Mobile computing can make it easier for the smaller company to do business. But make sure you get the technology that is right for you, writes Antony Savvas.
The good thing about mobile technology in business is that it is a great leveller, as small companies can gain just as much advantage from it as larger firms. But what mobile technologies should SMEs consider?
The start-up costs of implementing mobile solutions are relatively modest when compared to enterprise resource planning systems or traditional supply chain software. The other good news is that SMEs have yet to fall behind bigger enterprises because the technology has only recently started to take off, so SMEs can prepare carefully to make good gains in the market.
For businesses it is wireless Lan, rather than souped-up mobile handsets, that hold out the greatest promise. Most mobile services are built around technologies such as 802.11 standard-based wireless Lans, General Packet Radio Services or 2.5G mobile networks, Bluetooth wireless connectivity between devices, or the much-hyped 3G.
The first commercial wireless Lans entered the market about three years ago, and these were built on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' standard 802.11b. This hardware, consisting of PC cards that can be inserted into laptops and radio access points fitted on office walls, allows users to quickly build fixed or mobile communication networks without the use of cables.
The data speeds are also impressive, allowing users to share networks operating at up to 11mbps - there is no data throughput downside as a result of going wireless, unlike other mobile technologies.
The beauty of 802.11b is it operates in the unlicensed radio spectrum at 2.4GHz, which means users can use it anywhere they like and suppliers can offer hardware at lower prices.
But just when 802.11b was carving out a niche for itself, along came 802.11a, offering data throughput of up to 54mbps. But despite its greater data speeds, 802.11a has not taken off. It has suffered from non-uniform product offerings, and the fact that it operates in the limited and licensed 5GHz band means it is more expensive to use.
Now version 802.11a is about to be usurped by 802.11g. Version g offers the speed of 802.11a, using the same unlicensed spectrum as .11b - giving users the best of both worlds. SMEs wanting a wireless Lan should clearly consider 802.11g, particularly as it will initially be pitched at their market, having been ratified by the IEEE this summer. The only question mark against 802.11g is that so far it has not received security approval from industry body, the Wi-Fi Alliance.
The alliance, consisting of the main manufacturers, recently introduced the Wi-Fi Protected Access system. This is a more powerful security system compared to the standard Wired Equivalent Privacy (Wep) normally bundled with wireless Lans, which can be cracked by mobile hackers when not installed correctly.
Early commercial 802.11g suppliers believe SMEs will be content with Wep, and that is why they are being targeted first. But they may want to boost their security with added software to make sure.
Most users think of mobile technology as being to do with mobile phones and personal digital assistants that can access the internet. But 802.11 allows internet access in remote locations such as airports, train stations, shopping malls, and coffee shops covered by wireless hotspots. This has made the future of 3G mobile technology uncertain when it comes to corporate data - why would employees want to struggle to access the corporate intranet using a phone or PDA when they could do it with a fully functional laptop?
The real target for 2.5G (GPRS) and 3G technology is the delivery of "bursty" bits of data. It is not suitable for long mobile sessions accessing the corporate ERP system while on the move. It is designed for taking quick peeps at the corporate intranet. Operating at between 20kbps and 30kbps, GPRS can be used with handheld devices carried in the field by employees to place orders to head office, send a quick e-mail, scan a corporate contacts list, or even use an instant messaging system from companies such as Yahoo, AOL or MSN.
Promise of 3G
The role of 3G, at commercial speeds of about 400kbps, will improve the use of these applications but whether full-scale corporate videoconferencing and long ERP sessions are possible remains unproven, as the only current 3G network in the UK - from operator 3 - is consumer-driven.
The major mobile operators are still planning their 3G networks and trying to recoup revenues from the GPRS networks they have only recently rolled out. Orange, for instance, only expects its UK 3G commercial launch to come in around mid-2004, and then only about 40% of the population will be covered.
A major problem with GPRS is it is difficult to cost. GPRS operators charge according to how much data is downloaded onto a phone, PDA, or laptop, not the amount of time spent online. It may sound good that you only get charged for what you receive, but a member of staff downloading a feature-rich website for their personal enjoyment will cost more than an employee writing a long e-mail about changes to an order. This is one reason companies have been slow to fully adopt GPRS, even though it has been around for as long as 802.11.
The roll-out of 3G is one of those IT challenges that the whole industry has to consider, but quite often it is the modest technologies that immediately offer real benefits. One of these is Bluetooth, the short-range wireless connectivity technology.
If you want to connect your mobile phone with your laptop without having to carefully line up infrared ports, or if you are concerned about the ban on using mobiles while driving, then Bluetooth is something you can use. When driving you can wear a wireless Bluetooth headset that automatically answers the phone when you speak.
The technology is bundled free in a variety of mobile devices and has the support of more than 2,000 industry suppliers, which form the Bluetooth Special Interest Group. It has a range of about 10m, and it can be used in areas such as construction and the conference market. A site foreman, for instance, could keep track of workers via Bluetooth-equipped headsets, or a marketing company at a trade event could connect PCs, laptops and printers without having to use tricky Ethernet cabling.
The role of mobile technology in the SME market will inevitably grow, although the ones that are the subject of the most hype may not prove to be the most popular.
What mobile solutions can do for you
Increase connectivity with the office while on the move
Remove the need to install expensive Ethernet cabling in the office
Allow you to work during traditionally "dead time" such as while waiting at airports or travelling on trains.
Mobile industry websites www.3g.co.uk
Bluetooth Special Interest Group www.bluetooth.com
Wireless Lan site with all the latest developments on emerging standards www.wireless-starter-kit.com
Useful white paper from Cisco on the applications that can be supported using GPRS www.cisco.com/warp/public/cc/so/neso/gprs/gprs_wp.htm
The Wireless Lan industry body www.wifialliance.com