Wireless Wonderland

As companies embrace mobility, many wonder whether any vendor can provide one-stop shopping.
John McPartlinDecember 21, 2005

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.”

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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.

According to a Forrester Research study, many companies are now employing mobile-data applications much faster than they initially anticipated. Almost 50 percent of the 1,000 companies surveyed by Forrester say they have already rolled out such applications, ranging in complexity from wireless E-mail to complex data-collection and -management projects, and that such deployments were done 18 percent faster than planned. These companies expect mobile applications to be used, on average, by 23 percent of their workforce. And 30 percent of the respondents say they plan to eventually provide mobile access to critical enterprise data. The survey participants also say that they expect about 19 percent of all voice traffic to be switched over to mobile services by the end of this year.

Wireless, in fact, is quickly expanding beyond its initial status as a sexy new technology tailored for that subset of employees most likely to be on the road. In January, Ford Motor Co. cut the cord on 8,000 landline phones in its product-development area and converted to wireless phones from Sprint. Ford engineers now wander the company’s campus and chat with one another using the walkie-talkie function and make wireless calls to other co-workers. Capital One Financial Corp. is going further in the process of moving 1,500 employees to a totally mobile computing environment, complete with Wi-Fi laptops, VoIP phones, and wireless printers, as part of its “Future of Work” program.

But for every large company that has a plan for enterprise mobility, there are 10 others that don’t know how to even begin assessing what they have, let alone move forward on other projects. Increasingly, these companies are looking for a hand to sort through their mobility mess, cut costs, eliminate redundancies, negotiate better deals with vendors, and then start thinking about more-strategic uses of mobile technology and mobile applications.

Even large organizations that are used to handling their own technology needs are increasingly turning to outside help when it comes to mobility, because of the technology’s complexity and its legal and regulatory ramifications, says Ellen Daley, a principal analyst at Forrester. “It’s because of the risk of information disseminated on these mobile devices,” she says. “Many CIOs are concerned about Sarbanes-Oxley, especially in financial services. In the health-care industry, they are concerned about HIPAA. They need mobile access to be secure, and they can outsource that risk. It can’t be a completely internal job; they may decide to go outside at some point.”

Daley predicts a “four-industry Twister game” between carriers, software vendors (IBM, SAP, Sybase, and others), systems integrators, and the mobile-device manufacturers themselves (such as Texas Instruments and Motorola) that want to get out from under the shadow of the carriers. The strongest contenders, she says, are systems integrators and mobile carriers.

It’s Who They Know

“Who will be the prime contractor to help bring all the pieces together?” asks Daley. “Right now, companies can go to a systems integrator like Accenture or Capgemini, or a boutique consulting firm, or one of the major carriers like Sprint, Cingular, or Verizon.” The carriers, she points out, see that enterprises offer much higher margins than the consumer side, so they are working hard to get a foot in the door of Corporate America by offering to help companies figure out their mobile strategy.

Systems integrators have an advantage in this competitive realm, says Daley, because they have established relationships with the technology and service providers needed to provide a complete solution, and they can leverage those relationships more easily than the carriers can. They also have the advantage of expertise in key vertical markets that can help them turn things around quickly, while carriers are still getting up to speed. “Systems integrators will likely control this market in the end,” predicts Daley. “As companies evolve, they want someone who knows their business and their industry like a systems integrator does. To compete, [carriers] will have to do more than just hire a handful of people who know a given vertical industry.”

Last month, Electronic Data Systems Corp. (EDS) announced its Mobile Workplace Services offering, an end-to-end mobility-management service. The company, like other systems integrators, seems confident that it will own this business, and scoffs at carriers’ assertions that they can be so unbiased in putting together service packages that they (the carriers) would actually recommend competitors’ products. “How can one carrier or service provider really be agnostic?” asks Patricia Wilkey, director of global desktop and mobility at EDS. “We are independent. We do not have our own devices to sell.” EDS will make the effort to really “understand the environment” at large enterprises, she says, and partner with clients for the long haul. In contrast, she maintains that carriers will continue to look at “one- or two-year agreements.” But Wilkey is quick to add that “carriers are our friends, and it’s important to our strategy to leverage that. EDS has reached out to carriers directly to set up relationships to allow global seamless mobility.”

Overwhelmed and Frightened

But the carriers are not content to simply wait for a systems integrator to tap them as needed. In July, Sprint announced the formation of its Sprint Mobile Business Assessment (SMBA) unit to help formalize some of the consulting work it had been doing with companies over the previous 18 months. The new unit meets with large companies for a period of four to six weeks, interviewing everyone from the CFO and CIO to “road warriors” and other off-site employees who use mobile devices and applications daily.

Executives at Sprint say the idea for the new business unit came from conversations with customers about their mobility concerns. “We talked to enterprises trying to get their arms around what mobility can do to motivate their businesses,” says Scott Boehmer, Sprint’s general manager, Mobile Business Solutions. “We took a look at everything from handsets to mobile devices to applications. What we found was that people are overwhelmed and frightened by the whole concept right now and concerned about security going forward.”

Seeing a need (that is, a market) for greater hand-holding, Sprint organized a SWAT team of consultants, technical folks, and business analysts who set up camp at large firms, figure out what is going wrong, and come up with short-term and long-term mobility strategies. “Too often we see large enterprises with a dozen or more mobility strategies, or we see them not deploying wireless at all,” says Kenneth Wyatt, assistant vice president, Sprint Business Solutions. “In a meeting with one customer, the CIO put his head down on the desk and said, ‘We really need your help.’ They had zero mobile governance, they let their operating companies make all the decisions about wireless contracts, and their costs were out of control. We did 38 separate interviews, expense reviews, and analyses and came up with an 18-to-24-month plan with tangible ROI.”

Many times, tinkering with corporate mobile strategies simply involves getting the companies to spend their money more wisely, Wyatt says. Some companies almost literally throw wireless devices at their workers, with little monitoring of costs. One way to bring order is to create assessment plans and profiles for different classes of employees. “Not everyone needs a Blackberry or a Treo,” he explains. “On the other hand, at one company, we found that 70 percent of workers had to carry two or more devices in addition to their Blackberries just to get access to critical information.”

Once these customers have a clear picture of their current needs and usage patterns, Sprint’s SMBA group walks them through ways they can use mobile applications to save money, increase business, and make workers more productive. Even as they step into the role of middleman, carriers such as Sprint and Cingular insist they are performing these enterprise assessments in the interest of helping their customers, and not to sell more wireless and data services or act as full-time consultants.

“Sprint has a lot of great products and services, but it’s not my job to sell them,” says Wyatt. “This is straight strategy work, and we keep it separate from the sales force.” That said, Wyatt also points out that “there are tons of applications just dying to be mobilized and ways to make existing applications smarter with a mobility framework.” The company has set up a number of deals with application providers and middleware vendors to offer a range of services that it says is flexible, customizable, and vendor-neutral.

Cingular is also treading lightly. “We are careful to not be more than we really are,” says Jeff Bradley, vice president of business data services at Cingular. “We are not trying to be a for-profit consulting arm, we’re just helping customers realize what’s possible and playing the role of facilitator.” Cingular says its dedicated account teams, data-services consultants, and alliances with consultants and systems integrators (such as Accenture and DiamondCluster International) give the firm a strategic edge with business customers.

A Theory of Evolution

It was Cingular, in fact, that ultimately helped Tara put all the pieces in place for his fleet of mobile emergency units. The company provided Tara with an onboard vehicle hub that included a modem, an 802.11 connection, and a hard drive running Linux that consolidated all the various protocols at work, linked them together, and streamlined communication within and outside of the vehicles.

That may still not equal the one-stop shopping that many customers would like, but it is progress. As Tara sees it, enterprise mobility is at the same point in its evolution today as back-office operations were prior to the emergence of ERP systems.

“In the beginning, everyone had an accounts-receivable and an inventory-management system run by a department head,” he says. “You could find people to build each of those point solutions. But when ERP came along, you finally had a one-stop place to solve your problems. The killer app ended up being an integrated solution rather than any specific part. That’s what the mobile computing world needs.”

Wimax: So Close, and Yet…

While things move fast in the world of wireless, they don’t always move that fast. Consider the wireless broadband service known as WiMax. It is similar to Wi-Fi (think airport and Starbucks “hot spots”) but has signals that can travel miles rather than hundreds of yards and can pack more data into less spectrum. Despite being hyped to death in technology circles for the past couple of years, true WiMax really does not yet exist in the real world, primarily because equipment certification is dragging on. And on. And on.

In fact, a press release from July that touted a quarterly meeting of the industry group WiMax Forum repeatedly and almost obsessively reassured readers that WiMax is real. Some WiMax applications recently demonstrated or tested include VoIP, streaming audio and video, interactive gaming, and simple Web browsing and file transfer.

AT&T continues to test corporate WiMax services on a limited basis in Atlanta and in Middletown, New Jersey, while BellSouth also has a limited test running in Florida. Market-research firm In-Stat believes that WiMax will provide yet another way for home users to gain broadband speed wirelessly, and at relatively low prices, but it says carriers will have to bundle VoIP phone services with it to make it more appealing. WiMax is also expected to provide companies with an inexpensive way to equip offices with wireless networks.

When finally available, WiMax will offer a high-speed wireless broadband transfer rate of around 70 megabits per second over a distance of 30 miles and will serve as a more robust and wider-ranging companion to Wi-Fi. Carriers such as AT&T and Sprint have cited WiMax as a way to provide “last mile” services to corporate customers without relying on the landlines maintained by local exchange carriers. WiMax has also received considerable support from Intel, which plans to eventually sell chip sets for laptops and other devices so that WiMax capabilities will be built-in.

However, while a fixed-wireless standard version of WiMax has been approved, the more versatile mobile version will likely not be standardized until the end of 2006, with mobile products hitting the market in either 2007 or 2008. In other words, if you’ve put off buying a laptop because you want WiMax capabilities, reconsider. —J.McP.