Vendor selection criteria for a mobile application rollout

Mobile devices are the lifeblood of most shipping companies. Shirish Gariba, CIO of Mumbai-based distributor Elbee Express Pvt Ltd., shares his experiences on rolling out a mobile application in India and offers advice on choosing a platform, a device and a maintenance plan.

What are the primary aspects to consider before a mobile application rollout?

The first aspect to consider for a mobile application rollout is clearly the business need. Once that's achieved, select the technology -- Java or Windows. This is the biggest factor, since it dictates product choices and vendors. Since Java is device-agnostic, you can use Java on most mobile devices. Now, if you want to use Windows, you are likely to be locked on to it. Also, consider the cost that goes to Microsoft for every OS. The choice will also depend on your company's back end. Are you more comfortable with Microsoft or Java technologies?

Now, while Java can also be easily connected to the back end, there may not be enough Java developers [in your organization]. This is a common problem in many Indian companies, so aspects like maintenance become an issue. In our case, we selected Microsoft technologies since we have a Microsoft technology-based back end.

Can you detail the parameters that go into mobile device selection?

Screen size is the first parameter to consider for mobile device selection. If a long form has to be filled up by mobile users, you will need a bigger screen. If only a couple of information fields have to be captured, a small screen will suffice. So screen size depends on the application. Screen size also determines the cost, since mobile devices cost anywhere from Rs 5,000 to Rs 30,000. If your requirement is more than 500 or 1,000 units, you have to control this cost. Otherwise, the project cost scales up very fast and business buy-in will not be very high. Next, of course, is the device lifecycle. You don't want to be stuck with a mobile device which is off the market in a couple of months.

Tie up for a strong annual maintenance contract after the warranty period is over. Typically, most Indian companies take 24 months to 36 months to phase out a particular model.
Shirish Gariba
CIOElbee Express

Once these [criteria] have been checked, do a lot of research on the mobile device. My experience says that some devices get heated up very fast, while others hang or drain batteries very fast. Still, some may break very easily. Others many not have enough memory. Rugged and easy-to-use devices are essential since the user won't use it if he doesn't like it. Many field executives are out on challenging environments like riding motorcycles during rains. So, aspects such as protective mobile device covers and waterproofing should be thoroughly evaluated.

Several devices are available in the market which can have additional attachments. For example, if the business requirement is to give an on-the-spot receipt, you'll need support for USB printers. If your line of business requires it, the device should have GPS capability.

Another big concern for the user is the interface. For example, I'm a fan of the iPhone interface. There are other users who love the QWERTY interface. This debate led to our first pilot for 100 users, in which we used 50 QWERTY devices and 50 touch-screen devices. Each user was given a QWERTY device to use for the first week and then a touch-screen device for the next week. Sixty to 70% of users voted in favor of the touch-screen. Conduct such evaluations for user buy-in.

How do you handle the inevitable maintenance associated with usage of mobile devices?

Mobile devices need repair after extended use and handling. Does the brand have service centers across India? You don't want to get a device all the way from Chennai to Mumbai just for repair, since there are outage and shipping costs. So, an extensive service center network is an absolute must. Tie up for a strong annual maintenance contract after the warranty period is over. Typically, most Indian companies take 24 months to 36 months to phase out a particular model. If you have a bunch of users at a particular location, it's always a wise idea to keep some spare devices on the bench. If a mobile device is not working, the work will not suffer.

How can an organization go about selecting a dependable service provider?

Does your application need strong GPRS, EDGE or 3G connectivity? Or, can your application work on just a simple SMS? You need to take a call on the cellular service provider accordingly. Does your cellular service provider have strong presence across India? Are they strong in enterprise applications or just voice telephony? You need to choose a vendor with all these capabilities and the willingness to expand.

Once you go mobile, you can't tell your user not to travel beyond city limits. So have relevant conversations with your service provider and conduct field tests to ensure reach. For example, in our pilot we chose metros and tiny towns. We sent sample mobile devices to users across India, and told them to come back with their experiences. Live responses from field tests will show how the application actually works. This helps you tweak your application. In my experience, GPRS coverage was great for 80% of the areas, while for 20% of the locations it was not very strong. So we had to build in an auto sync facility in our application to compensate for the weak network situations. The service provider's back-office capability is also important, since it translates to their ability to accept your responses and accordingly improvise their services.

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