Wireless Data Communication Gets Real

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"Wireless right now is where the Internet was five years ago."

If the vendors of wireless communications devices are to be believed, these incredibly convenient--and more than a little cool--pocket tools will change our lives. So why aren't they changing our businesses?

For lots of reasons. Blame it on the chaos in the North American wireless marketplace. Blame it on the expense of wireless data transmission. Blame it on the reluctance of information technology departments to open the door to yet another set of non-standard tools. Blame it on the CFO's office, which is still waiting to see some return on the hefty investment in that ERP or SFA implementation.

But while you're doing all that blaming, keep an eye on your rear view mirror. Despite all the doubts and false starts, wireless sales support is now headed for deployment. Which means it'll soon be time to decide whether wireless is for you--whether those devices actually will start to change your business, or your competitor's.

Data in Real Time
There's no rule that says just because you're a technology company you'll make early or wise use of wireless capability. After all, the corporate sales organization of AT&T Wireless Services' southeast region didn't provide wireless support for its sales force until two years ago.

Joe Panella, the regional manager for channel sales, was in charge of that implementation. "As the world developed and we grew beyond cellular into wireless data, those of us working in the wireless arena were chagrined to find our own salespeople weren't capable of using the kind of tools we were selling to corporate customers. So we implemented a plan to make our entire sales force capable of using a laptop with a CDPD modem to access the information they needed to sell and activate telephones."

There was little question which data transport technology the project would use, since AT&T is one of the leading champions of Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD), a system for transmitting and receiving IP-compatible packet data over cellular networks. To access the data, the salespeople were given laptops and PC Card modems from Sierra Wireless that could use both wireline and wireless CDPD connections.

Sales reps now are able to access a customer activation database in real time, Panella says. That changes the nature of the selling process, making it far more immediate: While sitting across from the customer, salespeople can run credit checks, activate accounts and check fulfillment details, all in real time.

In other words, Panella points out, the wireless connectivity makes it possible to close a sale on the spot, as soon as the customer says "yes." The wireless system also improves customer satisfaction, since salespeople can tell customers immediately when their new phones will arrive.

"That leaves a good, positive sense of the company and the salespeople," says Panella.

The Business Case
Few will argue that leaving customers feeling good is a desirable outcome for a salesperson. But that alone isn't likely to justify the time, expense and business disruption of a wireless implementation project. The business case for wireless sales support is rooted in the need to keep up with the sharply intensified competition that, ironically, is itself the result of earlier phases of technology deployment.

As the giant wireless technology company Ericsson prepares itself to do battle in the wireless data marketplace, John Vaz, director of enterprise solutions for Ericsson Australia, says two factors are moving wireless implementation forward. On the demand side, a need to shorten sales cycle times is leading businesses to look at wireless options. Meanwhile, a pattern of declining costs for wireless data devices and the associated infrastructure, driven in large measure by the development of mass consumer markets, is improving the cost equation.

By all accounts, the adoption of wireless tools to improve competitive positioning is most intense in the field service area. But the sales process will benefit from wireless enabling as well, says Bill Fairchild, a veteran of the wireless wars who is the north central region field service and logistics proficiency leader for eLoyalty, a Chicago-based CRM consultant. "Where wireless will pay back big-time," he says, "is in extending customer relationship management apps into the field with real-time feedback."

The state of Wireless
"Wireless right now is where the Internet was five years ago," says Fairchild. That's true both of the state of the technology itself--migrating from early-adopter tool to commercially viable technology--and of enterprise perceptions of wireless data's reliability.

Many road warriors today use wireless data systems in the form of the pager. Today's pagers can send and receive text e-mail messages and are a boon to employees on the run who need to get updated about meetings, travel schedules or price or inventory changes. But pagers are limited: They can't handle nontext material, and the data they receive can't easily be transferred elsewhere--to a laptop, for example.

There's still a great deal of confusion about wireless data, reports David Johnson, wireless products manager for Itronics Corp., a Spokane, Wash., company that specializes in field automation technologies. "The problem," Johnson says, "is that this isn't like plugging a computer into a LAN in the office. The networking protocols are similar, but wireless technology has some unique characteristics. People often get into wireless naively and don't have help. When they have a failure, they back off."

Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at GartnerGroup, says wireless use in sales support hasn't taken off, in part because of these difficulties, and one other as well: Few salespeople have an immediate minute-to-minute need for critical data. If they do, he says, they'll phone someone. "The last thing a salesperson wants to become is a clerk-typist. Salespeople are very voice-centric people, not very data-oriented." But, he says, things are changing.

Coverage, Coverage, Coverage
They'd better. Wireless data for enterprise use could hardly have a worse reputation. That's only partly the fault of the evolving nature of the technology; some of it does have to do with inappropriate expectations.

After years in which business travelers had to check a coverage map to be sure they'd be able to connect in the city they were headed for, the packet data networks that supply the bulk of the connectivity today in North America--Bellsouth Mobile Data's RAM network, American Mobile's ARDIS, and the cellular carriers that together deliver CDPD coverage--finally have major cities covered. But when it comes to signal fall-off, they're only a little better than the digital voice networks; one need not wander very far away from downtown for data reception to get shaky. Travelers also still report that the quality of the coverage signal varies widely from locale to locale.

Wireless vendors point out that many, if not most, companies don't have to worry about coverage all over North America. They're supporting field service and/or sales forces in a geographically defined area, usually an urban area, where one data carrier will be able to supply all the coverage needed. But working beyond your local carrier's coverage area can be challenging.

Two vendors that sell CDPD data devices both make similar points about coverage. Itronics' Johnson says, "CDPD is great technology. When it's available, it delivers very nice data services. But if I'm a national company--a Sears, a GE, an insurance company trying to automate my workforce nationally--CDPD poses a challenge because it has the least coverage and you have to deal with multiple carriers to get a national footprint." Gregory Yates, vice president of sales and marketing at Nextcell in Plano, Texas, agrees that with the current state of packet data technology, roaming can be a problem.

One other option exists, and another will shortly, for accessing wireless data. The first is familiar old technology: connecting your laptop to a cellular phone or analog modem and moving data over that voice circuit. It'll work, and coverage patterns for analog wireless voice are more extensive than those for packet wireless data.

The downside of circuit-switched data, as it's called, is its expense. If the data being transmitted is episodic, you'll be paying for the privilege of establishing that circuit connection and keeping it open on a per-minute basis, which can amount to a substantial overhead cost for a short data transmission. In packet data transmission, by comparison, billing is typically by the byte of data sent with no overhead charge. GartnerGroup's Dulaney says the breaking point is about 2,000 bytes per transmission, which is about the size of a small e-mail message.

Pushed by the Apps
The other option is only now emerging; it is this possibility of a new, more efficient generation of wireless technology that is making wireless data a moving target these days.

The vision of the next generation of wireless data connectivity is of a single system or a set of systems that are transparently compatible. Wireless data coverage will be widely available. It will be fast, using far more bandwidth than the current 19.2 kilobits per second available from packet data networks. Most important, it will be designed to support wireless extensions of enterprise business applications.

It's not that enterprises have been sitting on their hands waiting for the technology to evolve. But interfacing wirelessly to back-end systems hasn't proven to be easy. When Panella set out to empower the AT&T sales force, he recalls, his team found that it was difficult to access the needed apps because they sported hefty graphical user interfaces, which meant lots of data needed to move back and forth just to paint those screens so users could see and manipulate the data. Their solution was to avoid the GUI and to access the databases directly using old-style 3270 text terminal emulation. "When you get right down to it," Panella observes, "some of the older technologies are more wireless-friendly than some of the newer technologies.

They're only text, which is a lot more efficient than transmitting thousands and thousands of bytes of GUI to be able to get an address and phone number." Panella's approach is today's interim solution of choice for many companies. Typically such compact data sets can be displayed on any wireless device, including those with very limited screen real estate like pagers and phones. But smaller is not always better in the sales environment. At Remedy, a Mountain View, Calif., vendor of sales automation software, Andrej Vlahceviv, a senior product manager, points out that in modern SFA systems, screen context is important, and data juxtapositions require larger screens. "We've designed all our traditional apps for a large display area where you have the ability to see all the current and historical account data in a concise manner. One thing you lose on a small screen is the ability to retain the relationship between items of different sorts--contacts and accounts, or account contacts and various opportunities in the past. You need to bring over not only the basic information, but those relationships."

Some of the confusion surrounding wireless for sales support is that personnel on the road actually need two different kinds of data. One, which Fairchild calls "horizontal communications," has to do with arrangements, news, updates, queries and the like--communications of the sort familiar to anyone doing business away from a desk. The other is the data that specifically supports field sales.

For the time being, enterprises seeking to get a jump on wireless SFA can focus on the horizontal data, for which a wide array of solutions are available. For the second category of data, software vendors are moving rapidly to extend SFA data, and to the extent possible, the apps themselves. In late February, for example, Siebel Systems rolled out a series of wireless products that will ship with Siebel 2000. And SAP AG is now marketing its mySAP.com Internet-enabled solutions, which include remote wireless access to enterprise data.

Key Role for Middleware
Until North America catches up to the rest of the world and offers a single wireless standard, companies seeking to do business beyond their home region will have to support an array of devices that work on different carrier networks. The interim solution for delivering data to those devices efficiently is middleware, either in-house or outsourced. Middleware gateways provide a bridge between enterprise applications and an array of mobile devices and carrier technologies, so neither IS personnel nor users need worry about whether or how data can be accessed and displayed.

Dulaney points out that in addition to the device-agnostic nature of a middleware solution, it allows in-house developers to write to a single API, which can speed time-to-market. That approach also can make it easier to move to newer generations of mobile devices and even ease the potentially far greater impact of migration to next generation wireless carriers. And, Dulaney notes, using middleware technology means you can have unlike competitors bidding against one another for your business.

One respected name, Nettech Systems (www.NettechRF.com), [LINK] offers a useful "Beginner's Guide to Implementing a Successful Wireless Solution" that includes a discussion of middleware. Among newer middleware vendors, one interesting pending acquisition will combine Riverbed Technologies' ScoutWare software products with Aether Systems' wireless middleware and Enterprise Data Wireless Center, creating a dynamic young firm that will market itself as a one-stop shop for enterprises seeking a mobile solution.

The Promise of 3G
More bandwidth would go a long way toward smoothing the transition to full-featured and fully supported wireless sales support tools. As bandwidth increases, Yates points out, more of the work needed to process data can be done on the back-end processor and less need be done by the mobile client. More bandwidth would also allow more complex and data-intensive client-side user interfaces, which could make the remote devices more user friendly for salespeople who don't feel comfortable with text screens alone. And with enough bandwidth, the concept of sales support could move beyond delivering account, contact and inventory data to customized sales materials themselves--for example, multimedia presentations that could be received and shown on the spot to the customer.

The migration to the next, or third, generation (3G) of wireless technology will shift the focus of attention for wireless data transport from the existing packet network carriers to the companies that now are seen as wireless voice carriers. Starting next year, CDMA, GSM and TDMA carriers will begin to deploy networks that will deliver speeds at least equivalent to today's 56 kilobits per second wire-line modems, and in many cases as high as T1-plus speeds. Commercial deployment isn't expected before 2002, but both software and hardware vendors are already beginning to talk about what they'll then be able to offer. Johnson says he's already fielding inquiries about 3G implementations. What he's seen looks promising, he says. "When our customers ask about 3G rollouts, we say they'll be good." But, he quickly adds, "if you wait for 3G, you're leaving money on the table."

Remedy's Vlahceviv says many of the components for mature wireless sales support solutions are in place. Not all the questions have been answered, he acknowledges. "But wireless SFA is a pretty realistic vision."

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