Wireless finally connects

There’s only so much hype a technology can take before people turn their backs on it. And so when the economy and tech spending slumped, it was understandable that CIOs stopped looking at wireless as the next big thing. But now it’s time to take another look: The technologies that make wireless work have gotten better. So much better that the respondents to CIO’s wireless survey (our third since the fall of 2000) said they are actively looking beyond personal productivity tools such as e-mail to business process applications such as updating inventory and accessing medical records.

That’s right. Wireless is back.

Want proof? Seventy-five per cent of our respondents are currently undertaking a wireless project. Furthermore, attitudes toward wireless technology are returning to levels last seen when the Nasdaq surpassed 5,000. Indeed, a whopping 68 per cent said wireless is either important or somewhat important —the exact same percentage as in 2000. Sixteen per cent cited wireless as extremely important to their current business goals.

It’s worth putting these attitudes in perspective. A year and a half ago, CIOs were so down on wireless that we didn’t even bother including questions in our survey about the technology’s importance to business plans. IT executives such as Thomson Financial CTO Jeff Scott simply explained that interest “has cooled a bit for (wireless) services, either because of the market conditions or a changed view of ROI for wireless, or both.”

ROI is hard to come by, and for a simple reason. Wireless projects depend on three elements: the device, the network (whether that’s via a cellular carrier, a satellite connection or a Wi-Fi LAN) and the application. If one of those elements isn’t up to par, then the project won’t work. No one uses cumbersome devices; people give up if they can’t connect to the network, and there’s no point in doing a project if you can’t deliver the data. By 2002, most CIOs who tried wireless projects had encountered one or more of those problems. Devices had small screens that made it hard to view data, they ran out of batteries quickly — sometimes wiping out all the information in the process — and they were expensive. Networks, meanwhile, were proprietary, expensive and slow — and that’s when there was coverage. Project after project failed.

The ones that succeeded fell into predictable categories. The companies had large mobile workforces, depended on data from those workforces and, most importantly, could afford to invest in custom devices, proprietary coverage plans and homegrown applications. Common examples were trucking companies that tracked their drivers with GPS devices, shipping companies offering delivery confirmation, and utility companies whose repair crews collected large amounts of data about problems and fixes in the field.

Today, things are different. Both devices and network technologies have improved by leaps and bounds in the past year or so, says Phillip Redman, research vice-president for wireless at Gartner.

Devices now have color screens, more memory and faster processors. Such improvements enabled Judith Flournoy, CIO of Kelley, Drye & Warren, to give her law firm’s attorneys BlackBerrys to wirelessly e-mail legal documents. With network access in place, “these devices enable everything else,” Flournoy said.

Added to that: Cellular carriers now support IP packets, meaning data can pass over existing voice networks. And wireless LANs have improved in the area of security.

The result is better, more reliable coverage and more bandwidth, which Thomas Jarrett, CIO and secretary of the department of technology and information for the state of Delaware, says makes it possible for him to outfit state employees with wireless laptops.

Also, said Redman, prices for both devices and network time are dropping between 15 per cent and 20 per cent each year. There is still work to be done on the application side, but many vendors, such as Microsoft Corp., PeopleSoft Inc. and SAP AG, to name just three, are building wireless functionality into new versions of their software.

What it all boils down to, said AMR Research Director Dennis Gaughan, is that wireless technology is now available off the shelf, and even companies with long-standing investments in custom-developed wireless systems are starting to use commercial products and services. “It’s making wireless a lot easier,” he said.

The result is that CIOs — any CIO — can once again pursue wireless. According to CIO’s most recent survey, 83 per cent of CIOs have enabled wireless access to e-mail. Emboldened by the success of these projects and the decreased cost of wireless, almost 10 per cent of CIOs are starting to pursue data-intensive wireless projects, such as access to CRM and ERP systems. While many of these projects are in the beta or pilot stages, the success of the trials, as well as the continued success of wireless e-mail, are proving that you don’t have to be a transportation or package-delivery company to do wireless. Here are three stories from the front lines.

CBRE – An Inexpensive Way to Put Data in Real Estate Brokers’ Hands

Business: Commercial real estate

Why wireless: Gives more data access to property brokers in the field

What they’re doing: Making real estate listings available to handhelds via e-mail

Obstacles overcome: Poor quality of service from using e-mail to deliver database query results

Expected benefits: Increased sales

CBRE is the largest commercial real estate company in the world, with more than 10,000 listings. Every day brokers come into the office first and then go out to meet clients and show properties. A year-and-a-half ago, CIO Steve Sutherland decided that it was time to let these brokers and other employees have wireless e-mail access. After piloting the project with members of the executive team, he made wireless e-mail available to any employee who was willing to buy a Goodlink device. So far, 500 people out of a potential pool of 14,000 have bought devices, and Sutherland expects adoption to skyrocket this year. It helps keep people in touch with clients, though he is realistic about the benefits. “It still takes 10 minutes to do 10 minutes of e-mail,” he says.

What would really help productivity, Sutherland thought, would be to give brokers access to the property listing database. He recently did that for seven offices in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and it has had a dramatic effect on brokers’ ability to do their jobs. For example, a client may have made an appointment to look at 5,000-square-foot office spaces, and the broker meets him with a list of properties that fit the description. Now, if after looking at the first property the client realizes that he needs 10,000 square feet, rather than rescheduling for the next day, the broker can simply use his device to access a list of appropriate properties in the area. So far, the application has about 100 users. This is a project that Sutherland has wanted to do ever since he first became CIO in 1994, but until now cost-effective technology wasn’t available. Now, he says, “the barriers to entry are gone.”

Providing access to a back-end system, such as the property database, is more complicated than access to e-mail. E-mail requires only that the end device be connected to the Internet for a moment; the messages are downloaded to the user’s device and accessed regardless of online status. Web-based applications, on the other hand, require a persistent connection. Even though coverage has gotten better, the risk of a transmission getting dropped is too real to simply extend core applications to wireless devices through browsers. In order to extend an application to devices, CIOs need to design it in such a way that it doesn’t require a constant connection. Sutherland bought a development tool from Good Technology Inc. that allows the broker accessing the property database to initiate a search while connected and then have the results delivered in an e-mail.

Sutherland eventually plans to roll out access to the property database to CBRE brokers all over the United States. Right now, each regional office has its own database, a leftover system from hurried Y2K preparations. He is in the process of replacing those systems with a nationwide PeopleSoft implementation, which will be accessible by any employee.

Sutherland said that the project cost only “a few thousand dollars” for software, since employees have to buy their own devices and pay for their own service time, and he used an existing server. The agents’ increased efficiency more than justifies the expense, he says.

CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL OF ORANGE COUNTY – Hospital Massages Existing Networks to Fill Doctors’Wireless Order

Business: Hospital

Why wireless: Meets user demand for flexible data access

What they’re doing: Wireless network access for doctors and nurses

Obstacles overcome: Spotty network performance

Expected benefits: Improved patient care, more productive staff

One of the first things that Children’s Hospital of Orange County Calif. vice-president and CIO Mark Headland did when he started his job two-and-a-half years ago was ask doctors what they wanted most. Remote data access was the near unanimous answer.

Since then, Headland has met that challenge, and the hospital’s wireless LAN allows high-speed data transmissions. “I don’t think wireless is a question anymore,” he says. “If you take your time doing good design, there is no question about the efficacy. The biggest issue for us is the device.”

Headland has tried a variety of devices to improve patient care — the hard part, he says, is finding the right device. In July, nurses will use laptops on carts and tablet PCs to record patient vital signs. Next will be giving doctors Ipaqs that they can use to access the latest patient data and lab results, and to place orders for medication.

The Ipaq project has created some challenges, however. When the doctor enters a patient’s room, he hits the sync button, and during the next two and a half minutes, the latest data is delivered through the wireless network from the back-end database. The problem is that synchronizing, especially when more than one doctor is syncing at a time — Headland said it’s conceivable that 30 or 40 could need to sync at once — creates a strain on the hospital’s servers, sucking CPU power and essentially freezing all the networked computers for about a minute. As a result, Headland hasn’t been able to move the Ipaqs into production yet.

The solution requires changes to both the mobile application and the database. Both were initially designed to deliver data all at once, and now have to be redesigned to deliver data piecemeal. These aren’t complicated changes, according to Headland, but they do take some tinkering. And because these applications are intended for a hospital, the Ipaqs will need to be tested meticulously to ensure that they won’t strain other medical systems. Headland is testing the Ipaqs in a mock environment and plans to go live with the project in March.

The wireless system at the hospital isn’t going to have a hard ROI in dollars, but it should improve patient care. Doctors and nurses will be able to make decisions with up-to-the-minute information, and because doctors can place orders for tests in the middle of a visit, patients will receive treatment faster.

OPTIMUS SOLUTIONS – Systems Reseller Finds Right Device After Years of Tinkering

Business: Software And Consulting

Why wireless: Keeps sales force in contact

What they’re doing: Wireless access to e-mail and calendar

Obstacles overcome: Short battery life, lack of wide area network access

Expected benefits: Competitive advantage

Optimus Solutions Director of IT Steve McDonald has been trying wireless projects for years, and until recently, his efforts have resulted in only a long list of failures. “I was caught up in the hype,” he acknowledges. Optimus, which resells software and hardware and does consulting work, has a mobile sales force. Like many CIOs, McDonald felt that getting data to these people where they work had great appeal, and so he sought to make data from the company’s homegrown CRM system available through wireless. The project wasn’t mission critical, however, and wasn’t worth the money it would have taken to create a customized device over a private network. So McDonald has spent the past three years experimenting with off-the-shelf technology.

His earlier attempts involved outfitting Palms and Pocket PCs with wireless modems that could access cellular networks. It was easy to make the application accessible to these devices, he said. The hard part was getting the devices to work. For starters, connection speed was limited to 14.4Kbps, which frustrated the sales reps trying to get data. The ones who weren’t frustrated by slow connections were annoyed by the bulkiness of the devices. Between the modem and the battery pack necessary to keep them going more than two hours, they looked like and weighed about as much as a brick. Rather than lug around the devices, sales reps simply used their phones to call other reps in the office.

When the first combo PDA-phone devices came out three years ago, McDonald thought he had the answer —only one device to carry around would mean his users wouldn’t be weighed down. But battery life was a problem. The new devices — especially the ones that used color screens — didn’t last more than a few hours unless the user was diligent about recharging, which most weren’t. Worse, when the battery died, all the information on the device was wiped out. “You could back it up or recover the information, but that solution created a much bigger problem,” said McDonald. For a while he abandoned his wireless ambitions.

In the past six months, his efforts have been reinvigorated, he said. The triggering event was the ability to use BlackBerry PDA-phones over cellular networks — until recently, BlackBerrys worked with only a handful of third-party data service providers approved by the vendor Research In Motion, or RIM. The new devices have a color screen and batteries that last up to five days. More important, they work with almost all the major U.S. cellular carriers. McDonald said that employees buy their own devices and that the company pays for usage — including the data transfer — though its wireless carrier.

Meanwhile, the ROI has been immediate. Optimus’s sales force sells hardware as a commodity — they’ll get a request from a customer who urgently needs a piece of equipment, and if that customer doesn’t hear back within a few minutes, he finds another dealer. In the first couple of weeks of the three-person beta testing, Optimus landed four deals that it wouldn’t have without the wireless project. McDonald rushed it into production at a development cost of only US$250 for each of the 60 salesmen.

Right now the employees are able to access the Lotus e-mail and calendar systems, but the success of the project has led McDonald to revisit CRM, which is housed in a Lotus Domino database. The project will move into beta testing at the end of the second quarter, and McDonald hopes to roll it out to the rest of the company by the summer. Before, he says, devices and networks couldn’t handle what was asked of them. “Now they can,” he says.

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