Wireless e-Commerce Sets Its Sights on the B2B Market

Until recently, business-to-business hardware and software, and the devices that run these applications, were not too pervasive. But that's all changed now, and 2000 has been the corporate year of wireless Internet. Omnisky, AT&T Wireless, Palm.Net, BellSouth, Aether Technologies, Sierra Wireless, Novatel and Microsoft are but a few of the companies firmly committed to seamless plug-and-play wireless Internet connectivity on handheld devices.

Most of the early products, such as Apple's Newton, concentrated on the consumer, not the business user. The choices were simple--if the users needed handheld computers and wireless Internet or corporate LAN connectivity, they used cumbersome ruggedized notebooks and wireless modems with poor battery life. To top that off, the hardware alone cost at least $5,000 per user. Attempts to integrate small handheld computers, wireless modems and back-end connectivity just plain failed. But that was 1997 and this is 2000--the new millennium. Things have changed.

Users can now choose the Palm OS platform or Microsoft's Windows CE, the scaled-down WAP browser or the big and powerful Windows '98/NT/2000. The point is, there are quite a few choices when it comes to getting information from corporate intranets or 'specially designed for handheld' Internet sites. Users can also choose to have color screens or built-in digital phones.

Field workers, sales workers and service technicians are always demanding answers to the three real-time information questions: What's it going to cost us, is the quantity we need available and when can we receive it?

Fortunately, the cost of wireless e-commerce hardware has decreased to the $700 price point, and several wireless Internet services are down to the $30 to $50 per month range, making it more feasible for workers to take advantage of the hardware and applications. IT managers are still concerned about data security and training their staffs in scaled-down HTML/HDML/XML technologies, but the productivity gains, as well as fending off the competition, make for a positive ROI.

Gone are the days of customized and expensive middleware to connect field workers to giant IBM mainframes and flat-file data records. Smaller and cheaper UNIX or NT servers now act as Web-hosts to your company's best asset--your corporate database.

Oracle and Sybase, for example, have tools that can turn out HTML (Web-site) code from a query screen quite rapidly. The real challenge is to design Web sites that are Palm- or CE-friendly. Systems integrators can do that also, but with some creativity and proper training, so can your IT staff.

The Gem Within
Alpha Microsystems, a Santa Ana, Calif.-based IT service provider with more than 15 years of computer service experience, had field engineers (FEs) who used pagers and telephones to contact both their customers and the customer service center. In November 1999, Eric Mutter, a Louisiana-based Alpha Microsystems FE, bought a wireless Palm VII and hoped he could use it to make himself more efficient on the job. He was tired of spending so much time on hold while ordering parts and updating ETAs (estimated time of arrival). He decided to work on a project to increase the field engineers' productivity with the Palm Pilot VII.

"It allows connectivity to any server, anywhere within the Internet," he explains, "and with custom applications will return information based on queries," says Mutter. By providing direct access to data, the number of telephone calls and time spent per case are minimized. He received full support to work on his project full time, and after a beta test with other FEs showed immediate improvements in productivity, reductions in other expenses such as cellular phones and long distance phones, the project was approved for nationwide rollout, says Mutter.

Thus the FieldConnect software was born. The company was able to get Palm Pilots into the hands of more than 100 FEs in just over 2.5 months. In 60 days of full operation, it realized a savings of more than two man-years based on the time people had been required to spend on the telephone.

FieldConnect's open system-based software uses Palm Query Applications and Web servers to link to corporate databases. But apart from the technical improvements, Mutter feels that FieldConnect's ease of use, coupled with the benefits it provides, has helped its acceptance.

"The impact the Palm Pilot has had on my ability to conduct business is astounding," says Mutter. "Everyone in the field now is connected online to all this information. Being connected to my fellow FEs gives us a lot of camaraderie, and if another FE needs help I can offer it."

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