How to Pick a Wireless ASP

The apartment management business might bring to mind a disheveled super who lives in the basement, but BRE Properties is taking residential management to a higher level. BRE, which owns and operates 68 apartment communities in eight Western states and has a market cap of $1.1 billion, caters to residents with above average incomes--so-called "renters by choice."

To enhance its residents' lifestyles, BRE chose Redwood City, Calif.-based Corrigo, a wireless application service provider (WASP), to develop a customer service solution. Based on the CorrigoNet product, the system enables BRE residents to schedule service requests via in-home, high-speed Web access. CorrigoNet coordinates responses and delivers pertinent information to the right BRE technician immediately via a wireless handheld or phone.

In the field, BRE techs use a mobile device to record completed work orders and access a maintenance knowledgebase containing best practices and diagnostic aids. In addition to increasing response time and job quality, the solution has reduced maintenance administration costs by 60 percent.

Success stories like BRE's are becoming more commonplace as enterprises look to WASPs to mobilize their workforces. By outsourcing wireless application development and deployment, companies are seeking to come to market faster than the competition and save resources. I recently spoke with some of the leaders in this field and assembled a quick checklist with which to quiz vendors.

What are you offering as a WASP?

Will your vendor provide just applications and integration, or does it include training, wireless devices and network air time? You might be tempted to manage portions of the wireless rollout in-house, but it's best to seek a full-service WASP. After all, you're outsourcing to make implementation simpler, and you might be demanding more of your WASP in the months ahead.

What platforms do you support?

It is critical that your WASP support multiple devices and multiple networks. One of the tenets of building a successful mobile project is to outfit your staff with devices that best suit them and their jobs. Field techs might need ruggedized Windows notebooks while supervisors can work with Windows CE handhelds and managers can use WAP phones; your WASP must have experience with various devices.

"We support over 29 devices, including Motorola, Ericsson and the NeoPoint 1000 smartphone," says Maya Babish, vice president of marketing for Corrigo. "A provider should not be device- or carrier-specific."

Indeed, your WASP should be able to provide you with ample network coverage across your geographic footprint. Most likely, your field force is going to roam from one network to another--for example, Nextel to Sprint PCS--and it must be able to do that seamlessly so your solution can grow as your company grows.

How will the technology integrate with my existing field force applications?

You've spent valuable hours and dollars engineering mobile applications and enterprise databases. You shouldn't have to scrap those just because you are going wireless. "Whether you are using Remedy or Siebel or whatever, you should not be required to rebuild your application or sacrifice any application capabilities," contends Ananth Rao, executive vice president of JP Systems, a wireless ASP based in Dallas.

Many wireless ASPs rely on integration partners to connect your field force with back-end systems. Find out who will be handling your integration, and if it's a partner you've never heard of, beware.

What is your security strategy?

According to Babish, security concerns are holding back the WASP market. "Until people feel comfortable having their data located elsewhere, that will continue to be a big question," she says. Grill your vendor on security issues from a technology standpoint and a data center angle. Where and how will your data flow, and how will your data be segregated from that of other companies? After all, your WASP might also be managing information for your closest competitor. Find out how your WASP will encrypt your data as it flies through the ether. "We use Certicom for end-to-end security," says Rao. "You have to be secure from the back end through the platform and out to the handheld device. Have them explain what technology they are using."

Since most WASPs don't actually host your data but rely on hosting companies, ask where and with whom your data will reside. If it's with a host you've never heard of, watch out. In any case, you need to ascertain your WASP's data backup and disaster recovery plans.

How do I make sense of the service delivery agreement?

The days of rolling out wireless solutions because "everyone's doing it" are quickly coming to a close. These systems are expensive and complex and should be liable to cost justification like any other expenditure. Your WASP should be able to provide empirical measurements and assist you with ROI analysis.

Rao, however, points out that calculating cost benefits might not be so simple. "Determining the ROI for the value of time is a very complex task, yet that's the key benefit," he argues. "A customer like FedEx or Sears doesn't want to worry about the complexity of infrastructure to do wireless automation."

How scalable is the solution?

Perform technical due diligence, advises Aaron Dobrinsky, CEO of GoAmerica, a wireless data and Internet services provider based in Hackensack, N.J. "Can it support 200, 2,000 and 200,000 [workers]? And what about simultaneous usage?"

How is pricing set up?

Most wireless ASPs offer fixed costs for devices and airtime and volume discounts for the application development and integration based on the size of your field force.

Do you really understand my business?

With the wireless market moving at break-neck speed, it's tempting both for vendors and end users to move as quickly as possible to cut the cord. But you and your WASP are best served by taking a breath and working to understand the way your business processes work and how wireless can make them more efficient. If your WASP doesn't understand your business needs, won't take the time to learn them and wants to slap together a generic mobile e-mail system for you, run away. "Understanding wireless is one thing, understanding applications is another story," adds Babish, "but the providers must understand your particular area."

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