Mobile Applications for Work
Mobile technology is having a dramatic impact on companies of all sizes, and its effects are going to accelerate over the next five years. It has the potential to improve productivity and operational efficiency, while cutting costs and increasing customer satisfaction. With that kind of value-add, companies that fail to "mobilize" their businesses may find themselves at a competitive disadvantage. Some observers feel mobility is becoming an essential part of doing business.
The supporting infrastructure is developing, too. Every day, broadband is more available and less expensive. Mobile devices are also getting cheaper and more powerful. Making them part of your business plan will empower your front-line workers in their day-to-day customer interactions. If they can do their jobs better and faster than the competition, your company will reap the benefits. And while the push for mobility may seem to have exploded out of nowhere, it's actually been developing for some time.
How Did We Get Here?
What we now think of as mobility really begin in the 1990s, when Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) started to replace hand-written day timers. The advantages were obvious. They were far more powerful, and since they were generally synched to some PC-based data store, leaving one in a taxi wasn't the end of the world. You might need to replace the device, but the data would still be safe back at the office. The early PDAs were really glorified notepads, but by the mid 1990s, the Palm Pilot was a real computing platform. People wrote applications designed to take advantage of its small screen and portability, but they were generally offshoots of the tools already available for the PC: clocks, calendars, note pads and to-do lists.
The arrival of Wi-Fi meant remote devices could do more than synch to your office PC. You could actually connect to the Internet and access data in real time. This opened new possibilities, including the convergence of voice and data communication in a single device. This generation was still limited to available Wi-Fi hot spots, but their numbers were growing too. Coffee shops, hotels and libraries began luring patrons with free Wi-Fi and the mobile lifestyle gained ground. In 2002, Research in Motion (RIM) released the BlackBerry®, a device that could send and receive e-mail, while also serving as a mobile telephone. It included text messaging, Internet faxing, Web browsing and other services delivered over the wireless data networks of mobile phone service companies.
The BlackBerry was the first real "smartphone," and was positioned as an enterprise device by its high price tag and the need for a BlackBerry Enterprise Server. Introduced in mid 2007, the iPhone was considered a consumer product, but has been growing in popularity as an enterprise solution. It's also helped drive greater awareness of mobile computing, with a powerful ad campaign and a great deal of cultural buzz.
The mobility path follows the general development of most recent technology. The hardware gets smaller, less expensive and more powerful. All the mobile players have smartphone options, and the door is open for any size business that wants to mobilize its operations. Applications are generally device-specific, but thousands of them are available, from sources like BlackBerry App World, the iPhone App Store and Nokia's Ovi Store. If you have a mobile device, you can be sure someone is developing products for it, and someone else is ready to sell them to you. According to Juniper Research, mobile application revenues will reach $25 billion by 2014.
But which ones make sense for small and medium businesses?
Application Categories There are so many applications in the mobile device space that it's almost impossible to categorize them. Most are inexpensive to download and many are even free. So it's easy to try one on a whim. Games are the biggest sellers, and there are some incredibly silly time wasters out there. If you're looking at the offerings from a business perspective, though, you first want to consider your standard operating procedures and think about which tasks could be done better from the field. Then see if there's an application that can help you mobilize it. Here are some examples, all of which can be found on the shelves of the iPhone store:
- Basic Office Tools - there are mobile applications for most everything you could do at your office PC, including word processing, spreadsheets and graphics programs. QuickOffice® Mobile can create and edit Word documents and Excel spreadsheets.
- Contact Management - there are many tools to handle the basic job of keeping in touch with people. Some are self-contained, some synch to popular PC counterparts, and some will interface directly with enterprise-grade Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems. Heap CRM is a Web application designed with the small business in mind, integrating contacts, messaging, opportunity management and calendars.
- Time Management - there are calendars of course, and most of them offer the same PC synchronization you'll find in the Contact Management tools. There are also special applications for scheduling, dispatching and time tracking and reporting. FedEx Mobile is a free application that can keep track of FedEx shipments, as well as create labels, get rate quotes and locate the nearest FedEx office.
- General Information Access - almost anything on the Web can be pulled up in the browser of a mobile device, giving you access to Google maps, or any of the popular social network platforms. There are interface applications for Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and AOL Instant Messenger, to help you keep in touch, Wiki Mobile is designed to show Wikipedia pages that have been optimized for mobile display, and there are applications that will put hundreds of volumes of classic literature in the palm of your hand.
- Custom Information Access - there are tools to connect to your company's own network, giving you access to the information in internal systems. LogMeIn will give you access to your own computer desktop over both Wi-Fi and 3G networks, so you can access files on your PC when you're out of the office, while Mint.com lets you view and sync information from multiple bank accounts.
- Personal Productivity Tools - there are voice recorders, to-do List generators, and lots of note taking utilities. Jott is a voice recognition application that can record your voice through the device's own microphone, and convert it to text for SMS, email or online notes.
- Specialized Knowledge Bases - there are trivia testers, birding field guides, language translation tools, gazetteers and fact books, zip code finders, cookbooks and bartender guides. There's even an illustrated guide to the fine art of tying a neck tie.
The possibilities are just about endless. There are over 25,000 applications in the iPhone store alone, and more are being added all the time. In its first nine months of operation, the store posted 1 billion downloads. That's a lot of innovation going on.
Small Business Implications
If you're interested in moving forward with mobility, it's best to take it one step at a time. You need to be sure that the mobile application you are interested in will work with your device and with any other systems to which you want to connect. Compatibility is a primary factor, and it's not always clear who's responsible for getting the application to work. Is it the software vendor, the device manufacturer or the integration expert?
Not all devices are created equal, either. There are different operating systems, different screen resolutions and different keyboard layouts. Some devices have memory limitations, and others may behave erratically when they're too hot or too cold.
Regardless of the device, the most important thing is to make careful, intelligent choices about the business tasks you want to enable. You don't want to acquire cool gadgets for their own sake - you want to be sure that service really improves from the customer's perspective, since that's the one that counts in the end.
Mobile technology offers a way for smaller businesses to expand their sales area and close the gap in supply-chain management. They may even have an edge there, since it's easier for a smaller, agile firm to adapt than it is for a large enterprise. A study by ABI Research found that small and medium-sized businesses are more likely to use mobile broadband than their larger counterparts. And it's also been reported that small business fleets equipped with GPS systems (stand-alone or on a cell phone) increased their work orders by 25 percent, more than three times better than large fleets using GPS technology.
If you can put mobile applications to work for you, they can help you run your business better.
Small Business article content provided by AT&T's Small Business InSite www.att.com/SmallBusinessInSite