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Wireless Wonderland

As companies embrace mobility, many wonder whether any vendor can provide one-stop shopping.

When Bill Tara, CIO of American Medical Response Inc., the country’s largest private medical-transportation company, needed help rolling out mobile enterprise applications to his company’s 18,000 employees, no one answered his 911 call. None of the company’s systems integrators, wireless carriers, device manufacturers, or application vendors had all the technology pieces he needed to complete a complex network that would link ambulances and dispatchers with hospitals and the medical histories of the 4.5 million patients the company serves.

“There is a vast amount of information we need to know at any given time about our ambulances — where they are, where they are going, who is in them, the medical history of the people they are carrying, and the quickest way from point A to point B during rush hour in New York City,” says Tara. “And then we need to electronically transfer some of this information when we get to the hospital. The challenge we faced was how to provide leading-edge patient care in an ambulance. We basically needed a mobile emergency department.”

True, most companies don’t have to worry about how a bevy of computing and wireless devices that rely on different communications protocols will fare when piled into a motor vehicle beset by electromagnetic interference and a wailing siren. But many executives can empathize with Tara when he notes that “the mobile-computing world is really absent that point person who can tie it all together for you.” Carriers, he says, can supply bandwidth, hardware, and even security, but they lack a universal footprint. Consulting firms understand the business issues but don’t have a solid grasp of mobile technology. Hardware and software companies tout “wireless solutions,” as do systems integrators and even outsourcers. But to date, no entity has emerged as the partner of choice, able to offer one-stop shopping for all things mobile. As Tara says, “It’s like the six blind men and the elephant out there.”

Dave Sobb, vice president for logistics at office-and computer-products company Corporate Express, agrees. Three years ago, when the company decided to provide its 1,500 delivery drivers with mobile devices to manage routes and capture electronic customer signatures, it had to ink deals with two companies: one for network services, and one for handheld devices and software. If the company were to do the same today, he says, it would need a similar approach. “There is certainly an opportunity in this area,” notes Sobb. “I have not yet seen anybody step forward to do it. We still look to multiple partners to get what we need.”

Waiting for a White Knight

Three years ago, many companies felt that they needed time to assess their wireless options, and they assumed that when they were ready to do anything major a white knight would have arrived. That hasn’t happened, and now companies are feeling pressure as increasingly mobile employees clamor for remote access to data, and anecdotal evidence suggests that mobile computing enhances overall productivity.

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