As the Internet explodes and smart wireless devices proliferate, so does the attraction of building and extending applications to a mobile workforce, remote customers and disparate suppliers.
In the US today, there's a heavy equipment manufacturer working on a prototype of a device that sends a three-colour picture of the ground to be levelled to a screen installed in the cabin of a bulldozer. Red designates a rise that needs to be flattened, blue a hole that needs to be filled, and green the areas of land that are already exactly at the right altitude.
Now imagine if wireless technology were added to the offering. Then that same pictorial information could be simultaneously transmitted to the construction manager's office, whatever his corner of the globe. Keeping the construction manager informed about the bulldozer operator's progress would tell him or her exactly when to send the next round of equipment. That way the project could move along quickly without incurring unnecessary rental charges on the equipment.
"Those are the kinds of things you start to think of as soon as you allow your bulldozer to be smart, as soon as you allow inventory to be intelligent. As soon as you allow objects to participate in the economic process, we have a whole new ball game and it has little to do with cell phones," says Accenture chief scientist Glover Ferguson. "The basic concept is that processors and communication technologies have grown so cheap that you can imbue ordinary objects with the gift of reason and communication. Once you have done that, all hell breaks loose."
According to Ferguson, the potential to achieve business benefits through m-commerce is directly related to the notion of giving objects intelligence. Accenture believes any organisation dealing with products and distribution needs to be considering now at what level they should start rendering objects intelligent. "Shouldn't you start at least thinking [about] savings you might get in your supply chain management by making your inventory chatty and bright?" he asks.
Many early applications for PDAs and telephony have focused on making field employees more effective. However, if everyday objects are set to get brains and a voice, organisations will quickly turn to considering what services they might be able to deliver through their products. Instead of selling the bulldozer we all know and love today, why not sell a smart bulldozer that can give real value-add to the efficient execution of a project?
In theory, at least, such a service might be so valuable to a construction company it would be prepared to pay very much more than it does today. That in turn could encourage the heavy equipment manufacturer to consider new economic models. Why not charge for cubic yards moved rather than a one-off cost for a piece of heavy machinery?
Ferguson says the advent of sensors and wireless communication that are always on will lead to new economic models that are much more pay-as-you-go. In this scenario, the charging organisation knows exactly how much of a resource a customer is using and charges only for that.
However, the implications go much further even than that, Glover says. Objects with intelligence and an ability to communicate create a demand for hyper-efficiency because everyone is going to know whether they can get a better deal somewhere else. "You're going to end up rethinking your product strategy and turning products into services," he says. "And you're going to be rethinking your services to make them context-rich, because without that a) they may not be usable at all and b) they may look just like the other guys' service."
Brave New World of Wireless.
Lots of organisations are turning their attention towards finding ways to improve productivity and streamline customer outreach. Many observers agree that wireless holds tremendous potential for helping workers on the move - from real estate agents and sales reps to doctors and home-care nurses - to conduct business more effectively outside the office. Yet, thus far only a few companies have ventured into this brave new territory.
For now, the wireless applications being developed and installed are frequently along more conventional business lines, with business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-employee (B2E) being the source of most of the activity. Certainly banks have come to realise that, with huge numbers of their high-net-worth clients owning mobile phones, introducing mobile services is a good way to keep customers. They've equally been quick to discover the cross-selling opportunities opened up by wireless access, including share dealing, electronic billing, credit cards, quotes, media content, m-commerce and mutual funds.
A recent survey by US CIO magazine found that, among the 170 IT executives using wireless now in their organisations, (65 of the respondents, or 38 per cent), employee-oriented applications rather than B2B or B2C tie-ins were the most prevalent. Respondents cited their support applications - such as e-mail, personal productivity, sales force automation and calendar/scheduling - as the types of applications they were currently supporting.
Those with active wireless applications run a gamut of technology protocols and standards, with US cellular phone leader code division multiple access (CDMA) and wireless application protocol (WAP) topping the list. Wireless-enabled PDAs, such as the Palm and BlackBerry, are the devices of choice, ahead of pagers and both digital and analogue mobile phones.
When asked to name the top challenges in supporting wireless technology, these IT executives hit on familiar themes: system integration, security, end-user support and reliability. Within this group of respondents in the survey were 28 who represented companies that have implemented applications that allow their customers to access information using wireless devices. This subsection of respondents puts security at the top of its list of challenges.
Meanwhile, IBM wireless solutions manager for Australia and New Zealand Daniel Wong says much of the work in Australia is focused on determining how to render employees more effective and how to improve customer service in the interest of becoming more effective.
It's too soon for most early movers to show actual savings from their investment in wireless technology, but the promise for improving customer service and boosting the bottom line is substantial, experts say.
Take CSC, which has WAP-enabled its Lotus Notes, e-mail, calendar and address book, and given all managers and executives WAP-enabled phones. Now all managers and executives can dial-in from anywhere, any time and read their e-mail and respond at will.
In addition to receiving and sending e-mails, CSC managers and executives can also check their diary entries, look up any of 6000 employee telephone numbers and e-mail addresses, and send business cards over the air into the phone memory of their own handset. Anyone who cares to can also look at network statistics including details of routers, hubs, switches, servers, search engines and links and get an immediate snapshot of the health of the network.
Malcolm Seymour, manager proposition and partner development telecommunications, says so far most executives and managers are finding the new facilities useful. The connection is mostly reliable, but sending a long e-mail is admittedly tricky on a WAP phone. Many executives are overcoming the hurdle by also carrying a Compaq iPAQ or a Palm handheld.
CSC has done similar work on the BHP corporate system. Today every BHP executive from CEO Paul Anderson down can dial-in, look up 50,000 BHP addresses and telephone numbers, check share prices and determine in detail the status of iron ore and coal shipments. They can extract complete supply chain information, from how much iron ore or coal is in the ports and the mines to what is being loaded dynamically at Port Hedland every minute, including berth, ship, line and arrival time. They can even determine the grade on the manifest and how many tonnes out of the complete order have been loaded. Tracking steel orders has also never been easier. Enter an order number and the system will track it through the system from Port Kembla right to the client site.
"That's a robust industrial-grade application of WAP that just boggles the mind of most people who see it in industry," Seymour says. "It's using Oracle and SQL Server, and all these back-end systems with full security. I haven't seen anything equivalent out there."
Further north, whenever a water main bursts, Brisbane City Council's water engineers get a dynamically generated map on their WAP phone showing the location of the burst pipe and guiding them from where they are to the problem site. They can then look at the scanned engineering drawings for that installation and see a picture of the pipe, taps or valves.
Illawarra Waste Management has implemented a WAP application on top of Oracle's Application Server Wireless Edition and an existing Internet service. According to a recent report by AAP, a spokesman explained that the original Australian Reusable Resources Network (ARRnetwork) was implemented in 1999 by Oracle solutions provider Bailey Bailey & Bailey to allow businesses and individuals to dispose of or acquire recyclable materials by matching them with others with the appropriate requirements. Access to the system has, until recently, been by computer or by phone to a call centre.
Now Illawarra Waste Management has commissioned a wireless interface to ARRnetwork accessible by WAP-enabled mobile phone or standard mobile phones with SMS functionality. The service is being extended primarily to cater for the demands of the construction and demolition industry, which produces huge amounts of recyclable waste.
Nicholas Brazil, business development manager of Bailey Bailey & Bailey, says the wireless technology allows a mobile phone user to browse the Internet through a small text-based environment that works best in time-critical and location-critical services. "The mobile phone is now as important to the construction and demolition industry as a hammer or saw," he says.
A Mobile Fighting Force.
There are other substantial and innovative business-to-employee applications already at work in the Australian arena. For instance, IBM has been working with the Defence Science Technology Organisation (DSTO) in the area of pervasive computing. This is part of a program that the research element of the Department of Defence has undertaken to explore new technologies and new ways of delivering information to soldiers in the field. The work is exploring the significant organisational and business opportunities that pervasive computing may make available to Defence.
With a large percentage of Defence personnel working in a mobile environment, a significant requirement for an information network and portal is an ability to be accessed both by workers using standard PCs as well as those operating in the field in hazardous and difficult environments. Defence says that until now the latter have tended to be "information-starved" by their limited access to critical command and control, organisational and personal information.
Project Charm is therefore exploring the ability of the latest commercial mobile communications technology to connect mobile workers to a fixed "information-rich" network through a proposed Defence Web portal. The project has IBM and DSTO based out of Adelaide delivering a solution that allows soldiers in the field to get access to information on a defence intranet or the like via WAP-based services. The application uses IBM WebSphere and Everyplace, IBM's messaging middleware for pervasive devices, running on P-series Unix hardware.
IBM was required to work with the constraints presented by current portal development and demonstrate the use of resident Web data, while the project had to create a real wireless gateway situation. The rapid and pragmatic project approach helped the researchers both prove and disprove perceptions of pervasive IT functionality, both parties say.
Because DSTO was quickly able to understand what pervasive technology could and could not deliver, IBM was able to make a number of recommendations regarding their fixed network and information architecture to help Defence prepare for the demands of the approaching "wireless world". Most crucial, perhaps, was that the technical and information-content architecture should be independent of current and future devices. This is letting Defence feed the outcomes into current projects, architectural developments and other research initiatives.
The research equally highlighted some of the limitations of existing technology. "There will always be limitations on where you can stretch the technology today," says Khalil Barsoum, IBM general manager, communications sector, "and DSTO is finding there are limitations with the amount of information that can be sent across the network. For example, today we have GSM networks which provide an information rate of about 9.6Kbps, so really that's limiting them to providing text-based information to get across the network."
On the other hand, Barsoum says, as the GPRS networks are rolled out throughout this year from the three leading telco carriers, IBM expects that bandwidth use will expand. That in turn will allow much richer services as those networks become more robust and, indeed, more accessible.
Meanwhile, an Australian company called Palm Solutions has developed a real estate application for property inspections featuring downloadable property condition reports, routine inspection and bond reports. On return to the office, the user simply places the palmtop in its cradle, synchronises using the Palm Solutions Synch-Engine (psSynch) and the property reports are automatically generated through direct integration with a word processor, saved and optionally printed.
ACI, a global provider of e-payment processing software to financial institutions and retailers, is working with Telstra and Optus in Australia and New Zealand to enable mobile phone recharging services at bank ATMs. It will mean mobile phone users will no longer have to search out a service centre to recharge their phone service - they will do it at an ATM.
Inventory on the Run.
Mobile technology has huge potential for helping organisations to achieve supply chain efficiencies, with such work well advanced overseas. For instance, Ethicon in the UK, a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson in the medical field, contracted IBM to connect their supply chain and inventory management from Ethicon's JD Edwards ERP systems to their private hospital customers.
Now a medical orderly needing to take medical supplies to use in an operation uses a mobile device with a barcode scanner attached to scan the supplies as he or she takes them off the shelf. That information can either be transmitted to Ethicon's ERP system online in real time or stored offline if the device isn't connected to the network.
IBM's Wong says the benefit for both the customer and the supplier is that, by doing this real-time inventory management and capturing that information and the use of the inventory, they can reduce their inventory levels. "From a productivity and a customer service point of view, they have been able to reduce the amount of cash flow that has to go into standing inventory for their customers at the same time giving them better service in re-supply and the like," he says.
Similarly, some Australian hospitals designated Centres of Excellence are approaching the health system holistically and finding innovative ways to harness technology to patient care. Melbourne's Warringal Private Hospital, for instance, is using radio frequency beacons installed in ceilings to link physicians, pathologists, and even dieticians to networked computers located through the hospital. The wireless point-of-activity computer network lets nursing, clinical and administrative staff access and enter individual patient information, pathology results, pharmaceutical information and clinical patient information from the patient's bedside. In the meantime, maintenance staff can report and correct minor equipment faults on the fly.
"While there are substantial patient care and staff productivity gains made, this is a new technology and requires the re-engineering of many processes and practices involving all staff at the hospital," commercial manager Michael Sammells says.
CSC in Australia has a prototype of a pathology system for doctors allowing them to extract lab reports and tests and blood tests and even order medicines and other supplies. "Through a partner organisation we can also take actual physical pictures and transfer them from a Palm with a little camera attached to the device and send those back into a database. So in the health environment they could use that as well for diagnosis or just patient identification," Seymour says.
You Are Here.
Location-based technologies for wireless devices are helping leading-edge organisations deliver new marketing opportunities and a host of new services.
In Australia, business intelligence software specialists MapInfo Australia and international systems integrator Logica are early adapters. Together they have developed a spatial information system to support Orange's digital phone network. The solution lets Orange precisely identify coverage areas within its CDMA network, which has around eight million subscribers in and around Sydney and Melbourne, and deliver enhanced customer service.
By letting Orange pinpoint locations within its network and identify its user base, customer by customer, the software makes it possible to strategically offer services as customers enter new sales areas.
MapInfo's MapX and Streetworks software is integrated into the PeopleSoft customer contact application. It sits on the Samsung network infrastructure which has GeoLoc Unix embedded into it to provide location data to Orange's application. Samsung Electronics supplied the CDMA wireless network and will provide ongoing technical and maintenance support to the project.
Mayne Nickless Express has developed and implemented an Internet-enabled electronic track and trace system called iTrack. Based on the handheld Symbol PPT4600 pen-based, wireless and scan-integrated data capture terminal, it is being progressively rolled out across MNE's operations. The set-up should let the company track, monitor and report on up to 30,000 national parcel deliveries a week while allowing customers to see at a glance where their parcels are.
The Australia-wide operation is being implemented through MNE's network of country agents. Ultimately more than 1200 Mayne Nickless Express drivers will be armed with terminals for complete track and trace parcel delivery reconciliation. MNE's customers will have access to the iTrack track and trace system plus parcel status and reporting information via the Internet.
The system will also be used to collect useful management information such as the portion of freight delivered during particular time-frames, customer performance reports and driver performance reports.
Commerce Hits the Road.
With the eyes of the world on the explosion in uptake of mobile offerings, the potential for exploiting business to consumer (B2C) applications is also receiving a great deal of Australian attention.
Mobile has huge potential in helping organisations achieve competitive edge. In the UK, Safeway has had some customers doing their shopping using a Palm device for about two years.
"Customer by customer, they knew the buying preferences and therefore were able to reduce the offering to something that allows customers to do the shopping quickly on the Palm device," Wong says. "Then once in a while they are able to offer you a specific offering they think you might be interested in because of your buying habits. When the order is completed, it can be transferred either through a wireline connection or through a wireless connection and the products reassembled through a package and ready for you to pick up when you arrive at the store."
British Airways is allowing customers to check in and get their seat confirmed with their wireless device as they arrive at the airport. Now a European airline is rushing to jump on the bandwagon.
"The message is if you can service your customer with an ability to remove the queuing process and allow them to physically reach their destination more effectively, they are more likely to select your offers," Wong says. "The new service can be a revenue growth opportunity which is, I think, the main driver for some of these airlines to do that."
IBM set out to prove the potential of pervasive computing during the Australian Open Tennis tournament in January, allowing users to follow the tournament and access news and scores in real time through WAP-based mobile phones and handheld devices.
IBM WAP-enabled two of the core information technology systems that support the tournament - the IBM Real-Time Scoring System and the Lotus Notes-based publishing application that manages all of the news content for the official Australian Open Web site. Most of this information was accessible to mobile Internet devices that support the WAP standard.
Barsoum says the initiative proved popular, with IBM serving up around 15,000 page views during the two-week period.
"It's really an ongoing solution that we've been developing with IBM across tournaments across the world. I think if you think about the theme of convenience and communication, it is really one that [allows] a consumer to access information conveniently in a timely manner," he says.
The same event also saw the introduction to Australia of wireless interactive permission-based marketing promotions using Short Messaging Service (SMS). EdgeMatrix helped Australian Open sponsor Heineken Australia with a promotion which saw correct entries entitle registrants to enter a draw to win free Heineken beer for a year. Promotion registrants received a daily SMS asking them to pick the winner of the Australian Open Tennis match of the day.
Edge Matrix used its Mobile Loyalty solution, powered by EdgeMatrix's Xgate multi-channel communications server, to deliver the promotion and provide a powerful marketing tool for wireless devices. The SMS messages were collected and delivered using the Vodafone Australia network.
At the End of the Road.
GartnerGroup says B2B and B2C m-commerce will rest on a range of services including vertically specialised news and alerts, business process status information, e-mail, maintenance alerts, CRM, mobile employee applications, field service, sales support and remote management. B2B and B2C services, meanwhile, will be driven by alerts (including price) and time-sensitive news, messaging, basic location-specific information and marketing, as well as microsales and e-tickers and tokens.
IDC Australia research analyst Joel Martin expects heavy investment in mobile commerce by the financial institutions over the next couple of years. "They will offer facilities like accessing your bank account for viewing information rather than having to transfer data. You might also see functions like monitoring stocks, getting a feed from your broker where you can choose to either buy or sell and click one to buy or two to sell. This will involve limited interaction with no keying or purchasing, "he says.
Such applications may be yet another step on the road to realising the vision of truly pervasive computing; but the road is long and winding, and the vision today is almost as far off as ever. It remains to be seen whether m-commerce will play a definitive role in realising that dream.
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