Between Vision and Reality

In many IT segments, pie-in-the-sky visions have been replaced by general pragmatism; dry cost–benefit calculations dominate the workday of IT decision makers. During prosperous years, mobile computing in particular was often the subject of manufacturers’ grand plans: “Always online” was the slogan. But since the weak start of UMTS, it has become apparent that the expected boom never materialized. Nevertheless, in many places mobile computing has long since become a reality, and has proven a successful growth market for providers.
After notebooks took the first step in establishing themselves as mobile data processing tools, now handhelds — also known as PDAs (personal digital assistants) — are on the way. They’re smaller, lighter, and less expensive than laptops. For the most part they look very attractive — and were for many years considered an unnecessary toy for executives. One of the companies that early on discovered the possibilities created by these devices is DaimlerChrysler AG. In the area of automobile development, the company in 2001 concluded an extensive project for centrally administered synchronization of PDAs with Lotus Notes. And then there’s United Parcel Service: For over ten years, the U.S. service provider has equipped its drivers with mobile devices. Its main competitor, FedEx, is currently following suit with its 40,000 U.S. couriers.
At present, there are even examples for mobile enterprise applications running on PDAs: TÜV Nord Gruppe has recently initiated a project using SAP Mobile Time and Travel to link some 2,000 field representatives to the company’s employee self-service system. The project is likely to be completed in the coming months. In the area of service technicians, one forerunner is Deutsche Bahn Telematik: The company has already implemented a mobile service management system through which technicians receive their assignments and from which they send the assignments back to SAP R/3 by cellular telephone.

Mobility – an important topic for small to midsized business

Mobile technologies have long since taken hold at smaller companies as well. “A significant number of European small to midsized businesses (SMBs) have deployed mobile solutions or are planning to introduce them,” is how market researchers from IDC interpret their “European Vertical Markets Survey,” conducted last year. Forty-five percent of the German SMBs interviewed are operating mobile solutions, while an additional 28% are planning to implement them. The survey included laptops, cell phones, PDAs, and other devices.
Most of these mobile applications are concerned with simple functions such as e-mail or scheduling; an extended version of Outlook or Lotus Notes is standard today. But according to the IDC survey, 17% of companies with 250–499 employees are already using mobile office solutions — and nearly 24% of these plan to implement mobile sales force automation by the end of the year.
According to IDC, the objectives that SMBs hope to achieve with mobile solutions are anything but homogeneous. While French survey respondents primarily desire faster customer service and speedier replies to customer inquiries, the top priority in Italy is data quality. German companies are hoping for higher employee productivity.

A need for education about security

IDC analysts see restrictions primarily in the area of security: Different standards across Europe make users cautious, the study finds.
The IDC results match the experience of IT service providers. “Only a small number of companies today are using ERP solutions on handhelds,” explains Markus C. Müller, managing director of ubitexx GmbH, which specializes in mobile solutions. In his experience, companies have begun thinking about the mobile value-added chain in the past year or so. Although customer interest is very high, it takes quite a long time until a decision is made: “Of course, we’re talking about introducing new technologies that haven’t been on the market for long. Customers must first become convinced that these solutions make sense.” Müller sees strong interest in mobile technologies in the areas of field sales and service technicians. In his opinion, this is where the return on investment can be particularly well ascertained.
Customers still require a significant amount of education on security, according to the managing director of ubitexx: “Laptops are established in the corporate realm, but handhelds are not. Laptops feature numerous security concepts that are still missing on PDAs,” he is convinced. Topics such as local encryption or tracking are a strong focus of customer inquiries, since the data carried outside of the company by minicomputers always includes in-house data, which thus poses a potential security risk. In Müller’s estimation, these issues can all be resolved in technical terms, which is why he doesn’t regard security as an obstacle to the adoption of mobile data processing.
Andreas Jamm, managing director of SAP technology consulting firm btexx Business Technologies GmbH has a similar view of the situation: “Since the technologies are very new, it’s still difficult to make a business case.” Customers are interested, especially in the area of service. “The technologies are ready. Now it’s time to take the next step: integrating mobile business into the business process,” Jamm concludes.

Users showing interest

Evidently, users are of the same opinion. The mood in IT departments is characterized by a wait-and-see attitude. “We use laptops at our company,” explains Günter Turré, IT director at healthcare and cosmetics manufacturer Weleda AG. Because of their reduced functions, PDAs are still out of the question for Turré. And Theo Krämer, director of the data processing center at Eberspächer Abgassysteme GmbH & Co. KG, sees no need for immediate action: “Maybe we’ll consider mobile solutions next year. For now, we have more pressing problems.” Thomas Bröll, director of central IT at Bardusch GmbH & Co, feels the same way: “We won’t attempt mobile integration of our SAP application until next year.”
Ingo Schneider, senior project manager at SAP specialist Plaut Consulting GmbH, confirms that — in principle — there is an interest in mobility. “However, customers are fiscally conservative,” Schneider observes. He is hoping for applications such as the upcoming mySAP Customer Relationship Management 4.0: “Strong integration of mobile components into the overall design — providing consistency across different channels — is an important point.” But Schneider also sees clear limits in this market. A segment of users, depending upon the specific industry, simply doesn’t need mobile solutions. “An additional customer segment requires only targeted individual applications such as recording the hours worked,” Schneider qualifies further. It is primarily in this market segment that he sees a role for PDAs. In his opinion, a notebook is the preferred device for large applications, because it ensures the necessary performance.
In Schneider’s estimation, mobile solutions with local data stocks are ready for deployment. However, he asserts that the issue of availability and area-wide bandwidth of wireless access — and thus mobile utilization of central data stocks — remains a critical technical factor in the long term that, to some extent, even influences today’s decisions for or against a mobile solution.

A blend of online and offline technologies

Mobile Enterprise Middleware
Mobile Enterprise Middleware

Market observers at Forrester Research, on the other hand, are less concerned about the problem of wireless access via UMTS or wireless LAN (WLAN). The Forrester survey “Mobile Enterprise Apps Need Middleware” of December 2002 finds that only groupware solutions and service technicians require an online connection: “Mission-critical applications must function whether or not a network connection is available.” An online connection would be important for customer service representatives, because it shouldn’t take until data is replicated for new orders to appear on their mobile devices. However, some appropriate middleware would need to take into account that a technician would require a functioning application even in rooms with no reception, such as in basements. ubitexx general manager Müller concurs: “Purely online applications are not in demand today.” From his perspective, only a blend of online and offline technologies makes sense.

Future market mobile business

Despite the cautious stance of customers, the market for mobile enterprise applications can hardly be assessed as stagnant or even shrinking. IDC reported worldwide growth in mobile middleware of more than 34% between 2001 and 2002, and considers the segment a growth market in the future as well — IDC market researchers expect an even greater increase for the current year. With an offering of mature middleware, consistent manufacturer strategies and methods enabling consistent integration of business processes in a world of mobile enterprise, the vision is becoming interesting for increasing numbers of customers.

Jan Schulze
Jan Schulze