Next generation mobile applications

The ability to access your email inbox while away from the office was the 'killer app' that finally sold mobile technology to the business world.

The BlackBerry, along with its numerous copy cat clones, has become a pervasive fact of corporate life, with everyone from the chief executive to the white van driver hooked on the connectivity it delivers.

But let's face it, mobile email access is all part of the furniture now. It's a long way from the cutting edge of doing business on the move, so familiar has it become. So where will the next generation of mobile applications take us? Just what are the emerging possibilities for enabling workers in the field or working from home to achieve the same level of productivity that is available to them in the office?

Centralised information in the field

To most organisations, customer data is of paramount importance. It usually resides on a highly secure database, accessible only to those that need it via often complex customer relationship management (CRM) applications. Likewise information on product pricing and availability is usually highly centralised, as is other key data that oils the wheels of the organisation, usually available to those with desktop access to enterprise resource planning (ERP) tools.

But the point of need for all this centralised data is changing. The call centre operative and the sales manager remain primary users of this sort of information, but they are now joined by an ever broadening base of mobile employees, perhaps working from home or on the move, and needing access to the same kind of information they were able to call up when they were conventional 9-to-5ers.

There is a growing number of products that make use of a range of mobile and wireless communications technologies to allow employees in the field to drill down instantly into customer and corporate information held on head office databases. They also frequently provide management with sophisticated real-time reporting of field activities. As such they can have a direct impact on profitability by boosting efficiency and productivity at the same time as reducing costs by cutting the need for endless phone calls.

O4, for example, is a developer of 'CRM on the move' software, which runs on Windows-enabled Pocket PC client devices, and includes office-based desktop components for planning, management and analysis of field operations. The software is designed to integrate with enterprise CRM, ERP and sales automation systems.

Another product that delivers corporate data to the operative in the field is a middleware application from mobility specialist Dexterra. This provides field engineers with detailed information on their PDA about upcoming jobs, and takes them through each job step by step, with reference to head office call centres and databases.

Gartner analyst Dale Hagemeyer says he believes products like this and O4 prove that the old school stand-alone handheld has been superceded. "Retail execution and monitoring solutions used by consumer goods manufacturers or their agents have evolved from data capture and activity tasking to analytical and role-based selling tools with more power to influence outcomes in the retail environment," he said in a recent report. "These next generation retail solutions can give managers responsible for sales and sales operations a competitive advantage based on their requirements and business processes."

Business intelligence and reporting tools

Higher up the corporate food chain than the field sales professional or engineer is the senior manager, currently able to call up data from all corners of the enterprise and have it presented to him in a nice digestible report, using software like Cognos or SAS, or JasperSoft if you're of the open source persuasion.

This sort of activity has until now been wholly deskbound, owing to the obvious restriction of getting results from such complex business intelligence tools onto tiny screens.

Cognos is claiming that it has squared that circle and unhooked its business analysis software from the desktop PC and made it mobile. Its Cognos 8 Go Mobile software will be available from early 2007, initially for the BlackBerry, helping executives and workers make better decisions while they're on the road, says the vendor. And also helping its products leave behind their image as rather complex tools for stat obsessed desk jockeys, one imagines.

Graham Walton, vice president for Europe with Cognos, says it will take the BlackBerry onto a whole new plane by enabling a new sort of data to be displayed on its screen. "You don't really want business intelligence information coming to you via email on an attachment," he said. "It's better to take the information straight from the reporting system."

Walton says Cognos has integrated the mobile product with existing Cognos security measures, so nothing important can fall into the wrong hands if a device is lost. "We will follow this with a version that works on Windows and other mobile devices," he says.

Sychronising WAN data

'Virtualising' your network, so that all files and applications are equally available to any employee regardless of location, is easier said than done. Companies like VMware have developed middleware tools that make at least some of this Holy Grail possible today. But even they would admit that full virtualisation is probably a few years off.

Specialist tools do exist, however, that help with integrating the mobile part of a company's workforce with corporate applications, regardless of location. Packeteer, for example, has recently launched iShared Mobiliti 6.0, the latest version of a tool that it says lets mobile users gain access to centralised files and applications at any time, and incorporates tools for management, synchronisation and backup of 'edge' data.

Virtualisation tools such as this are the next logical step from accessing particular sets of data, as is possible with the CRM and ERP products already mentioned. Theoretically, virtualisation opens up every corner of the enterprise network to the authorized user, including all their own files and also workflow applications which are enabling them to share data with multiple other employees.

Rich media goes mobile

Many mobile devices already marry voice with data in some form. Steve Frost, marketing manager for unified communications for Cisco, believes the next step is to enrich still further what's available to the road warrior.

"Beyond just data, there's a full range of rich media communication possibilities," he says. "If you're part of a virtual team, then you'll need tools that keep you in touch - the same for links with customers and partners." For these situations, he says, you can now choose to have data, voice, video and mobility as all part of the same package.

"Early adopters of unified communications products are technology companies like us, with an existing appetite for technology, plus any company where knowledge management is important, accountants, financial services companies, people visiting clients," says Frost.

Printing on the move

Of the office activities that lend themselves least well to mobility, printing must be foremost. But this need not necessarily be so any more. PremiereAnywhere lets mobile users use their BlackBerry, PDA or laptop to send data to any fax machine for printing. Printing an attachment, it claims, is as easy as sending an email.

"More and more people want to be away from their desk, and yet still close to the business," says Peter Semmelhack, chief technology officer of Antenna Software. "People are no longer thrilled to receive a spreadsheet attachment on their smartphone. They want to go the whole way and see into the ERP system."

What's been achieved already, he says, has opened people's minds to what might be possible. "Applications like Siebel, JD Edwards and Remedy might be complex, but what people on the move want is simple. They want to condense the information they need onto a small screen to view anywhere." This, he says, is the essence of the next generation of mobile working, and is rapidly emerging as a reality.