has never been a better time to experiment with it. If you don't, you can bet your rivals will.
Applications for the mobile Internet
- Person to person
- Person to machine
- Machine to person
Intelligent home monitoring
Entertainment services (including streaming)
- Machine to machine
Remote telemetry (vendor/ticket machine)
Case study: Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein banks on mobility platform
When Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein (DrKW), one of the Europe's top investment banks with more than 8,000 employees in 31 offices worldwide, wanted to give its staff and global customers access to a comprehensive suite of secure banking services via a personal financial portal using wireless networks and mobile services, it implemented the Macalla Mobility Platform from Dublin-based Macalla Software.
Mobility is a software platform for sourcing and delivering transactional and payment services. It provides multi-device, channel and protocol support, including support for PDAs, pocket PCs, short message service, Wap phones, i-Mode phones, GPRS and 3G devices, pagers, PC browsers and interactive digital TV set-top boxes. It is also compatible with Macalla's recently-launched adaptive data streaming technology, Mobility Livestream, capable of delivering live streaming data such as stock quotes and charts to mobile end-users over 2G, 2.5G and 3G networks.
The deployment of Mobility has enabled the investment house to rapidly deploy mobile banking and mobile broking applications that integrate seamlessly with its existing systems.
"Clients want anywhere, anytime computing and they want it cheap," says Al-Noor Ramji, global chief information officer at DrKW. "The Mobility Platform enables our clients and staff to receive real-time market data, undertake transactions, back-office checks and credit checks from wherever they are - in a plane or on a train. It has revolutionised the way that our investment banking services operate."