SMEs struggling on way to mobility

Establishing a mobile strategy is tough for SMEs taking on the intricacies of 3G and Wi-Fi, with replacement technology such as HSDPA also vying for attention

Smaller organisations do not have the luxury of piloting every new piece of technology that comes along to see how the business can benefit. But with so much change in mobile technology, it would appear that IT directors at small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have the challenge of spotting viable technology on which to base their mobile strategy.

Business cannot afford to ignore mobile technology. “Mobility can increase productivity, by allowing employees to do the same things they did before in the office, but on the move. From top executives to the field force, there are massive cost savings and competitive advantages to be gained from mobilising the work force,” said Sylvain Fabre, research director of the Communications Group at analyst firm Gartner.

However, many SMEs are still struggling to get a handle on technologies such as 3G, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and how they fit with their business goals.

One of the most visible examples of emerging mobile technology is the steady growth in network bandwidth in recent years, from second generation (2G) networks, to GPRS (2.5G) and more recently 3G.

Each step has brought greater network bandwidth for transmitting voice calls and data files to and from mobile devices. However, just as users have become au fait with 3G, so HSDPA (high-speed download packet access), or 3.5G, is already being introduced by operators around the world.

3G potentially offers transfer rates of 2 megabits per second (in reality, rates are much lower), but HSDPA offers up to six times that speed. Many operators upgraded their networks in 2005 to support HSDPA, but the technology is backwards compatible.

As of April, there were 79 HSDPA networks either built or being built in Europe, Japan and the US, with more expected throughout the year.

Operator O2 launched the UK’s first HSDPA service in the Isle of Man in November, while Vodafone is currently running a trial of its service with 100 London-based business users accessing it via the company’s Mobile Connect laptop cards. Vodafone plans to introduce HSDPA throughout the South East in mid-2006.

Devices too are quickly being HSDPA-enabled. Dell expects to launch an HSDPA-equipped notebook in June, while Lenovo has integrated Vodafone’s Sierra Wireless HSDPA card into its new Thinkpad T60 and X60 notebooks.

The company announced in January its plans to integrate the card in both notebooks, and the HSDPA has been available since the Vodafone release in May. The notebooks also boast 11-hour battery life.

Wireless phones are slightly further behind, although handset manufacturer Samsung demonstrated the world’s first HSDPA call on a mobile phone in January, while BenQ Mobile expects to bring the first device to market in time for the World Cup in June.

“HSDPA is on the way. Initially it will target high-use areas, such as city centres, but operators will gradually expand their footprint,” said Fabre, who believes that rather than replacing voice calls on the cellular network, HSDPA will become a wider-ranging alternative to Wi-Fi for downloading large files.

“Most likely, it will be used by laptop users, who will go to an HSDPA coverage area, and stop to download a file. In this way, it could free up capacity for voice calls on the 3G network, for example,” he said.

A further network upgrade – known as HSUPA – high-speed uplink packet access, or 3.75G, is also expected within the next 12 months. HSDPA is not efficient at uploading large files to mobile devices. “HSUPA makes sending files from a mobile device much faster,” said Gavin Patterson, principal analyst at communications research house Informa.

Network equipment is expected at the end of 2006, with laptop cards not likely before early 2007, and handsets in mid-2007.

Yet another technology to consider is Wimax, which takes the concept of the Wi-Fi hotspot one step further. It extends coffee shop or airport lounge hot spots to a matter of kilometres, and also provides faster transfer rates.

Wimax, or IEEE 802.16, comes in two flavours: fixed and mobile. Fixed Wimax, known as 802.16-2004, is already available, and is largely used as an alternative to wireline access – for example, in a large indoor area where wiring might be difficult or expensive.

Mobile Wimax, meanwhile, will not be available for at least a year, but could rival the cellular network for accessing and sending data. Intel has said that a Wimax laptop card will be available later this year. Samsung, meanwhile, recently demonstrated its M8000 Wimax mobile handset – currently, however, it can only be used in Korea.

With so many alternative approaches to wireless connectivity, the SME IT director has a challenge deciding which one to adopt. Luckily it is possible to avoid the technological bickering and to some extent future-proof a mobile strategy by avoiding embedded components.

Analyst Gartner recently advised users to avoid buying Wimax or HSDPA cards that are embedded into laptop devices. Using removable or plug-in PC cards means that companies can upgrade or replace technologies as required, by changing the card.

While network bandwidth increases inexorably, devices are also seeing rapid advances, especially in the area of fixed-mobile convergence. BT’s Fusion service, for example, provides a handset that operates as a traditional phone in the home or office, with calls charged at the standard fixed line rate, but switches to the Vodafone cellular network outside the building,
acting as a mobile phone. It means one device, one phone number and one bill.

Equally, mobile phones are now available that switch between cellular networks such as 3G and IP-based wireless Lans, or Wi-Fi networks, when the user enters, for example, the office.

“Mobile phones are now available that operate on the cellular network but switch to the wireless Lan inside the office, where they can replicate all the traditional telephony functions of the PBX, such as voicemail, redirecting calls, and so on, as well as providing mobile e-mail,” said Tony Cripps, principal analyst at Ovum.

“It offers a single device and a single phone number, and low-cost calls in the office. It also means that the mobile phone is arguably becoming a more important device than the desktop PC, especially for jobs that require a lot of time on the road.”

Last October, Nokia released its E-series handsets – E60, E61 and E70 – designed specifically with this in mind. Similar devices include Sony Ericsson’s P-Series smartphones and O2’s XDA Exec.

This ability to download larger files has also driven the need for greater storage on mobile devices. As a result, mobile phones with hard drives have started to hit the market.

Another technology to look out for is smartphones with embedded hard drives. These enable the user to store large files and e-mails, without the need to carry around a number of different storage cards or media.

Handset manufacturer Samsung unveiled the first mobile phone with a hard drive, the PH-V5400, in 2004, which contained a 1-inch 1.5Gbyte hard drive. By March this year, however, the Samsung SGH-i316 phone was offering an 8Gbyte hard drive – it should be available in European markets in the second half of 2006.

Nokia’s N91, which features a 4Gbyte hard drive, is already available – however it has been designed as a music player rather than an enterprise device.

With more data stored on a single device, security becomes paramount, which is driving the growth of devices with embedded biometric fingerprint scanners. HP was the first to introduce a biometric-enabled PDA.

Laptops with the technology include models in the following ranges: HP Notebook, Lenovo Thinkpad, Dell Latitude, Sony Vaio, Fujitsu LifeBook and Toshiba Tecra. LG’s LP3550 mobile phone, meanwhile, is one of the first to incorporate the technology.

But perhaps one of the most important advances in mobile technology will continue to be the extension of battery life, without which all of these applications or services are essentially useless.

An alternative to existing lithium ion batteries are fuel cells. Last November, Hitachi and Toshiba exhibited their latest developments in fuel cells for mobile devices, known as direct methanol fuel cells (DMFC), with Japanese operators KDDI and NTT DoCoMo interested in developing the technology.

Fuel cells are also appearing in laptops, with IBM and Sanyo developing a prototype DFMC system for the ThinkPad notebook range.

However, there are lingering doubts around the safety of methanol, and whether fuel cells will remain a niche product. Research company Nanomarkets, for example, claims that while the market will be worth £850m by 2010, 80% of these fuel cells will still be used in conjunction with traditional batteries.

Other technologies in development include solar-powered chargers that top up battery life in the field – although there are large efficiency improvements to be made. For now, improvements are focusing on maintaining the significant advances that have already been made in extending the life of traditional batteries.

A peek over the mobile technology horizon may at first appear daunting, but for those that are still grappling with the intricacies of 3G and Wi-Fi, Fabre offers some sound advice: “Don’t build a mobile strategy around HSDPA or Wimax – there’s currently a lot of technology disruption out there, so it might be better to use this to your benefit and focus on negotiating a better deal for the existing mobile technologies and services.”

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