Wireless Means Business

Wireless access to data could help countless companies achieve better financial results, but the enterprise sector needs help and education in order to discover what it can do for productivity and revenues.

At the same time, awareness is growing among firms of the benefits that mobility, in all its forms, can bring, according to research conducted by IDC and commissioned by Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO). IDC found that small and medium-sized companies (between 20 and 499 employees) in Europe are investing more in "mobility solutions," which could be anything from wireless access to an intranet from a mobile network to hotdesking within corporate premises.

Of the 1,236 companies questioned, 23 percent have some staff using wireless cards for data access or plan to do so within the next year, while 42 percent are using, or plan to use, wireless LAN access within their company. In addition, one percent of these companies said they had some employees using Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) (Nasdaq: RIMM; Toronto: RIM)'s Blackberry device, 9.5 percent had smartphone users, and 73.3 percent had employees with company mobile phones.

Whatever the technology deployed to make employees more mobile, says IDC business analyst Andrew Walton, the same issues are relevant: security, productivity, control, and cost. Walton interviewed more than a dozen companies for more qualitative information to flesh out the numbers given above, and he found companies using wireless technologies in very individual ways to fit their very specific business needs.

One example is French delivery company Bernard SA, which uses WLAN equipment to link its warehouses and its forklifts so that staff can control and organize stock efficiently. The company claims the implementation of a wireless strategy has revolutionized the warehousing and logistics divisions of the firm, and as a result it now recoups 30 percent of revenues that were previously lost due to mistakes. Since deploying the WLAN, the company's business has grown by 7 percent per year.

Cisco, meanwhile, has implemented systems that allow its workers to use wireless access more efficiently. "We have automated functions that switch off things like backup when we roam off the corporate wireless LAN and onto a GPRS connection, for example," says Jon Hindle, strategic technology manager of mobile networking at Cisco in the U.K.

Another serious issue for companies to consider when providing wireless access for employees is keeping track of the devices being used to access corporate data, adds Hindle. When new devices hit the market, staff (especially those in the tech sector who may get advance issues) can often use new devices that have not been approved by the IT team to access data. This can lead to security issues if the additional devices do not have the correct configurations or use an alternative access method, such as Bluetooth.

Despite increasing awareness and use of wireless solutions, Miles Powell, director of business development in the mobile enterprise solutions division of wireless ASP Aspective Ltd., says many companies still regard mobile services as being little more than just voice and basic messaging. "It's all about education, enlightening companies about what can be done to add to their bottom line. It's particularly difficult as IT budgets are squeezed, as mobile is hardly at the top of the investment list, but understanding individual needs and helping companies to build a return on investment plan soon determines whether wireless solutions can help their business. Not every company would benefit," he adds, but at least the firms then understand how mobile data can be used as a business tool.

Powell thinks mobile carriers often keep business users in the dark by selling GPRS simply as a data access product that can provide email access, without demonstrating its relevance to a company's specific business needs.

"There's a lot of hype about the importance of wireless access to email, but it's difficult for most companies to build a clear return on investment case around that," says Powell. "For most firms, the business case for wireless is built around a sales force or field workers, where they can perform trials based around productivity, cost reduction, and increasing sales. The fact is that every company is different -- there isn't any one thing you could call the killer app. What tends to be forgotten is that all sorts of companies use mobile data very differently."

Does Aspective itself benefit from wireless solutions? "Oh yes. As the saying goes, 'We eat our own dog food' -- though I prefer the British version of that saying, 'We walk the talk.' "

Powell adds that GPRS is more than adequate for enterprise needs at present, once data compression and IP optimization techniques are deployed. But companies "don't give a stuff about technology -- they're only interested in the change it will have on the way they work." It's early days for corporate use of mobile data, he says, but in two to three years' time many emerging solutions will be commonly used and more high-end applications will be on the uptake, such as wireless VPNs (see Trust Is Key to Wireless VPNs).

Powell is doubtful that early 3G service providers will attract many business users because of the inevitable high-profile problems that the networks and handsets will present, "let alone the issue of handset supply. It would be good if 3G stimulated interest and demand for mobile data services, but at the same time it could muddy the waters further for 2.5G."

— Ray Le Maistre, European Editor, Unstrung
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