Mobile working: only the quick will survive

WAP and Bluetooth claim to create viable mobile solutions. Proper planning, ingenious service provision and outsourced support is...

WAP and Bluetooth claim to create viable mobile solutions. Proper planning, ingenious service provision and outsourced support is really the only answer

Implementation

There are many types of mobile worker in today's commercial world. Mobile workers range from information receivers, such as delivery people receiving addresses from a central office, to information creators, such as architects submitting plans from remote locations. Each type of information user has different needs and requirements; fundamentally, though, they all need access to processing power, applications and bandwidth.

Mobile processing power is increasing at a phenomenal rate. Advances from Intel on laptop CPUs that offer the same performance as a desktop negate the notion of under-specified laptops. However, most modern laptops still weigh in at several kilos and have a limited battery life. For many information receivers the laptop provides more power than necessary, but for creators it is still the mobile device of choice. The growth of the PDA market reflects the shift towards lighter and smaller devices - appealing to both creators and receivers - but the lightest of all the mobile computers is the mobile phone.

The mobile phone has become the communication tool of choice for the majority of knowledge-based workers. Increasingly, through manufacturers' partnerships with PDA vendors, the mobile phone is now a PDA with built-in communications ability. The US only Palm-VII is a perfect example of this new hybrid technology. The advantages are obvious - it's light and has a long battery life.

During the implementation stage, careful consideration has to be made as to the suitability of each device to the task. A big flashy laptop is a nice executive toy, but having immediate access to electronic messages and applications residing on a company web or intranet is far more useful. A web-enabled mobile phone is a great gimmick, but typing in a 500-word email on a phone is a slow and error prone process. Often the solution is found through pragmatism - laptops for those who need to wield processing power and mobile phones or PDAs for the rest. At this point, it is good practice to implement a unified messaging approach.

Unification

The benefits of unified messaging are especially useful for mobile workers. For example, every employee can be contacted via a work, home, mobile or fax number. This is complicated by home and work email addresses or text-based pagers. Once people have left the office environment, making contact may be more difficult; allowing the right type of messages through is even trickier. For example, although it may be tempting, it may be unwise to give an irate customer a salesperson's home telephone number. To make matters more simple, groups of users can be organised logically under a unified numbering scheme. Sales departments may be covered by 0700 100 501 up to 520, for example, while marketing can be covered by 521 through to 540.

Service providers, such as Call Sciences and YAC, provide some additional management services to allow the user to specify how to treat messages depending on caller, time and location. These services are configurable by both users and managers. Even though the new range of wireless devices claims email and data availability and management, this is not the same as unification of these services.

YAC is one of the UK's fastest growing personal numbering and unified messaging companies. YAC's UK managing director, Piers Mummery, agrees that the wireless device is still not a complete solution. "I get in excess of 100 emails a day and I really don't want to read them on my small phone screen. The new PDA and WAP developments, such as Nokia's 7110, are exciting but until WAP becomes commonplace, managing all these data services while on the road is still a real challenge."

YAC is one of the few personal numbering and unified messaging systems that can be managed directly from a WAP device via a WAP website. No matter what combination of hardware and unified messaging strategy is employed, managing intra-workforce workflow and data traffic is still an issue.

Management

The Internet can provide an effective way to manage the resources and application availability for remote workers. The company intranet can be linked to the web to replicate many of the company resources. Contact databases, stock levels, and even transaction processing systems can become available to agile workers through this method. Understandably, the main concern is security, but with advances in the PKI security system, implementing a secure infrastructure has become relatively simple. The recent announcement from RSA and Compaq regarding MultiPrime means that now even low-powered devices can use the powerful encryption techniques which effectively provide an unbreakable connection between user and server. The mobile phone will soon be able to store a certificate used in secure authentication.

The combination of VPN technology and today's advanced software means that the security concerns over connection to the web are slight indeed. Of more concern now is how to get complex and powerful applications onto portable devices and keep them supplied with upgrades or bug fixes. One possible solution is the ASP model.

Quite simply, the ASP concept provides applications and services over the Internet through lease line or dial-up connections. The main advantage is that these applications can be served within a browser. This way the processing power is only required by the provider of the service, while that of the user is platform-independent. Upgrades and support issues are therefore centralised. Unfortunately, the ASP concept is still being fleshed out and, at the moment, is only financially viable for larger companies due to initial investment costs and relatively high bandwidth charges.

However, this is changing rapidly. Major vendors in the communications market, such as BT, Deutsche Telecom and UUNET, are all offering applications and hosting facilities. This increased competition looks set to force down prices. Applications ranging from Microsoft Office suite to the complex SAP application are now available within the ASP model. An example of an application suited to even the smallest of mobile business users is Juston.com.

The Juston service acts as a virtual file and messaging area for groups of workers. It allows you to upload and download files to which only you and your colleagues have access. Unlike email, you can collaborate on these files without having to get into complex redistribution schemes. The Juston service is not unique, but due to its popularity (it's free), it does suffer from periods of saturation, which means several attempts to logon are needed.

But while flexible, the ASP model is not the only solution. If you have a very simple application that is well established and able to perform the task, standardising your remote devices will improve manageability and productivity. For the future, however, the ASP path looks the one to tread.

Support

Computer system reliability has improved exponentially since the twitchy systems of the late 1980s. However, there is always a support burden associated with any large deployment of mobile systems. Supporting multiple brands of devices across operating system differences and time zones is a logistic nightmare. The big vendors, such as Compaq, HP and IBM, are all focusing on support as long-term revenue earners, particularly in light of the diminishing margins on IT hardware.

HP is well ahead of the pack, though, in one area, with their web-based support. Last year, HP received a record 90 million support enquiries. Surprisingly, 80 million of these came via the web. As a manufacturer in broad IT, HP support teams need to be competent in operating systems, desktop and laptop computers, servers, networking, and print and imaging systems.

In a recent interview Rob Biggin, European marketing director for services and support, outlined their new direction. "We are seeing the web now being used as the primary support interface for both desk-bound and mobile users. Time critical problems are still going through our voice channels but, increasingly, the web is used for the less urgent upgrade or compatibility problems."

Even though HP makes its own kit, there is an increasing demand for blanket support on IT infrastructure, regardless of manufacturer. Biggin acknowledges this. "Some of our customers are now having to deal with multiple support contracts, each with SLAs and different schedules. Therefore, we find ourselves supporting our kit plus many of our competitors' products. This looks likely to grow, especially as the market moves to a utility model for services."

Outsourcing support for mobile users offers major advantages in both cost and efficiency. If a worker overseas has a major laptop failure, arranging support through a UK manufacturer and then through an overseas division has a potential for problems. Biggin is also keen to point out the advances in HP's web support services. "In October of last year, we set up itresourcecenter.hp.com as a way of creating an online support community. The site is multilingual and includes European and Asian languages. It now has over 500,000 users."

The portal is still only focused on HP products, but Biggin believes this also may change. The first sign is the number of white papers and seminars available via the site, although this still covers HP partners mostly in the software sector. HP is not alone in moving to a more web-focused support model. Both Compaq and IBM have improved the technical resources available via the web after increased support traffic.

Conclusion

The three elements for a successful mobile solution are all available on the market today. Buzzwords such as WAP and Bluetooth are slightly overrated. In the case of WAP, the experience of surfing the web from your phone is painfully unpleasant. Imagine a colourful 800-600, multimedia rich website ported over to a 1.5in. mono screen, with no graphics or sound. Also a mobile phone is incredibly slow and as high-speed cellular data services are still a long way off, WAP equates to hype.

Bluetooth effectively removes the direct cable connections and creates a wireless LAN. At the moment there are no products readily available and no applications that can't be done cheaper with direct cables. Waiting for the next big thing to make mobile IT easier is unrealistic. Technology already exists, but to get it to work requires the substantial pruning of information to the bare essentials. Management is probably the most crucial element of the mobile solution. If a company's mobile workforce costs more than it generates in revenue, it will no longer be mobile and in our increasing web orientated work place, the slow will give way to the agile.

Will Garside
This was last published in April 2000

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