Mobile apps will boost productivity

With mobile e-mail access now widely adopted, the challenge has moved on to providing seamless line of business applications to workers on the move

Cheap, ubiquitous and reliable access to mobile communications is changing the way businesses operate. The first mobile phones were expensive, heavy and offered only poor coverage in buildings and outside cities they were more executive toys than real business tools.

But over the past decade, the mobile phone industry has undergone nothing short of a revolution. The move to second-generation digital networks turned a gadget for the few into a communications tool for the many, and now 93% of Britons have a mobile device, according to research firm Analysys.

But for businesses at least, the mobile world is moving into its second, and arguably even more revolutionary, phase.

The first and second generation of mobile devices were strongly focused on voice, with only a small percentage of businesses making use of text messaging and an even smaller number trying the first generation of mobile data cards to connect laptops to the internet or to corporate networks.

But while industry observers remain uncertain about the value of 3G and 4G services such as video calling to the consumer, there is no question that the latest generation of data networks allow both commercial companies and public sector organisations to make real changes to business processes by incorporating mobility.

Cheaper and more flexible mobile devices, faster data connections - especially over 3G networks - and the falling cost of data transmission, particularly for larger organisations, are all helping to turn mobile devices into mainstream business tools.

These factors are also bringing significant changes to the way CIOs approach mobile devices, and the types of applications that they, and employees, expect to run on them.

The first application to drive large-scale adoption of mobile data was e-mail. Research In Motion's Blackberry has gained a loyal user base due to its ease of use and reliability.

Several large organisations have attributed significant returns on investment to the deployment of mobile e-mail alone. Research from market research firm Ipsos Reid, commissioned by RIM, suggests that a Blackberry-equipped employee can save as many as 188 working hours a year.

However, the Blackberry remains a relatively expensive niche product, so much so that the device itself has become something of an executive status symbol. Alternatives, especially Microsoft Exchange's in-built push e-mail technology, is lowering the cost base of mobile e-mail access.

But it is difficult to build a solid business case for a mobile enterprise strategy on the basis of e-mail access alone.

"These cases are always very difficult to prove," says Lee Ayling, senior manager at professional-services firm Deloitte. "It is highly subjective and there are a lot of tenuous statistics used to prove the case."

And even RIM acknowledges that it is not e-mail, but line of business applications, that will drive the next level of take-up for mobile data in the enterprise.

Last autumn, the company released server technology for mobile data system applications, allowing organisations to give mobile workers access to back-office technology without having to deploy mobile e-mail.

Although mobile e-mail is valuable, companies will have plenty of staff who spend most of their working day using a small number of very specific business tools, rather than general office applications, e-mail or web browsing.

Applications that analysts see as critical drivers for enterprise mobility include field service and field sales automation, as well as access to enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management systems.

In the public sector, local authorities and government departments are increasingly looking to provide mobile access to systems designed to support social workers, housing officers and even environmental health inspectors in their day-to-day duties. Mobile access to such applications can dramatically reduce - or in some cases completely eliminate - trips to the office purely to enter data into a back-office system.

"Mobile applications that are very successful include those that support service-based roles or inspection processes, such as field engineering, sales forces or health visitors," says Nick Jones, vice president and distinguished analyst at analyst firm Gartner.

"These have the clearest return on investment. Two or three years ago it was possible to carry out these projects, but there was a bigger pain threshold. Security on Windows Mobile, for example, is now good enough to get many applications up and running."

Drive Assist is a Tamworth-based company that provides temporary replacement cars to people who have been involved in road accidents. The company, which has an annual turnover of £150m, was processing 120,000 paper forms a month. It has now moved to a system based on Windows smartphones on the Vodafone network, running specialist software from field mobility systems supplier TBS.

According to Bob Monk, project manager at Drive Assist, half of all staff and the whole of the sales force in the field now have smartphones.

"From a business perspective, productivity doubled almost immediately," says Monk. "This has enabled us to grow the business by 65% since we launched the system two years ago, but we have only had to increase our workforce by 10%. That is a result of the increase in efficiency and productivity levels from the mobile application."

Monk estimates that greater efficiency allows Drive Assist to make 15% more use of its vehicle fleet, saving the equivalent of £20m a year in working capital.

This is probably at the higher end of possible savings, although smaller companies are also reporting significant returns on investment from deploying mobile field-force applications.

Nor are line of business applications the only ones that can benefit from mobile access. Network operator Vodafone is seeing growing interest from its customers in mobile access to support applications such as human resources packages, portals and collaboration software.

"Companies have invested a lot in their internal infrastructure, and they do not want their remote workforce to be unable to use it," says Alex Windle, head of e-mail and applications at Vodafone UK.

"E-mail was the first horizontal application the challenge is to augment it with other applications on top."

Introducing mobility to business applications does present a number of challenges, however, including technical and practical hurdles.

Developments such as the ability to create mobile applications in environments such as Microsoft's .net have made it easier for organisations to develop their own software. However, analysts warn that the mobile elements of many of the mainstream enterprise suites still lack critical features.

None of the major ERP companies offer a comprehensive mobile system that businesses would choose, says Jones.

"Microsoft has the tools, but does not have a library of phone models for developers to tap into. And most corporations do not want to start writing Symbian application programming interfaces.

"If you look at the companies that have mobilised applications such as SAP or Siebel, they have done so though a multi-channel access gateway such as Dexterra or Antenna," says Jones.

Such software will be essential for bridging the gap between core business applications and mobile devices for some time, even as middleware developers try to add mobility into their offerings.

However, even if the technology is made to work smoothly, cultural issues can also stand in the way. Some organisations have found resistance to technologies that track employees' locations, especially among blue-collar workers.

Other organisations found that applications were simply too complex or failed to work with the constraints of the mobile devices, so employees simply ignored the technology.

"It can be hard to persuade some user groups," says Richard Hall, UK CTO at IT consultancy Avanade. "The knowledge warriors on the road have a high appetite for facilities that are as good as, if not better, than what they have in the office.

"Others, such as sales forces, can see the benefits of mobile access to applications, but do not want to carry a lot of technology to access them."

To succeed, field-based applications have to be reliable, as well as being easy and quick to use.

The price of data connections is less of an issue - at least for medium and larger organisations. "Pricing has become dramatically better with fixed-rate, large-capacity deals and affordable Wi-Fi," says Hall.

"Fixed-rate or large-megabyte-capacity deals have removed a lot of the fears about access costs."

International data roaming tariffs remain high and are unpopular with consumers and small-business users, but in large vertical deployments most users are "in country" most of the time, and are unlikely to run up large roaming bills.

One of the ways to overcome this is data compression, as used on the Blackberry. This means even executives who travel frequently should not run up enormous bills.

Web access - whether it is used to view the corporate portal or to download music - is more of an issue. There, IT directors will need to rely on account monitoring and end-user education to control costs and prevent abuse.

Mobile security: the balancing act >>

Get on the right mobile OS track >> 

Research in Motion: Blackberry >>

Microsoft Windows mobile >>

Comment on this article: [email protected]

Read more on Mobile hardware