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Thu 5 Oct 2006 04:00 AM

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M-enabling the enterprise

Given the challenges faced by organisations today in an increasingly competitive marketplace, companies are looking for a business advantage to sustain their corporate objectives, writes Akshay Lamba, a business and telecom consultant.

|~|AL200.jpg|~|Lamba: To build a sustainable competitive advantage companies need to build m-enablement into their system.|~|After the last decade’s rush to e-enable critical business processes via ERP applications in the organisation, and then enabling these applications on laptops via secure VPN tunnels, companies are now looking towards seamlessly extending these applications to the mobile handset for anywhere, anytime utility.

Merge this requirement with the current development in telecommunication infrastructure worldwide and you have the potential for a winner in your hands. Services like GPRS, EDGE, 3G Data, HSDPA and disruptive technologies such as WiMAX on the horizon, promise a future that enables businesses to deliver online, up-to-the-minute, mobile data to their employees, associates and partners globally.

Initially focused to crash the process times for processes such as supply chain management, order booking and customer relationship management, m-enablement of enterprise data is now seen as the next step in the evolution of process acceleration in the business world.

A perfect historical example of this progress is the widespread availability of broadband connectivity altering the definition of mobile sales. Prior to broadband, remote sales representatives required 100% disconnected functionality from their customer relationship management (CRM) sales applications. 28.8-Kbps dial-up access for online use was too slow, given the amount of data that required synchronisation.

To be competitive for disconnected use, sales applications required a client/server application with a local database and a robust data synchronisation engine. In a 28.8-Kbps environment, mobile meant disconnected, whether in an office, hotel or client location. Now, remote direct field sales representatives can connect to corporate network infrastructure with high-speed, low-cost, secure, virtual private network connectivity via cable, digital subscriber line or satellite services.

IT departments that are scrambling to support increasing business demand of mobile connectivity must master three core areas, namely, connectivity, security and end user device management. While this is old news in terms of developing and maintaining mobile connectivity via laptops, it is a whole new world out there when it comes to delivering these capabilities to mobile handsets such as PDAs, smartphones and Blackberrys.

There are two stages of mobility that need to be analysed before jumping into the m-enablement of enterprise applications: complete mobility and partial mobility.
Complete mobility provides 100% disconnected functionality of all features. For example, a sales representative works in a common application and interface, whether attached or disconnected. Typically, complete functionality is the preferred choice for road warrior sales teams.

Partial mobility provides incomplete functionality while disconnected or enables selected data and files to be individually identified and downloaded from the fully functional online application. Files can be accessed and changed while the user is mobile. Synchronisation occurs when the user reconnects to the network. Partial mobility may be appropriate for operators of an enterprise supply chain.

The most critical technical issue when mobilising enterprise applications over mobile data networks is typically latency, closely followed by coverage and capacity.

To maximise the quality of experience, it is paramount to minimise the number of packets sent. Latency is typically 250 to 700 milliseconds (ms) in a mobile data network compared with less than 100ms using wireline connections within a continent and about 350ms to the other side of the globe. Satellite connections typically have a latency of more than 700ms.

Other IT scenarios for m-enabling enterprise applications include:

- delivering a “fat” application (including those that are “chatty” from a network perspective) over a mobile data connection with high latency. Many legacy client/server applications fall into this category, having been originally designed for use over a LAN but later deployed over a WAN or mobile data network;

- delivering a native Windows application outside the firewall while minimising security risk;

- delivering Windows applications that cannot be easily installed locally because of local operating system incompatibilities, DLL conflicts, and other behavior that destabilises other applications in the standard build;

- delivering a new, non-Web-based application to a massive number of users simultaneously. This can be used when a new application or application upgrade must be available immediately to a large user base, especially when normal distribution mechanisms are inadequate to service users with limited (or expensive) bandwidth available;

- having to roll out a centralised, non-web-based, application into a heterogeneous organisation with federated governance and no centralised image management, nor centralised software distribution; or

- secure access to various applications over the Internet is needed, and no traditional VPN infrastructure is available
The initial success stories globally, especially in Europe, show that some verticals have taken to the mobile enterprise more aggressively than others. B2C services companies that have a regular information exchange with customers — banks, telcos, airlines, utilities, and travel companies — have been at the forefront of deploying applications like customer support and alerts.

Logistics/courier, IT, and FMCG companies have taken to the B2E and B2B applications, media, retail, food chains and some FMCG companies have gone ahead to unleash mobile’s potential as a marketing medium. Mobile banking, field-force automation, shipment tracking, airline schedules, and content-based applications have been the most popular applications.

The decision to go wireless is one that every company will have to face at some point of time. Most of the businesses already understand the value of wireless connectivity to their employees and are confident that the technology is maturing.
A good candidate for m-enabling would be a business where the value of time on the cost/revenue is significant. Mobile, being anytime, anywhere, can make a big difference. Another would be a company with a robust backend, where data gets updated online or at least at the end of the day via the internet. ||**|||~||~||~|Other companies suitable for m-enablement would be those needing to keep customers informed of information on a pre-emptive basis or to let them access information anytime they want; those with a firm ROI for going wireless; with a medium-to-large field sales force and/or distribution network; or with an online presence, providing dynamic information.

Usually, the idea for doing something through mobile originates from a specific process manager who sees the value. That is how it should be. A process manager is the best person not only to take a decision on how that would help his process but also to measure the ROI in specific terms.

However, if in a progressive enterprise with early adapter mindset, multiple process managers are thinking on m-enabling their processes to get some clear value, more often than not, they will end up in a stage where information generated by one process could be extremely valuable for another.

What is needed to take full advantage of applications should such a situation arise is a format of information that can be accessed by various applications, and maybe a common database/middleware.

While the functionality of an application is pure discretion of the concerned process manager, the advantages are optimised if the backend information systems are standardised. Conceptually, it is the same manner and reason IT implementation was happening in the initial days of ERP systems. However, there are two differences in the business scenario today: the processes are streamlined, thanks to the IT systems in place and the integration task is more complex.

IT departments have two strategies for m-enablement to choose between. The first is to ‘extend’ the capabilities of current enterprise systems to the mobile handsets via WAP converters or PDA thin client installations. The second option is to deploy a separate mobile system that integrates with the current enterprise application integration layer.

The main driver for choosing the strategy for any department should be their current mix of legacy versus new enterprise systems. This is driven by the fact that m-enabled systems should be integrated not with just the existing business processes, but also with enterprises’ existing information infrastructure. It can be another channel of accessing the applications.

In cases where an enterprise has an existing web-based infrastructure for a particular business process, that should be upgraded to work with mobile. This requires little extra effort, and saves both time and cost.

Companies that have not gone for web-based processes, and which are planning to deploy them now should talk to vendors about the mobile-readiness of their applications.
In cases where it is possible to perform certain ‘tasks’ that involve pure flow of information, such as bill payment or account transfer, the m-enablement of the application can not only be used to increase process efficiency but also as another revenue channel.

For end user equipment, like in the PC environment, consistent management strategies involving controlled system images, planned migrations and lockdown enable IT organisations to achieve the platform stability needed to implement and deliver applications with satisfactory quality of service.

The mobile device environment of PDAs and phones has not yet focused on PC-like management issues and requirements such as these. This is because the world of mobile devices has been driven by consumer tastes so far, resulting in a high degree of platform variance, wide diversity in features and high product turnover.

However, PDAs and phones will be used increasingly as enterprise tools and so will become more scrutinised for enterprise suitability. Mobile device vendors must understand that organisations will shift responsibility for the evaluation, procurement and management of mobile devices to the IT department.

IT organisations will ultimately expect to treat these mobile devices (which access corporate systems and store business data) as managed and trusted business assets in the same way they treat PCs. This will require PDA and handset manufacturers to look at the controlled and managed enterprise PC environment to understand what organisations require from their suppliers and then define specific enterprise products with PC-like management attributes.

A good example of this thought process is the handling of the consumer segment devices vs. enterprise segment devices by RIM, the inventors of Blackberry enterprise solutions. PDAs have matured into capable devices able to run comprehensive business applications, and PDA procurement within enterprises has increased during the past several years. About half of all PDAs in the market today are being bought and supported by IT organisations.

In conclusion, in order to build sustainable competitive business advantage, companies in the region would need to build m-enablement of their enterprise applications into their system. This is especially true for organisations that are aggressively looking at expanding business not only in UAE but also other international locations in the region. The business case for this deployment would be based on process acceleration within the company and the thrust for deployment would be led by either increased revenue generation via sales force m-enablement or via a cost cutting view into its supply chain management.

Akshay Lamba is a business and telecom consultant. He can be reached at akshay@lambaweb.com. The views in the article are the author’s. ||**||

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