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Demand for mobile solutions is at its highest as more and more organisations realise the potential of improved productivity and new ways to interact with customers and partners.
But the sheer volume and variety of devices, operating systems and applications now on the market means choosing the right solution has become something of a science for many companies. At the same time, the financial crisis has underscored the need for thrift.
“A few years ago there were just desktops and notebooks, with only three chassis sizes,” says Matt Beresford, from UK tech distributors Computer2000. “For many resellers the choices now must be bewildering.”
Take smart phones, a recent market that now has no less than six major players, most with proprietary operating systems while each releases a new device every six months.
For years the Blackberry was the undisputed king of enterprise mobility. However newcomers such as the iPhone and HTC, which support Google’s mobile OS Android, are throwing down the gauntlet along with established players such as Nokia, Motorola, Sony Ericsson and a resurgent Palm.
Meanwhile, an unexpected challenger has emerged over the last year or so in the form of the netbook, a stripped-down, lightweight laptop running a slimmed-down OS, usually with 3G and wifi capability.
“The netbook is the biggest thing that has happened in the market in the course of the last 10 years,” Beresford stresses.
Netbooks have been hugely successful in retail markets, with industry analysts IDC predicting that business uptake will soon spike due to lower costs and better integrated communications, for instance for 3G.
IDC reports that around seven million netbooks shipped in Europe, Africa and the Middle East last year.
Sony’s launch in July of its first official netbook, the Vaio W, was seen as a major endorsement of this new product class, which has been a major factor in Acer’s recent gains in the market.
The success of netbooks highlight the importance of the connectivity, as opposed to actual functionality, of devices, which is what the smart phone market is largely about.
Services like cloud computing have given weight to the view that smart phones and the like, with large memory and processing power are often no more effective while being less secure than cheap, stripped-down devices with reliable network access.
Security has been one of the chief obstacles to mobility in the corporate space, but netbooks go a long way towards relieving many of the typical anxieties because they don’t actually store much information.
Further bolstering their appeal in these trying economic times is the markedly lower price of netbooks than traditional notebooks, laptops and even smart phones.
While Sony’s new netbook comes in at just over $US600, this is at the absolute high end of the netbook price scale with competing products available for half that price or less. Further, compatibility with 3G or wifi is now fairly standard with most portable devices on the market now.
Clearly the move towards enterprise mobility is inexorable. However, many IT managers are understandably anxious about staff carrying the company’s sensitive data around in their pockets.
A number of incidents, including the odd British secret service laptop going astray on trains and other embarrassing incidents, have served to illustrate some of the dangers.
A number of technologies are now available that allow products to be locked or even have their data wiped remotely in the event of such mishaps.
“Putting all these applications in the hands of employees is very scary for a lot of organisations,” says Frost and Sullivan’s Vanessa Alvarez.
“It’s critical that enterprises begin to incorporate a more holistic mobile strategy because when you have myriad ad-hoc devices on the network it becomes so much more dangerous to have corporate information on them.”
Applications on the move
Increasingly, mobility is becoming less about the device than the actual applications it can deliver. Support from developers is an increasingly important factor for boosting sales.
According to Tim Renowden from Ovum, the dominant platforms in the mobility space continue to be the Blackberry and devices running Microsoft Windows Mobile.
“RIM’s success is built on providing an end-to-end mobility solution which can be easily integrated with existing IT infrastructure and applications, with a high degree of security and detailed device management policies,” he says.
In recent years Microsoft has determined that the mobile components of its major applications, such as ERP, CRM and others, are developed in parallel with fixed products, making it easer to develop mobile solutions.
The iPhone has of course generated much excitement, certainly among consumers. But while the sheer numbers of iPhones in circulation should provide a solid base for Apple to extend into the enterprise, Renowden views them as lagging behind other technologies.
“Apple has been getting plenty of attention with its iPhone, and has taken significant strides with the latest version of its iPhone OS in terms of the iPhone’s suitability for business users, but in Ovum’s view still lags behind other platforms in security, device management and support for key business applications.”
Many developers are watching closely what happens with new entrant Google, whose Android operating system has been generating a good deal of excitement. However, there remain plenty of creases to be ironed out.
“The current version of Android lacks even some basic business-centric functionality: the platform itself doesn’t support MS Exchange, for example,” Renowden notes.
“However, the flexibility of Android’s licensing model means handset vendors and developers can add features to their own Android devices – for example HTC has included support for Exchange in its Hero handset – so it is possible a manufacturer could build a business-focused Android device with custom support for key business applications.”
Android is also attracting attention for its ability to support clever location-based services.
Nokia was forced to play down rumours in June that it was about to release an Android phone, a move that would have been a slap in the face to long-time software partner Symbian.
Instead, the Finnish phone company explained, it is embracing something called Qt, a software toolkit for developers allowing them to port their applications to any of the major operating systems, including Android. So while Nokia may not be officially endorsing Android, the door is in effect now open.
On the other hand, Nokia’s move last year to acquire the rights to Symbian and make the platform open source may yet see it retain its dominance in the mobile space by attracting larger numbers of developers. Analysts also speculated whether the move would dampen, if not kill, enthusiasm for mobile Linux.
Virtually unrivalled in the early days of the handheld market, Palm has been struggling to claw back market share and respect for many years. The recent launch of the sleek Palm Pre received the thumbs up from investors and analysts, but it faces a steep climb.
“The Pre has received a good initial response in the US, but at this stage Palm is facing an uphill battle to regain market share and developer support from better-established platforms with much greater support,” says Renowden.
Mobile operator O2 has exclusive distribution rights for the Pre, which it says will be available in Europe before Christmas. O2 also has exclusive rights to sell the iPhone in the UK, although that is rumoured to be about to change.
Building the business case
But while the debate continues over the worth of smart phones versus the more spartan netbooks, the real issue is about how companies can apply mobile technology to improve their businesses.
Arguably one of the most disruptive mobile technologies currently in the market is fixed mobile communications (FMC) and unified communications (UC).
In its purest form, UC is the ability to track a person down and communicate with them regardless of what device and network they are using.
FMC is the voice component of UC. Previously portrayed as a mechanism to connect calls from LAN-based wifi networks to cellular, it is increasingly being viewed as connecting cellular with any sort of private network, fixed or wireless.
One of its more exciting applications is mobile VoIP, which is tipped to see exponential growth over the next few years as firms get wise to the potential cost savings, as well as its flexible functionality.
Network vendors such as Cisco and Avaya, as well as traditional PBX players like Ericsson, Siemens, Motorola and others, are in fierce competition in this converged space. Some analysts predict that, as mobile devices become even more pervasive and tariff costs fall, the traditional PBX may become extinct while users will have less use for desktops.
The channel has a greater role to play than ever before in assisting organisations to design and deploy effective, practical and affordable mobile strategies.
According to Matt Poole, founder and managing director of mobile marketing services provider UK Mobile Media, a big part of this is managing customers’ expectations of mobile technology.
“Often customers want to do something more complex than it needs to be. They think mobile is the answer to everything, whereas it is a complimentary technology.”
UK Mobile Media specialises in Bluetooth-based location services for industries as diverse as retail, pharmaceuticals and even the music industry, and according to Poole the area is growing at a rate of knots.
“Bluetooth is going to be biggest growth area for digital media in the next five years,” he claims.
The company’s solutions enable retail companies to broadcast messages to would-be customers who come into range of their services.
Poole says the retail market has typically been slow to adopt new technology, but is now looking quite seriously at emerging sales and marketing applications.
UK Mobile recently conducted research which found that 50% of consumers with Bluetooth-enabled phones or other devices are likely to participate in these programmes. “We see massive opportunity in retail because it has been quite slow to adopt this technology.”
Demand for location-based services is expected to rise significantly over the next few years, as more innovative applications emerge both for sales and marketing as well as enterprise communications.
The integration of these capabilities with the advances being made with FMC/UC and other areas points to interesting times ahead, both for the channel and its customers.
Blue Onboard, a division of UK Mobile Media, has developed a Bluetooth proximity marketing solution designed to communicate with the mobile devices of bus passengers.
Trialling the solution, Hampshire bus company Velvet has installed the technology on all of its buses and routes, allowing messages to be targeted according to time of day, bus route and destination, location as well as external factors such as weather or traffic congestion.
Velvet managing director Phil Stockley says that the company has typically avoided external advertising so as to not conflict with its own brand, and as a result revenue from advertising has only even been quite small. However, this is likely to change with the Blue Onboard system up and running.
“By utilising this kind of technology we can create a significantly greater revenue stream than with traditional bus advertising, and without having an impact on how our buses look,” Stockley says.
In addition to generating further revenue, Stockley says that the Bluetooth solution creates a direct communication channel between it and its customers that is unique in the bus transport industry.
Matthew Poole, founder of Blue Onboard notes that Velvet’s passenger demographics are ideal for this kind of solution. The company runs main commuter routes and several college routes, while carrying shoppers to and from the town centre.
“Unlike the run-of-the-mill proximity marketing where you are simply blasting out ads from a static location, we are able to broadcast campaigns based on the typical passenger demographic at that time and the route the bus is on,” he says.
“The average bus ride is at least 30 minutes, and passengers naturally reach for and play with their mobile phones during the journey.”