• Strategy
  • The Economist

A Different Way of Working

All sorts of companies are finding mobile Internet technology surprisingly useful.

For all the hullabaloo over new business models and dotcom startups, the benefits of the fixed-line Internet have accrued mostly to existing firms that reinvented themselves around it, rather than new firms that started from scratch. By adopting e-mail, intranets, extranets, customer-relationship management (CRM) and enterprise-resource planning (ERP) systems, large firms have made huge investments in Internet technology. It is now a relatively simple step, say proponents of the mobile Internet, to extend all of these systems to mobile devices, so that employees can access the information they need from anywhere.

Mobile devices, says Martin Dunsby of Deloitte Consulting, enable workers on the front line to get at data in the back office. “The value is not from cutting the cable,” he says, “it’s from the process change that’s enabled by the technology.” He gives the example of time-and-expense tracking, in which consultants enter the amount of time spent working on a particular project into a handheld device. This may not be any quicker for them than filling in a paper timesheet, but it means that the data can be sent back to head office straight away and an invoice issued, rather than the information being keyed into the accounting system at head office several days later. Similarly, when visiting a client, a salesman can use a wireless handheld device to call up the latest inventory levels, technical support histories and so on.

It may sound mundane, but given the sorts of corporate information systems that many firms, particularly in America, have already implemented, it is a logical next step. This means, says Mr Dunsby, that in the next three years most of the action on the mobile Internet will be in the corporate market. Adoption will be fastest in America: a survey by Zona Research found that 66% of American firms are planning to deploy mobile Internet technology within the next three years, if they have not done so already.

Business use of the mobile Internet also escapes the chicken-and-egg problem of aligning services with available hardware: a firm that wants to provide its workforce with wireless access can specify the entire system from top to bottom, from handsets to software to network provider. Existing technology, in the form of 2.5G and Wi-Fi networks, is already good enough to make this possible today: there is no need to wait for 3G. And there is a growing range of handheld computers, Internet-capable phones and intermediate devices to choose from.

The Wireless Workforce

At present, adoption of mobile Internet technology makes more sense in some industries than others. Not surprisingly, it holds particular appeal for firms with mobile workforces. The early adopters, says Joan Herbig of XcelleNet, a firm that provides remote management software for corporate handheld devices, are the same users that first adopted laptops in the 1990s: sales forces in financial services, health care and pharmaceuticals, field workers for utilities and so on.

Surely most mobile workers already have laptops? Yes, but wireless handheld devices have a number of advantages. Laptops have complicated operating system software, plus a whole lot of additional software loaded on top, whereas handheld computers or phones are much simpler machines, with almost nothing to go wrong. This means that support costs are lower by a factor of at least five. When Goldman Sachs employees were given BlackBerry e-mail pagers developed by Research in Motion, a Canadian wireless firm, their use of laptops fell by 45%. A fifth of BlackBerry users stopped using their laptops altogether.

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