Mobility – Part two: enabling productivity through smartphone technology
FYI, this story is more than a year old
It’s amazing how technology has permeated our lives. These days you can be connected by your mobile phone to work and home and don’t need to be tied to your computer — or even your office. In The Channel’s second feature on mobility in as many months, we take a look at PDAs and smartphones, and in a spin on our usual focus, we look at how this segment of ‘mobility’ can benefit your own business, not just the businesses of your customers. Since November 2007, businesses have had an even more pressing need to find a way of retaining good staff.
Legislation, in the form of The Flexible Working Arrangements Bill, now gives employees the right to seek a variation in their hours and place of work. The solution for businesses lies in the mobility of their employees. The development of technology — from those first briefcase-sized mobile phones to the small but perfectly formed smartphones we use today — has been monumental. The evolution from transistors to microprocessors over the last two decades has allowed the development of applications to boost productivity and eliminate unnecessary paperwork. But it can be a bit daunting for any business to work out what’s best for the enterprise.
How do you know you’re getting the most out of what you’ve got?
From talking to Ben Green, Microsoft’s Business Group Manager for Windows Mobile, it seems putting the right infrastructure in place is the first step to effective mobility — and you don’t have to be a large enterprise to enjoy the benefits.
Eric Chou, Product Manager for HP iPAQ, sees email as the key application for business users. “Now, with Windows Mobile 6.1, our iPAQs can hook up directly with Exchange Server or IMAP, so people can access their other email accounts.”
Green demonstrated how easy it is to get connected by whipping out a USB cable and a new Windows mobile phone and connecting them to his laptop. Immediately, a window popped up on his laptop screen and a user-friendly installation wizard walked us through the process of synching the new phone to the PC, asking for relevant system information and offering options for information to download, without having to tap it all into the handset. He clicked ‘OK’ and we were ready to roll, with all of his appointments, contacts and even his email pushed through as it arrived in his inbox. In a large organisation, the advantages of a single infrastructure come into their own.
“The total cost of ownership (TCO) has skyrocketed, so the ability to have one infrastructure handling all devices makes good commercial sense,” said Green. “Using Active Directory, users can have single sign-on and we can extend out what people want across one platform.” Green cited engineering firm Beca as an example of a New Zealand organisation making use of this: “It has over 900 apps standardised on Windows Mobile, but people are only given access to the applications they need for their jobs.”
Device management and selection
So, is it a matter of just walking into a mobile phone store to see what’s available? “A mobile is another IP device — it needs to be managed properly,” stated Green.
“Disciplines, practices and processes need to be established by employers for the lifecycle of these devices, from acquisition through to support and training.” With all the hype surrounding the Apple iPhone recently, you’d be forgiven for thinking so-called ‘smartphones’ were the only devices in town.
Not so, according to Doug Phillips, Managing Director of Warp Systems, who told The Channel that there are nearly three million rugged handheld devices deployed worldwide, with personal digital assistants (PDAs) estimated to make up 29 million units per annum of mobile phone sales.
“Industrial PDAs are the true workhorses,” he said. “They’re used by anyone from meter readers to grocery salespeople out in the field.” Warp Systems provide mobility packages and technical advice to businesses of all shapes and sizes, and rugged handheld devices that can do anything from scanning barcodes to updating inventory back at the office.Keep in mind though, how you and your employees, or your customers, will be using their mobile phone devices.
“People think industrial handhelds are expensive, but they do last the distance, and they can be repaired,” said Phillips. “Consumer PDAs are too fragile — if you drop and break them, you can’t repair them easily.”PDAs have also developed greater functionality, with additional features added on demand. “Third Generation users are driving more features, including barcode scanners, cameras, GPS, WAN, Bluetooth, and wireless LAN,” said Phillips.
Key mobile workforce drivers
According to Phillips, there are two key drivers for mobility in Australia and New Zealand. Firstly, “in the last seven years, the ability to obtain, train and retain skilled reps at the coalface has been an issue”. The second is productivity: “If you make a service call or delivery and don’t do the job properly the first time, what’s the additional cost — including petrol?” In a tight job market, with margins being squeezed all the time, he has a point.
Mobility equals productivity. Green quoted US statistics that have shown that the simple provision of a laptop frees up 3.2 hours per week per staff member. Extrapolate that out over 10 people, and that’s almost one full-time employee’s hours per week. Add in the use of the right mobile device, and the results can be stunning.
Phillips stated that where organisations often fail is in deployment: “They believe or perceive that all environments are the same. It’s the number one sin.” For a field sales rep, their working environment is hugely different from an administrator or office-based role, so during a deployment of mobile devices it’s important to look across the entire organisation.
“With the economy the way it is at the moment, now is a great time to look at your mobility platform — the management, support and servicing.” Laying those building blocks right now will position your business for success when the economy begins its recovery.
The notion of ‘the paperless office’ today seems utopian if not downright impractical, but there are companies developing software that help it to become more of a reality.
Activiser is a software developed here in New Zealand for mobile devices, which allows companies to put their timesheets (and all this entails) onto PDAs. Managing Director Andrew Hunt is proud of his company. “We decided to focus on one thing, and do it well,” he said.
The company has already had interest from North American companies keen to implement its offering. In collaboration with HP, Kinetics and the University of Auckland, Activiser was developed to allow users to access all the information from their dispatch systems via a PDA. The software is unique in that it supports any number of back office systems, and being a Microsoft-based product from end-to-end, Hunt says it has no compatibility issues.
With extensive experience in the IT industry, Hunt says Activiser has focused on IT companies because he knows them and their requirements well. “In the past, we’d have to tie up phone lines ringing or faxing job details through to our engineers. Staff in the field would be chasing around for work orders, and admin staff would be chasing up timesheets.”
Accurately deciphering handwriting dashed off in a hurry was also a big problem. Using Activiser, companies can now allocate jobs effectively via PDA, and technicians can also access the office infrastructure if queries arise on the job.
“If we have a client who queries a job, we can go back through our records there on the spot, and clarify the situation,” said Hunt. “The technician can also close the loop once the client has signed off the job on the PDA.”
All the information on the job — from components used, the time spent and any other associated costs — is fed directly back into the client’s computer system, and through to the credit controller. It simplifies invoicing at the end of the month, saving on valuable administration time that can be allocated elsewhere.
Sales force tools
Acceptance of mobility technology has grown exponentially over the last eight years, according to David Barley, Commercial Director for IT Link. IT Link assists companies from SMEs to much larger organisations with a field sales and distribution force that is on the road most of the time and needs to capture information, complete surveys or even keep an eye on the opposition within supermarkets. IT Link has developed Saleslink Mobile software, which Barley says has created a revolution in user productivity. “Managers are blown away with productivity gains.”
With Saleslink, the ability for multiple connections means that at any time sales reps can be logging in to check on accurate on-time stock records, and can capture any in-store data and push it back to the office.
“If product managers want to know how widely a product is distributed, and how it’s sold in-store, a survey request can be zapped out to all the PDAs and it can be incorporated into the call cycle,” explained Barley. Enhancing customer satisfaction is easy when your sales staff are mobile. “When a customer has a query, reps have access to the right product, at the correct price and often that enables quicker delivery,” Barley stated.
Customer feedback has shown that using technology in this way is very positively received because of increased accuracy throughout the reorder process, and happy customers are retained.
According to Mihai Rusescu, BitDefender’s Unit Channel Manager, APAC-EMEA, a worrying trend for security experts is the fact that smartphones are becoming smarter. “As more and more of these devices appear on the internet, they’ll start attracting unwanted attention. The Safari browser exploit that cracked the v1 iPhone open was just a small example of things to come.”How do you make sure your IT system remains secure with all this potential for mobile invasion?
Microsoft’s Green confirmed that new security systems within Vista have tightened up on access within the business space, as well as ensuring that lost or stolen devices can be locked down and wiped remotely. Check Point Technologies has also released Check Point VPN-1 to support the 3G iPhone’s introduction to corporate life in this part of the world.
“With the success of the iPhone, IT departments received multiple requests to connect the new devices to the corporate network,” said Scott McKinnel, Regional Director ANZ for Check Point.
“For the iPhone, Check Point created a simple configuration that provides instant, secure connectivity through VPN-1 gateways,” he said. The software enables an encrypted connection between the iPhone and VPN-1 gateway, which protects in-transit data.
Rusescu also recommends additional precautions for mobile devices when travelling overseas. “It pays to consider what sort of data you’re carrying. Some countries outlaw strong encryption, such as is needed for secure VPN, while others look down upon rock music or think nothing of industrial espionage. It’s a sad fact of life that poor and poorly regulated countries tend to be havens for cyber-crime. So think twice before installing that pack of Ukrainian ring-tones or using the open Wi-Fi source in your Shanghai hotel room.”
Evolution and implementation
There are plenty of mobility options out there for businesses to choose, so it’s really not all that scary after all. It does take a bit of planning and some thought. Talk to the experts. As your business evolves from one stage to another, the ability to add in more functionality is there, as and when you need it.
Make sure you have a good base to work from. Windows Mobile devices are hugely popular, and the iPhone can effortlessly synch with both Mac and PC platforms, so whatever your infrastructure, there are options available. Don’t be fooled by the latest and greatest: all the phone manufacturers are promising new and exciting products over the next 12 to 18 months, so don’t lock yourself in for too long. Ask for a trial unit from your provider so you can iron out the kinks before you implement the next phase — and if you don’t like it, keep trying until you find one that suits your workforce.
Mobility equals productivity. So what are you waiting for?