Enterprise Mobility's Long Memory

The nation’s big cellular carriers are revving up the marketing and technical machinery to serve business users.

No, really. They mean it this time.

Case in point: Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) is just the latest carrier to jump into the “mobilized applications” pool, promising lots of backend integration between wireless networks and key application suites like supply chain management. (See Sprint's Enterprise Challenge.)

According to company executives, the Sprint Enterprise Mobility unit won’t limit itself to its parent’s products and services and will partner wherever it needs to in order to make wireless and mobility a competitive differentiator for customers.

It all sounds great – just the sort of handset-to-management console approach an enterprise needs to make its field personnel more productive, help it get closer to customers, or keep closer tabs on all its inventory.

Problem is, many business customers have heard it all before from cellular carriers during the technology’s 20-year lifecycle. And those carriers don’t seem much closer to delivering something useful or valuable.

Networks have gotten more complex and applications proliferate, apologists will tell you. Integration is expensive and perilous. And then along comes the Internet, muddying the waters with e-commerce and Web-based applications. Small wonder, then, that the carriers don’t shine where enterprise wireless networking is concerned.

But the bigger problem is mindset. The carriers have never really had to compete that hard for the enterprise buck. The metro services market is moderately competitive, but it’s mostly a business of big pipes and margins that get smaller all the time. You want value-add? How about a “thank you” when you hand off your fiber to them inside the nearest POP?

Until recently, the wireline-affiliated cellular carriers essentially ran the game with business customers. Sell lots of numbers and airtime; give away the handset if you have to. Consolidated billing? How about we just staple ’em all together. Troubleshooting for road warriors who can’t connect? Sorry, ma’am, this isn’t Radio Shack. Voice and data services together? On the same network? Well, we all know what happens when you cross those streams.

Wireless networking has plenty of strikes against it. Slow data speeds, even in this brave new 3G world of EV-DO. Handsets that are easy to use if your fingers are knitting-needle size. A wireless Web that is still a pale imitation of the Internet – a subnet, really. And while equipment vendors will tell you that wireless security issues have been fixed, there’s still sufficient doubt and suspicion to keep wireless from being as big a part of the IT mix as Ethernet, email, or Web browsing.

Despite all those potential downsides, and the carriers’ own lackluster performance in servicing business accounts, enterprise customers are still unbelievably receptive to wireless possibilities. Maybe 802.11 wireless LANs have whetted their appetites anew, or demonstrated the real possibilities on a micro level. Yet customers in industries as varied as food packaging and healthcare made it clear they need help, and the sooner the better.

But they’ve also made clear they’re not going to stand for half-baked pitches. Manny Singh, director of IT for Prairie Packaging in Bedford Park, Ill., recounted a recent experience with a Sprint sales team trying to sell him some vehicle location technology. Imagine the lead salesperson’s face when Singh called their bluff on trying to sell him an off-the-shelf Microsoft application he’d already considered and rejected.

Carriers, if you’re going to bring it, then bring it. Just make sure the integration story is real, and not so much marketing smoke and mirrors. Carriers have already squandered plenty of customer good will, and the supply is not limitless. Played right, carriers could insinuate themselves on a variety of levels with customers and their networks. But if they fumble again, it’s going to be a lot harder to get another foot in the door for integration or any other add-ons.

— Terry Sweeney, Editor in Chief, Unstrung

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