Managing Mobility

The wireless Internet and the mobile applications that flow from it are possibly the most over-hyped and confusing technologies of the new millennium. But when they take off, they will evolve into mainstream applications involving large numbers of end users. And, as a mobile user myself, I am quite keen for this to occur – provided it doesn’t further strain my eyesight!

The skeptic in me has been convinced of the mobile phenomenon by four key factors: economic, social, business, and technological.

Economic imperatives – falling prices. The falling price of mobile airtime and key mobile technologies is making new applications economically feasible. Mobile phone chip-sets are expected to fall to $US35 by 2006. At this point they can be built into consumer electronics, such as washing machines.

Social imperatives – mobile lifestyle. Mobile phones have already become a mandatory accessory in many groups, especially among young people. My 23-year-old daughter acquired a mobile phone at age 16, and no longer has a landline in her apartment. She is rarely there so why pay for it?

Business imperatives – anywhere, anytime reach. Many organizations seek new mobile applications to reduce costs, to satisfy the growing need for “anywhere/anytime” customer service, and to bridge supply-chain gaps. My colleagues are starting to accept that they can just about always reach me on my office number, no matter where I am. That number is permanently switched through to dual-band mobile, except for the few days I am in the office. If the phone is off, they can leave a message.

Technological imperatives – taking opportunities. Much greater bandwidths and new technologies such as precise-location sensing will enable new applications, including shopping support portals that find alternative sources for

products and services near the consumer’s location.

Japan And Canada Forge Ahead

These imperatives are nowhere more apparent than in Japan. In February 1999 DoCoMo introduced its i-mode mobile data service. i-mode operates at just 9.6 Kbps, the same speed as the GSM system used in Europe. Because it is based on packet technology rather than circuit-switched systems used in Europe, the zero latency required to send messages dramatically reduces response time. (GSM has 20 to 75 second connect time.) Applications include messaging, entertainment, games, and dating, with increasing use being made by organizations using the network for field service and CRM applications.

Another success story is Canada’s Bank of Montreal and Veev, a wireless-based financial system, accessed via WAP-enabled mobile phones, that allows access to a range of banking and brokerage services, plus “lifestyle” applications like weather, news and horoscopes.

Where Are We On The Timeline?

Mobile phones have evolved through several generations. The first generation (1G) was analogue, and data could only be transmitted very slowly using modems. The current second generation (2G) typically uses digital circuit switched connections for both voice and data, providing only low speed data (typically around 9.6 Kbps).

The term 2.5G describes an emerging breed of networks that use technologies such as GPRS (general packet radio service) to support packet-switched medium-speed data (realistically 20 Kbps). Data is charged on a per-packet basis rather than a connection-time basis.

Most third-generation (3G) networks will not start to be deployed until 2003. They will offer higher data rates (realistically around 64 Kbps or better), sufficient for multimedia and other data-intensive applications. 4G is still an ill-defined concept, but is likely to involve efficiency improvements and ubiquitous use of IP for both voice and data.

It’s Time To Greet The Future

The key message is that mobile applications are inevitable. When considering mobile, think “when” not “if”. Are some of your staff using mobile services now? How can these be leveraged into applications that will benefit the business? What are your competitors doing? What are your customers demanding? Which parts of your organization could benefit from the application of mobile technology?

Concentrate on systems that can be developed quickly (in 90 days or less), and which add enough value for them to be discarded within 18 months. Don’t ignore simple and cheap solutions like SMS, or daily PDA synchronization. And because of the differing state of mobile technology around the world, mobile strategies should be regional, not global.

Partnerships will be necessary because one-stop shops offering mobile technology skills, vertical business skills, localization and support will be difficult to find.

Look’s like I will be getting those multi-focal glasses some time soon.

Dr. Marianne Broadbent is Group Vice President and Global Head of Research for Gartner’s Executive Programs.