The time is coming when you'll no longer have to supply your traveling salesfolks with laptops.
When that day arrives, your IT staffers will cheer loudly and long. Portable computers are troublesome and costly. They're a pain to provision, maintain and
support. They get knocked off tables and spilled on and fried by power surges in motels during electrical storms. And, Murphy's Law being what it is, the problem, whatever it is, inevitably develops late at night and far away. More often than not, the result is an urgent call to the help desk, and perhaps someone's pager as well, at some ungodly hour of the night. Laptops also use a higher percentage of proprietary parts than do desktops, so even though you've standardized on one brand and model (you have, haven't you?), your support inventory costs are pushed up by the need to support them.
But there isn't a business executive reading this column who will casually decide to leave laptops behind, however beneficial it would be for the cost side of the ledger. First she will have to be assured the company will be able to deliver the data that the portable computers access and the functions that they provide. That, after all, is what really matters: keeping the road warriors supplied with the sharpest possible weapons for doing battle in the marketplace.
The Device that Feels Right
We have sermonized in the past about the importance of allowing individuals to choose devices that work comfortably for them. It's akin to choosing the golf club or bowling ball or softball bat that feels right. Technology is just now beginning to make it possible for a company to offer that kind of choice of device- -laptop, mini-computer, palm-held, pager or data-enabled phone.
That's something that can help to keep employees happy, which is not to be sneezed at in this overheated staffing environment. It's something IS definitely won't cheer about, though. In addition to the usual support issues small portable devices present, using one to handle the business data needed to shape a proposal and close a sale places an extraordinary burden on the enterprise data infrastructure. Vendors hate the term "middleware," saying it minimizes and commoditizes their wares, but that's in fact a complex and key element in supporting a heterogeneous array of portable and wireless work tools.
It'd take an awfully hidebound and myopic vendor to fail to see the importance of offering wireless hooks into back-end data stores. It therefore comes as no surprise that just about every ERP and CRM system supplier is promising to support access from cell phones and the like to the enterprise data resident in its databases. This will, without doubt, be a very hot market in the near term, since any company whose reps can access real-time inventory and pricing data on-the-fly is likely to enjoy a competitive advantage in closing sales. Hence the interest in add-on packages such as mySAP.com Mobile Sales and mySAP.com Business Intelligence.
Arguably, though, an even hotter market is in development tools and environments for creating a truly enterprise-wide environment for accessing data remotely. Unless something changes radically, this will be a requirement for every company that sells face-to-face in a B2B environment. Lots of those companies don't start off with large back-office systems in place, and even those that do undoubtedly also use important data stored in other locales, both within the company firewall and on partner sites.
Two technologies are making the development of such systems easier. One is Java, which allows the creation of applications that can run on varied platforms. The other is XML, an enriched version of the Web markup language that can be used to identify content elements for specialized handling and display. But another technology that is being loudly trumpeted for wireless consumer use, WAP, may prove to be of relatively little use for enterprise data because it requires specially formatted Web pages and does not support data being "pushed" by an application when it needs to be delivered to the employee.
What's Wrong with WAP?
Jeremy Konko doesn't think much of WAP. Konko is vice president of marketing at HiddenMind Technology, a 6-year-old software development company in Cary, N.C. The company has developed an application framework it calls HiddenLogic, which enables the implementation of collaborative business applications across a wide array of information appliances and technologies. HiddenMind has chosen not to use WAP, he says, because that technology isn't able to communicate the user's identity.
"WAP is very general," Konko says. "The information it conveys is delivered to everyone." He argues instead for systems that are active, in the "push" sense, and also "role-specific"- -wireless systems that identify the user and thus can deliver relevant information. And he argues for systems that will make optimum use of limited bandwidth by transmitting only the "delta"- -those portions of the data that have changed, rather than all the code used to draw the screen.
HiddenMind is one of a new breed of middleware and wireless applications development platform vendors. Its products are database, device and protocol neutral and designed for rapid development and deployment in both synchronous and asynchronous environments. In other words, they'll work with most anything, supporting applications that gather information from multiple sources in the office and on the Web and enabling two-way messages and transactions on a range of information appliances.
One of the most appealing aspects of cutting-edge wireless application development frameworks such as HiddenMind's is that they allow the architecting of a system that delivers just-in-time information- -data an employee is likely to need, delivered when he is likely to need it. On the flip side, by targeting information that is relevant to the user, the system has the potential to cut down on the "noise" of useless words that has grown louder and louder as information has become more readily available on the go.
In addition, such platforms potentially will make a company's business more secure by allowing differing levels of security to be applied on an application-by-application basis. Security is an oft-overlooked but very important issue when it comes to small portable devices, since each is potentially a portal into a company's business data. One's calendar need not be protected in the same complex way as the company's customer database; HiddenMind allows access rights to be assigned on a device, user or application basis.
This is very much an emerging market. If you aren't under crushing competitive pressure, it'd make sense to ask for reports from early adopter companies to ferret out the inevitable glitches and downsides. But whatever the details of your final choice, you will go wireless to survive. The only questions are how and when.