By Eliot Beer
The mobile workforce is becoming a reality, but the Middle East still lags when it comes to advanced deployments – despite high demand for mobile devices. Eliot Beer looks at the shift to smartphones.
In America they call it ‘CrackBerry'. The addictive nature of push email devices that link directly to corporate email systems is now a recognised phenomenon - a dictionary named ‘CrackBerry' as its new word of the year in 2006. One story sees an addicted BlackBerry user wander a small town searching for a signal, until begging a friend to take him somewhere with coverage.
That electronic communication is so compulsive should not come as a surprise to the Middle East - a region where Bluetooth headsets are de rigueur and significant numbers of professionals carry two or more phones. The highly successful launch of BlackBerry across the region - at least seven countries and counting - definitively demonstrated the demand for enterprise-class mobility systems.
But Middle Eastern enterprises are still largely conservative when it comes to exploiting the possibilities of mobile working - currently push email is more or less the limit of mobile device deployments. This is in contrast to the possibilities of integration that all of the major mobile OS vendors offer.
Joe Devassy, enterprise solutions sales manager at Nokia Middle East and Africa, says that although solutions such as Nokia's Intellisync offer integration with enterprise applications, uptake in the region is still non-existent.
"It would take around 12 to 24 months before most organisations look to mobilise an ERP or CRM application for a mobile phone," says Devassy. "Our strategy is to make sure that the email works well - that's the application that most enterprises want to mobilise first, as it gives the most RoI right away. We expect there will be a time when most organisations have email mobilised - then that raises the concern of things like security policies, standardisation of devices, device management.
"It's only when you cross that hurdle, and you have full control of your fleet of devices, that you'll look at ERP. Financials will never mobilise till you have full control of your devices."
Devassy outlines a two-year roadmap for organisations' mobility deployments, starting with push email. Once this is running, Devassy predicts IT managers will experience several relatively serious security breaches, which will compel them to implement proper security policies and management software, and standardise on one set of devices (Devassy suggests Nokia's E61).
"So then the IT manager feels secure, feels in control - then he looks at implementing CRM, ERP," says Devassy. "I think two years is a fair assessment for these phases - not to say a few companies here and there won't start. But for most, it will be around two years."
Nokia claims a lead in the mobility market, with its Intellisync and Symbian OS widely used throughout enterprises. And with its devices almost ubiquitous in the Middle East - Devassy says the vendor's Communicator range of phones sees huge success in the region - it can justifiably feel somewhat proud.
But Microsoft is busy in its attempts to promote its Windows Mobile system for enterprise mobility devices, and has the advantage of its desktop OS experience, along with major clout among developers and other technology partners.
It has also extended its reach to cover a huge number of device vendors - even down to former bitter rivals, such as Palm. But Microsoft's efforts in the mobility space have been hampered by Windows Mobile's image as a consumer OS, not as suited to business users as Symbian or RIM.
The Redmond giant is fighting back, though, with devices such as the Samsung i600 - or BlackJack, as it was branded in other markets. The new business-focused slim smartphone has proved a major success in the US, with more than a million handsets sold in the months following its launch.
At a joint announcement to promote the i600, Samsung and Microsoft's executives were both keen to promote the development capabilities of both the device and the OS - with Microsoft on the back foot for once in the OS sector, the vendor is working hard to brand Windows Mobile as a fully open platform for developers.
Unfortunately for Microsoft, it is now battling against not just Nokia's popular Symbian offering, but one of the undisputed technology successes of recent years - the BlackBerry. Credited as the first company to crack mobile email usability, Research In Motion (RIM) has seen its BlackBerry devices become as ubiquitous in US and European enterprises as the iPod is for teenagers throughout the world. And - unfortunate patent issues notwithstanding - RIM's success seems assured, for now.
RIM's Middle East and African partner, Emitac Mobile Solutions (EMS), expects to have anywhere up to ten operator tie-ups just in the Middle East by the end of 2007.
The sell for operators is obvious - in addition to revenue from the devices themselves, BlackBerry devices will also deliver a continuous stream of data revenue.
For enterprises, the cachet of BlackBerry is clear, but EMS CEO Babar Khan says that customers which are not familiar with the brand - or the concept of mobility - often need some education in the implications of mobilising email.
"There are two sets of customers for BlackBerry - first, the globally-aware organisations which have very strict policies around security and mobility, so there are no issues there," says Khan. "Then there are organisations which are adopting this technology as new - in this case, we have to give their IT department an overview training programme, where we make them aware of the IT policy require- ments for BlackBerry, and the things they need to be aware of when they're managing customers on their Exchange Server."
BlackBerry, Nokia and Microsoft are all pushing the benefits of mobility hard, but there is now the prospect that they may have been too successful for their own good. Following the increase in interest in always-connected devices, laptop vendors are now starting to integrate cellular technology into their products.
GSM and 3G data cards have long been available, but vendors such as Sony, Toshiba and Fujitsu-Siemens now offer ultra-portable devices incorporating GPRS or UMTS (3G) radios, allowing smoother and faster connections to cellular networks.
Andrew Lamb, Middle East manager for volume products at Fujitsu Siemens, says he sees the potential to tie the vendor's 3G-equipped notebooks (the only ones on the market he says) into bundles with telecoms operators.
"What we'd like to do is tie up with telcos, which is quite difficult, especially if you're dealing with a monopoly," says Lamb. "But there are areas in the region where the telco market has expanded, and operators actually do want to tie up contracts bundled with laptops - which is good for the telco. The retailers selling the laptops can also make some money out of it - and the customer gets a personal service, and isn't forced to use expensive Wi-Fi services in hotels for example."
The selling point for cellular-equipped laptops is the increased ease of use and greater flexibility in terms of applications compared to smartphones; the flipside is of course the laptop's greater size and shorter battery life. And EMS's Khan isn't too concerned about the laptop threat.
"Everyone is going to carry a mobile phone - it's what that phone can do that's the question," says Khan. "If it can give you normal voice and text, and in addition if it can take care of your email, load enterprise applications, and so on - it's great value . It's really about how much you need this - if someone is spending hours on the road writing emails, then perhaps then they will look at ultra-portable laptops as an option."
Issues around security are a concern - some research suggests people are around three times more likely to lose a phone than a laptop. When these lost phones contain sensitive data, and access to corporate systems such as email, the potential cost to an organisation in terms of exposure to risk is significantly higher than just the loss of a contact book.
Even vendors acknowledge the critical nature of security - Nokia's Devassy says that not only are phones a risk when lost, but malware is an increasing concern.
"We are starting to see more viruses for mobile devices; as they become more business-focused, there will be more attention from the hackers," says Devassy. "Right now mobile phones are personal devices - what data can you get from that? But as soon as it becomes a corporate tool, you'll start to see a lot more value in targeting the mobile device."
Security vendors such as Symantec and Pointsec, among others, have now moved into mobile devices and are providing solutions against mobile malware, and to mitigate loss. But the general perception is for Middle East enterprises security issues are a lower priority than they should be.For all the latest tech news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.