Mobile & Wireless Predictions for 2001

In the sweltering New York summer of 1888, a boy with the very ordinary name of Al Smith entered the mobile communications business. The 14-year-old worked on the bustling quays of Manhattan as a "truck chaser," hunting down his boss's delivery wagons and delivering messages to them before they returned to base. With the pluck and determination he honed in the alleyways of Gotham, Smith eventually rose out of the gutters and became an accomplished man.

Enterprise mobile communications has changed some in the past 112 years, but the strategy remains the same: getting the right information to the right people in the right place at the right time. Ideally your company has moved beyond using street urchins as mobile devices. But no matter how advanced your field force automation technology is, you must keep your focus just over the horizon to remain competitive.

What are the trends that will take shape in 2001? Read on for some of the mobile news to look out for next year. After all, it pays to move fast in this business: Little Al Smith was eventually elected governor of New York three times and nominated for president in 1928.

CRM Tools Will Become a Killer Wireless App
For years, organizations have struggled to design and deploy software that brings them closer to their customers and simultaneously cuts the cord that keeps staffers attached to their desktops and network connections. Many vertical industries--mainly blue-collar fields such as transportation and energy--have hatched solutions for moving customer data into the field, but those have commonly involved prolonged research and development, extensive training and support and expensive hardware.

Next year we'll see the rise of streamlined mobile applications designed to bolster the bottom line by bringing key customer information directly to the point of contact. It seems that every CRM vendor is now pushing a wireless offering. By streamlined, I mean that the CRM marketers are promising turnkey wireless access to enterprise databases via ubiquitous devices such as Palm handhelds and Web phones without the cost and complexity of application development, middleware installation and Windows-based client devices.

I recently demo'd a nifty application from Interact Commerce, the maker of SalesLogix2000, running on a wireless Palm device and a smartphone. I could not only access customer data, but the solution alerted me when my "customer" signed on to a SalesLogix2000 Web portal I had set up for him to support my sales effort.

Are these wireless CRM tools powerful enough to run a full-fledged service fleet? None that I have seen. Most offer only contact and opportunity management and some messaging capabilities. Some other vendors to watch in this space include Oracle, Siebel Systems, Information Builders, Multiactive Software and e-marketing vendors MarketSoft and E.piphany. Surprisingly, I haven't heard anything from Clarify, the CRM unit of Nortel Networks. Nortel is a $21 billion communications company with a broad wireless reach, so it would seem appropriate to marry the two.

Voice-enabled Wireless Apps Will Arise
Early efforts to "speechify" the Web have met with limited success. Voice portals and virtual assistants have had difficulty carving their niche in the marketplace. Many vendors don't seem to know whether to go after soccer moms who might use their voice to schedule car repairs or mobile professionals looking for the nearest Kinko's.

But now that voice technology is becoming more reliable, vendors are finally catching on that natural speech can be used for hands-free computing in the field. Datria Systems, a Colo.-based company specializing in bringing field workers database access via voice, recently released VoCarta Teleforms, which features two-way speech: Not only can users enter data by speaking, they can also have data "read" back to them.

VoCarta TeleForms also supports text viewing on Web-enabled phones. Service techs can, for example, call into an office enabled with VoCarta TeleForms to report on a trouble call. The service technician would be prompted for information throughout the call, and upon completion, the solution can e-mail details and driving directions for the next call location directly to the mobile phone.

Other vendors to keep a eye on include Conversa, Conita Technologies and Nuance, which develops much of the voice interaction software powering solutions like Datria's.

Devices Will Continue to Converge
Last year, Qualcomm introduced the pdQ smartphone, combining the functionality of a Palm device with a digital cellular phone. Since then, mobile workers haven't exactly been falling over themselves to get pdQ phones. Maybe it's the size and weight (6.2 inches long and 10 ounces) or the battery life (about 2.5 hours) that's holding everyone back.

Now Palm and one of its competitors are at it again. The company recently announced an alliance with Motorola to co-develop a smartphone that blends wireless voice and data with Web-clipping capabilities and access to data resources. The new phone isn't expected until 2002, but look for the buzz to start immediately. Palm's rival, PDA maker Handspring, recently announced the release of its VisorPhone, a module that slips into the Handspring Visor Springboard expansion slot and transforms the PDA into an integrated mobile phone. The Visor is equipped with a microphone, and the VisorPhone boasts a speaker, enabling mobile workers to use it as they would any mobile phone.

Whereas the pdQ is stymied by size, these new projects also have a downside: The phones run on the GSM network. Prevalent in Europe, GSM has relatively scant coverage in the United states. But as the GSM network spreads and software vendors develop more powerful field force applications for the scaled-down Palm OS, the Palm and Handspring offerings bear watching.

Symbol's new offerings, however, demand immediate attention. The company is directly targeting mobile enterprises with the SPT 1700 Palm OS-based devices, PPT 2700 Pocket PC-based devices and PDT 7500 Windows CE or DOS devices. Each handheld offers wireless wide-area networking options, marking a first for this vendor that has focused on wireless LAN computing in the past. Companies have the choice of buying Symbol devices ready to run on one of two networks: GSM or CDPD, a wholly viable American network.

Symbol's flexibility is refreshing. For once I'm seeing a mobile enterprise vendor perusing the consumer market and doing it one better.

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