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Like e-mail, mobile telecommunications have become a routine part of the business day. It is remarkable how pervasive and convenient mobile phones have become in just a few years. But the experts say that the mobile revolution has only just begun. Or, to put it another way, the potential business benefits of mobility have only been partially realised.
Convergence is the buzzword here – the idea that greater productivity can be achieved by moving all mobile communications on to a single device. The question is whether such a universal tool could become the sole device that business people of the future will need?
“A single personal mobile device for all voice communications is definitely the future for business,” says Fergus O’Reilly, vice-president of product strategy at Highdeal, a consultancy advising mobile operators on their business case. “Business people would also like to be able to use a single personal mobile device for both personal and business communications.”
Mr O’Reilly points out that many business people have to juggle multiple mobile phones and even multiple SIM cards. An extreme example emerged during the case of the Italian football scandal last summer: Luciano Moggi, general manager of Juventus, had over six mobile phones and 300 SIM cards.
Such multiplication is unsustainable, and broadband and mobile handset technologies already exist to enable device convergence. However, for convergence to enable business people to become more productive, it must do more than simple push voice, e-mail and data through one handset. That handset must also be a practical device for this range of tasks, because usability is not just a question of functionality but of the habits and processes that people develop when deploying converged devices.
In short, the business case for mobile working will never be fully realised until users can be as productive on their mobile devices as they are in their offices. It is one thing for a user to be able to access e-mail wherever they are but does that really help productivity that much?
“Receiving an e-mail telling you there is an issue with the delivery of a certain component to a major customer is useful to the extent that you are aware [of it],” says Simon Ratcliffe head of the managed services division at Business Systems Group (BSG).
“However, being aware is of no use if you cannot take any action. If you can also access key business applications on your mobile device you can do something about the problem.” That is a far greater challenge because it requires more sophisticated functionality – easy when sitting at the keyboard of a PC but more difficult when holding a handset.
Another argument is that 24-hour e-mail access generates its own inefficiencies. “It is so much easier to ‘resolve’ or ‘delegate’ a problem by sending an e-mail to someone,” continues Mr Ratcliffe. “Now you know that they have permanent access to e-mail, you’re safe in the knowledge that it is no longer your problem.”
Another fundamental question to ask is whether people actually want a single device. For example, there is evidence that people are actually attached to the variety of gadgetry at their disposal. In a sense, the mobile industry has only itself to blame for this, having pumped huge resources into designing attractive gadgets and functions to lure more customers. There is also the question of status, measured according to the number of devices people have in their suitcase.
Siemens Enterprise Communications, which specialises in convergence technology, is one company that has recognised this phenomenon of loyalty. It believes that the transition from many to one device could take some time. In the meantime, it is working on delivering a consistent user experience across the multiple devices that people have – its LifeWorks concept.
Perhaps it will not be personal choices that sort out the shape of future convergence but hard economics. There are two elements to consider. First, the reduction in travel costs that mobile communications enables. And second, whether convergence will itself initiate new ways of more efficiently organising business processes.
First, travel costs. This is clearly a significant issue. The obvious example is business travellers stuck in hotels and airports but being able to conduct their business as normal regardless of location. “Extending that further, [a businessman] could be sitting in an airport, in the US, for instance, and using a wireless hotspot there, calling clients and suppliers here in the UK via soft-phone and only costing your company the price of a local call,” says Andrew Pearson, director of Converged Communications Solutions, a hosting service. “These costs may seem inconsequential at first glance but think about oil executives who may be away for long periods and need to keep in touch with projects at home. These costs can easily rack up.”
So-called fixed-mobile convergence (FMC), linking wired and wireless telecommunications, will accelerate these kinds of advantages. “Today, enterprises are not demanding converged solutions and are largely uninformed of FMC technology,” says Nicholas McQuire, a senior analyst at research company Yankee Group. “However, demand will grow rapidly as awareness of FMC’s benefits reach enterprise decision-makers such as a reduction in and greater control of mobile costs, enhanced productivity and greater mobility.”
The second economic case is more subtle. We expect device convergence to be linked to business process convergence, thereby ensuring that the technology and mobile device fits tightly with business development.
“The technology is converging, but in the first instance that does not mean the business processes are converging, or even adapting to fit the possibilities offered by the technology,” explains Rob Bamforth, mobile specialist at Quocirca, a business and technology analyst. He points out that many of the more complex business cases suggested by the advocates of convergence imply that new technology will disrupt existing processes, not work with them.
“Most well-established businesses cannot afford to take such radical steps,” Mr Bamforth continues. He argues that they are too risky. The parallel here is with businesses in the 1990s that tried to develop online operations by bolting them on to existing processes. Few managed it successfully, and they are now shy of technology-driven business innovation.
“It’s a similar issue trying to glue ‘mobility’ on to the side of a business process,” he explains, “designed to cope with fixed places and faces.”