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Embracing the way of wireless

Businesses that start investing in wireless now are more likely to learn early and thus reap the benefits sooner than their competitors.

More than ever before, businesses are striving to reduce costs and increase productivity. While wireless and pervasive technologies pose some front-end challenges, they also offer the short- and long-term opportunity to achieve cost savings, process improvement, revenue and competitive gain, and customer loyalty and retention. But like every technology, wireless connectivity demands both technical and organizational learning. Businesses that start now are more likely to learn early and thus reap the benefits sooner than their competitors.

Understanding the benefits

Wireless technology is a natural extension of e-business. It reflects the evolution from using a wired desktop or laptop PC to access critical business applications and services to using wireless mobile devices. Devices that embed intelligence–such as mobile phones, PDAs, automobiles, and set-top boxes–can provide connectivity that allows organizations to reach customers, partners, products, and employees anytime, anywhere. The real power of wireless e-business is its capability to optimize communications between people, thereby improving customer responsiveness and the ability to accelerate processes and decision making. This translates directly into benefits that can provide a sound business return on wireless investments.

Wireless technology can enhance worker effectiveness and efficiency by connecting mobile workers to existing and new corporate applications. Implementation can increase sales-force efficiency, provide better interactions with other businesses and customers, expedite the development of new products and services, and deliver services to users in ways and areas not previously possible.

With wireless, it is possible to cost-effectively automate a wide variety of processes that were previously either paper-based or required data input through batch processing. Mobile workers connected to in-house systems can process real-time data, reducing paperwork errors. Workers have access to the data they need to respond to customers more accurately and expediently.

Process improvements spurred by wireless technology can transform businesses and entire industries. When mobile workers connect directly from any location to the automated systems running on corporate platforms, the opportunity to change business processes and organization is almost unlimited. Processing long lines of clients at hotels, airline counters, or retail checkouts can be dramatically altered through the use of mobile devices. Ultimately, wireless technologies can lead to improved customer satisfaction through increased responsiveness to customer requirements.

Reaping the benefits

As with most IT projects, successful implementation of wireless connectivity depends on some basic factors. There are two approaches to getting started. One is to do a strategic plan and rollout for the entire enterprise. The other is to begin with a limited pilot in which a single business area is mobilized. Which path is chosen depends largely on the corporate culture. However, in either case, focus first on the functional reasons for implementing wireless technology–that is, the real value of “mobilizing” a particular area or areas of the business, how will the new technology be used, and how will it impact business processes.

Focusing on the technology first can result in an infrastructure driven by price and ease of acquisition. Such an infrastructure may not address the real business need and may be ill equipped to support desired functions without costly upgrades and/or retrofitting.

Select technology that integrates with existing company systems and processes. Committing to a mobile and wireless solution that uses proprietary software or hardware can be costly–financially and otherwise. Such a solution often limits integration with other systems, and it can hinder the ability to adopt new devices, networks, applications, and technologies as they become available. When assessing wireless systems, it helps to consider the following:

— Integrating new wireless hardware and software into an existing IT environment entails special requirements.

— Application design must address the speed and space limitations of wireless communications.

— The current network and security infrastructure must be extended to include wireless.

— As wireless devices and standards are still evolving, configuration and environment changes must be easily accomplished.

— The wireless system must share information with other systems.

Infrastructure considerations

Mobile users need to access enterprise applications, synchronize local data with servers, and receive timely updates. When disconnected from the network, they also need to browse Web pages, read and respond to e-mail, and access relevant groupware or business applications.

To meet these needs, certain infrastructure considerations are important. Here are a few of the most crucial:

Security: Like wired communications, security is one of the most important issues to consider for mobile deployment. Mobile devices are subject to being lost or stolen, and wireless communications can be more readily intercepted. Policies, processes, and technologies for mobile and wireless communication need to be integrated into current security and privacy controls. Areas requiring technology controls include content/e-mail filtering, anti-virus protection, user identification and authentication, policy management, intrusion detection, hardening of platforms, and security-rich device management.

Interoperability: Because of the diversity of mobile devices and solutions, open standards are more important than ever. Select open-platform and open-standards solutions that can support an application’s portability. Even if a very specific project for a device and network is being considered, it is important to plan for the future and choose a comprehensive platform. Look for a solution that encompasses both wired and wireless data and multiple device types–a solution that can optimize mobile computing communications and provide the required support tools and scalability.

Networking services: Choose wireless connectivity for the right reasons: because it supports a business process and provides business advantages. Select connectivity providers that can support project goals in a cost-effective manner. In many cases, multiple connectivity options may be needed for different user communities–including a mix of wireless and wireline.

Getting started

If your enterprise has not already begun using mobile and wireless technologies, here’s how to gain an unwired advantage:

— Begin now: Studies show that the most popular applications for corporate wireless use are e-mail, unified messaging, customer service and support, sales force automation, and marketing applications. However, there may be other operational areas that could benefit from mobile employees being able to access and provide information to relevant databases. Whatever the application, it is important for IT organizations to take the leadership role, working with business units to identify opportunities and create an enterprise strategy that can achieve sound business results. Initiatives led by individual business units can result in incompatible solutions that may prove costly to support and integrate.

— Be clear on objectives: Understand from the start how the wireless solution that’s selected helps achieve objectives such as cost management, revenue and competitive gain, process improvement, and/or customer loyalty and retention. Develop a solid, bottom-line business case for proceeding. Use no financial benefits as icing on the cake, not as justification for the project.

— Let an experienced vendor help: A trusted partner can help organizations understand the options and make the right choices relative to the connectivity, security, device and management technologies, and processes that are needed. This includes helping organizations understand how to define, monitor, and measure return on investment.

— Enjoy the benefits: Begin to reap the benefits as you implement multiphase projects that can keep your organization ahead of the curve in optimizing business potential through mobile wireless technologies.

The wireless world is changing rapidly; there is increased availability of high-performance handheld devices and low-cost, high-speed broadband Internet access. Communications and security standards are being further defined and implemented in products. The wireless user experience is moving to match that of the wired user. By starting now, your organization can effectively compete as wireless technologies continue to allow differentiation through new types of transactions and services, localized information, and personalization.

Adel Al-Saleh is general manager, Global Wireless Business, IBM Corporation.

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