Sprint's Enterprise Challenge

Customers are dubious where enterprise mobility promises are concerned, but real integration could save the day

February 28, 2006

5 Min Read
Sprint's Enterprise Challenge

Customers can be forgiven if they view formation of Sprint's new Enterprise Mobility division as a good-news/bad-news proposition. (See Sprint Opens Mobile Services.)

Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) launched the unit in December to help large businesses and government users design, implement, and manage custom wireless networks and applications that may span multiple locations or operating systems. The challenges of diverse sites and software have retarded larger users’ uptake and exploitation of wireless, beyond cellular handsets for voice or the sporadic wireless LAN access point. By focusing on integration with existing systems and key application suites like customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP), for example, Sprint Enterprise Mobility (SEM) can help customers save money, improve delivery or get closer to their own customers, says Bill Halbert, SEM’s president and a former BT executive.

The bad news is that this sort of thing -- a business unit devoted solely to enterprise mobility requirements -- has been tried before, not just by Sprint Nextel but also by Cingular Wireless and Verizon Wireless , with mixed results.

But the good news is that wireless carriers haven’t squandered all the customer good will out there. And if they can make this something more than just a chance to sell lots of handsets and airtime, enterprises may actually give them a shot.

Beyond the widget play
“I think it’s a good idea -- it’s really needed,” notes Phil Skinner, director of technology engineering and deployment for the Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus. He discussed the same sort of wireless integration challenges with Verizon recently, with less than satisfying results. “A lot of promises were made and they had a vision, but they never really fully delivered what they were talking about,” Skinner says. But SEM could help the healthcare facility in a big way, he adds, by getting test results to the handhelds of critical-care physicians more readily, or by making email more useful in a mobile environment.

Healthcare is just one of the verticals that SEM has targeted; the unit is also looking at retail, insurance, utilities, and other sectors with significant field service personnel. “We don’t see what we’re offering as an add-on or a widget play,” says Rob Morrison, VP of business operations for SEM. “It’s about how companies do their work, handle processes, and do it more productively and efficiently and drive revenue sources using mobility.”

That may sound a bit grandiose, but to its credit, SEM won’t limit itself to Sprint Nextel products or services, Halbert tells Unstrung. “That’s not how the real word operates. They have a mixture of all these things -- they are usually multi-carrier, multi-vendor with multiple devices,” he says. The company will partner wherever it can with third-parties, integrators, application developers, and other carriers. Halbert won’t divulge who he’s been talking to but says partnership news is imminent.

That’s welcome news for Manny Singh, director of IT, for Prairie Packaging Inc. in Bedford Park, Ill., which makes plastic and foam products for the disposable food service and retail markets. Already a Sprint customer for landline telephony services, Singh consulted the carrier just a few months ago about how his company could make better use of wireless. What he heard didn’t impress him.

As a result, he went with Cingular, whose partnerships with Symbol Technologies Inc. (NYSE: SBL) and barcode/RFID powerhouse Intermec Technologies Corp. made it an easy decision. "We are expanding like crazy -- we buy up temporary space, and put people in there with RF guns,” to handle inventory and asset management, Singh explains. Typically, his department finds out about such projects a day or two beforehand. And the hitch was that the RF guns had to be cellular-compatible, since a high-speed landline connection like a T1 can take two weeks or more to get installed.

Through Cingular and its partners, Singh’s been able to buy a commercial-grade device, put a SIM card in and turn the scanners loose in a new facility. “It worked beautifully right out of the blocks,” Singh says. “Sprint wasn’t able to provide that depth of solution.”

The uncertainty principle
Singh says he’s willing to give them the benfit of the doubt until they can work through integration issues with Nextel and fine-tune the enterprise mobility message. He’d like to see some unified billing and accounting. “Sprint needs to decide how they’re going to do this merger with Nextel and how it’s going to work,” he notes. “It all reminds me of MCI, where they put their name on the letterhead, but I still have to deal with five separate invoices.”

“There’s definitely a gap in the marketplace right now for enterprises that want to buy comprehensive mobility solutions,” says Gene Signorini, research director for enterprise mobility for Yankee Group Research Inc. . “There’s uncertainty around the networks, devices, and software and how you effectively take these technologies and improve your business processes. So integration of mobile software with middleware and back-end solutions is where companies will need help putting this together.”

Skinner said the medical center struggles with integration “quite a bit.” Smartphones may allow you to talk and send basic text messages, but they are “hardly good for anything, because there’s not enough real estate to get you what you need,” he says, whether it’s opening an attachment or clicking on a URL buried in a message that actually loads the site.

A recent visit to Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) and some previews of what’s coming down the pike in Outlook have crystallized Skinner’s thinking on this issue. “They have to start rendering applications differently to the screen” of the wireless device, he says. “It literally has to be thought of from the workflow standpoint, and all the different wireless form factors.” SEM could help him and other enterprises by addressing the best way for end-users to tap into all that while optimizing the way the application works.

SEM’s Morrison points to the retail sector as an example of how the carrier can add value and unlock the potential of multiple wireless technologies. “Wireless is already in use in many stores -- from there, it’s natural to look to mobile CRM, then supply-chain management and optimization,” he says, connecting the dots with RFID and SAP types of systems. “What we haven’t done is place significant investments or bets in those areas, but those are the kinds of capabilities we expect to deploy and enable in a mobile sense.”

— Terry Sweeney, Editor in Chief, Unstrung

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