Gas prices, iPhone influence enterprise mobile decisions

The price of gas and the iPhone are influencing enterprise mobile-phone investment decisions, experts at the CTIA conference in San Francisco said on Thursday.

These days, employees are asking to work from home for a couple days a week as a way to save on fuel costs associated with the drive to work, said Jay Burrell, vice president of North America at Nokia. Using a mobile phone that might be connected to the corporate PBX or that offers access to other corporate applications can help such workers be more productive, Burrell and other CTIA speakers said.

Such external factors like rising gas prices often tend to drive decisions at enterprises to invest in mobile technologies, said Bob Cheslog, director of channel development and customer technology support at Motorola. “ROIs are incredibly difficult to justify,” he noted.

Many companies end up investing in wireless deployments because their competitors are doing it or because top executives want to work remotely a couple of days a week, rather than because they’ve mapped out the gains in productivity and resulting increases in revenue, he said.

Recently, enterprises that decide to invest in mobile phones have been asking about the iPhone. Historically, BlackBerry phones from Research In Motion and Windows Mobile devices dominated discussions around which devices to buy, Cheslog said. “Because the iPhone is so disruptive, we’re hearing more buzz about it,” he said. “Mostly it’s the large IT groups asking us, ‘We know we can do that on Windows Mobile and RIM, but can we do it on the iPhone?'”

If the enterprise discovers that the iPhone can support a capability it’s looking for, it will ask Motorola about its comparable phones, he said.

In addition to looking for the style and functionality offered by the iPhone, enterprises are also looking for other vendors to match its price. “The iPhone has created a virtual ceiling at US$199 that’s not easy to exceed,” said Sam Ramdenbourg, director of product planning and strategy at Samsung.

Motorola’s Cheslog agreed. Other phones must at least compare to the iPhone in many ways including memory, capacity and display, and then offer other distinctive capabilities before crossing that $199 threshold, he said.

Even before the iPhone came out, many handset makers began to add more capabilities into their enterprise handsets that were traditionally targeted only to consumer users, such as video. It took improved processing power, faster networks and better screens to make video worthwhile on phones, the experts said.

But once the phone makers began supporting video, enterprise users figured out how to use it to boost productivity. For example, one banking customer using BlackBerry devices now delivers videos each morning with a recap of what happened in the markets overnight so executives can view them on the train into the office, said Alan Panezic, vice president of product management at RIM.

In the future, enterprises should expect to see e-mail support on more mid- to low-end handsets and more applications around navigation, the executives said.

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