Mobile commerce is being touted as the next big thing for IT departments to get to grips with.
Suppliers see the development of wireless technology standards as important new revenue streams and aim to releaseproductsthat promise to keep mobile workers connected to their business data.
Last month Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman, described wireless Internet access as the coming technology revolution. "Microsoft wants to provide the software that makes it happen," he said at the Cellular Telecoms Industry Association Wireless show.
The show included new wireless notebooks from Dell, and a wireless pager from Compaq and AOL. Also, Palm has joined iPlanet, an initiative to create wireless e-business applications from the Sun-Netscape Alliance.
Meanwhile in Europe, the Symbian alliance continues to develop the Epoc operating system for mobile communication devices from the likes of Ericsson, Psion and Nokia.
Despite the intense interest in mobile commerce, it remains unclear how these technologies will benefit businesses and public sector organisations. Computer Weekly has spoken to users and technologists across a range of industry sectors to get a reality check on the mobile hype.
As far as telecom managers are concerned there is a lot of waiting to come when integrating mobile devices to the corporate network.
David Tripp, chairman of the Telecommunications Managers' Association (TMA) mobile telephony special interest group, said members were eager to avoid "getting burned".
Tripp said, "Even simpler technologies like infra-red communications between devices initially caused problems, with strong sunlight breaking the links down for instance.
"So TMA members are perhaps waiting for clearer standards to come into play before they get too excited about implementing Wap [wireless application protocol] phones. They are also waiting for the outcome of the Government's 3G [third generation] licence auction, to see who they will be dealing withinthe future."
The products tosupport such integration are already herethough. Sybase Mec has just launched SQL Anywhere Studio, which claims to be the first product that allows remote/mobile workers to connect to the entire enterprise from anywhere at anytime.
This product not only works with Palm Pilots and laptops, it also works with Wap phones to enable employees to access sales databases and shared diaries.
Wireless technology has a lot of potential to aid local government's highly mobile workforce. Everyone from trading standards operators and social workers to refuse collectors could benefit from improved communications with their base.
Richard Steel, head of IT Contract Services, Newham, is enthusiastic about the new technology. "The borough sees mobile computing technology as a significant way of delivering accessible services and moving towards the '24 hour council'," said Steel.
Newham is to provide social workers with 24-hour secure access to the department's "Carefirst" database, as well as e-mail, scheduling, Intranet and other corporate systems, using lightweight notebook computers and mobile phone technology.
Jos Creese, head of IT at Southampton City Council, said the council has started to trial Wap technologies. "Real time communications are important to local authorities," he said. "They allow workers to access information they need while out on a job."
Creese predicts that advanced local authorities will be unveiling Wap projects within 12 months.
Brent Council has been pioneering the use of hand held devices among its workforce. "It has proved very successful," said Dane Wright, IT manager. However, he said it was not in the council's plans to give all employees mobile phones and PDAs.
Wright warned that some councils still needed to get their infrastructure right to take advantage of technical developments in mobile computing.
Mobile business applications based on Wap will face problems with scalability, according to systems integrator CSC.
The company has been prototyping a SAP-interface running from a mobile phone. Paul Turnton, associate director for advanced telecomm services at CSC, said the SAP interface can only be used for simple tasks.
Another problem that CSC has encountered in its research efforts is one of effective standardisation among Wap browsers. The problem here, Turnton said, is that phones with different Wap browsers will display WML pages in different ways. "Wap is a standard for defining how information is transmitted to a mobile device. But the way the information is displayed is not standardised."
CSC has found a WML page will look different depending on whether it is displayed on a Palm V, a Nokia 7110 or a Sprint NeoPoint phone. Turnton said, "The industry needs a standard way of rendering WML information."
Europe v USA
Ideas about the right applicationsfor mobile commerce vary depending on which side of the Atlantic you are.
US users believe that Wap can be used in tracking and location systems. Users such as Ford and DHL are considering adopting the technology to ensure they get delivery of parts on time.
The most advanced users - and most of them are still in beta form - are in Scandinavia. Airline SAS in Stockholm is already testing a new service to allow customers to book, cancel and modify SAS airline flights over mobile phones.
The service - being developed with Ericsson and Nokia - will also allow for Wap access to SAS timetables, flight departure and arrival times for SAS aircraft, and details of a customer's frequent-flier miles account. A flight reservation service will be made public before April, and users will not be charged a fee for the service. Swissair has also said it plans to offer a similar service.
The health service
Wap, or equivalent technologies, could have a wide range of uses in hospitals, from keeping junior doctors up-to-date on the condition of patients, to connecting child patients to their schools, according to NHS IT managers.
Junior doctors at the Salisbury Health Care NHS Trust should be equipped with Wap-enabled devices within five years, according to head of information technology Jeremy Nettle.
"Junior doctors are very mobile and need to be able to get information anywhere. Wap technology could be used to broadcast important clinical information to them, for example, to get hold of radiology or pathology results," Nettle said.
Ted Woodhouse, director of the information service division at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, said wireless technology is only one of several options.
"We're actively looking into the delivery of patient care information to doctors at the bedside. But we're looking at other options too - terminals at every bedside or in every bay in the ward," Woodhouse said.
But NHS IT managers must be careful that mobile devices using radio frequencies do not interfere with medical equipment, particularly in intensive care units.
David Enzor, IT services manger at Pinderfields Hospital has been piloting WaveLan wireless technology to connect children's wards to schools. "We've found that it hasn't affected equipment on the wards," he said.
The retail industry
Mobile commerce may be flavour of the month, but what can wireless technologies really offer retailers?
Not much, said Ed Turner, futurologist with ICL's retailing division. He is scathing about Wap, a technology that promises to bring the Internet to mobile phones.
"You have to look at it from the point of view of the end user," he said. "What can Wap do for them that they can't already do. You get all the pundits saying, you can surf from your phone but on a screen a couple of inches big, what's the point."
But, he said, the fixed-line Internet, not Wap was a far better medium. "I think for retailers Wap is irrelevant," he said. "I don't think it is important to them."
Not every retailer would agree. Peter Robinson, head of e-commerce at Marks & Spencer, said that his company is already factoring in mobile devices into its IT strategy.
Robinson believes that ultimately, customers will want to use their mobile phones to order simple products like books or CDs, from a top ten list, for example.