Mobile devices have a changing role in businesses

One size may not fit all when deploying mobile systems, and IT directors must establish what functionality is needed through all layers of business

With a multitude of new mobile devices on the market and many operating systems to choose from, the selection of the right technology to form the basis for a mobile business strategy is becoming increasingly complex.

The days when mobile devices were simply platforms for accessing e-mail accounts while on the road are gone, and a wide array of applications are now being used.

For example, West Yorkshire Police’s Streetwyse application, which runs on Research in Motion’s Blackberry, allows officers on the beat to access the Police National Computer and download digital mug shots.

Civil engineering firm Arup uses an application called Neverfail as part of its Blackberry-based business-continuity plan to ensure that employees can always access corporate information, regardless of where they are.

Tesco has selected Windows Mobile for its combined work scheduler and GPS-tracking system for delivery drivers in London. This particular application of the technology is a good example of how the various features of mobile devices, such as GPS systems and stylus-based interfaces, can be usefully deployed in combination to create a practical solution to a business problem.

When deploying mobile systems, businesses must also consider the operating system, which dictates what applications will be available. Choosing the right platform for your needs is a key consideration, as applications are not usually available across all three major mobile platforms.

For instance, the Nokia Series 80 device, which uses the Symbian mobile operating system, offers comprehensive development support for the SAP Netweaver platform.

RIM’s Blackberry and Windows Mobile 6.0 from Microsoft both offer extensive programming interfaces, which will be of interest to a variety of mobile users.

Other factors that IT directors need to consider when choosing a platform include integration with back-end systems and, ideally, commonality of the platform with devices and features used by the various layers of staff in the organisation.

Roberta Cozza, principal analyst at analyst firm Gartner, says, “When an IT manager chooses a device for different needs among the workforce, the platform needs to have consistent software across all devices and have application portability.”

Industry presence is another important attribute for a mobile platform. Ideally, the device should have a multinational presence and ecosystem of partners, services and applications. The platform must meet all requirements in terms of security standards, e-mail, manageability and PC integration.

Also, think carefully about which device and operating system can be used most effectively by the different layers of staff in your organisation, says Rob Bamforth, principal analyst with analyst firm Quocirca. Sometimes finding a single platform  simply is not possible.
“There is no one-size-fits-all answer, and there might not be one platform that can supply what you need for all functions,” he says.
“If an initial deployment is aimed at providing the sales force with data on the road, the same platform may not be suitable when you need to connect with delivery drivers, for example.”

Your first step when deploying a mobile platform should be to decide exactly what your workforce will do with the mobile devices you plan to roll out. This may be a simple matter of giving access to e-mail or perhaps making a business application available to staff in the field.
However, if you want to satisfy the needs of a number of roles within the business, your selection of device and operating environment may become more complicated.

“Different roles need different tools,” says Bamforth. “For example, if you choose a tool with a stylus or keyboard and then commit to extending that device to a role which does not have a hand free to use the stylus or has to use gloved hands to work, then your roll-out will not be successful.”

You have got to step back and ask what you need from a device and not get bogged down in the minutiae of its features, says Mark Blowers, senior researcher at analyst firm Butler.

“Senior executives, for example, need e-mail while the sales force needs access to back-end systems. There is a different focus required for different roles, so you need to have a clear view of the likely use of devices.”

In addition to determining which system or systems are needed, IT directors need to run trials with the staff with the chosen mobile operating system, device and software that the technology will eventually be deployed to.

Evaluating operating environments, software, development and integration are time-consuming but necessary processes. However, this work can come to nothing if the end-user cannot or will not embrace the device in the application it was intended for, says Tony Cripps, senior analyst and service manager at analyst firm Ovum.

“In some companies top executives are likely to exercise choices based on their fondness for particular devices. But doing things that way may means they are not useable or accepted if they are deployed to other staff doing different things,” says Cripps.

“It is a really simple thing to overlook, so some kind of trialling is always useful.”

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