Ever since the introduction of mobile phones, the computer industry has been a major advocate of the technology, so much so that it has become essential to many businesses.
With the introduction of smartphones, the use of mobile voice and data communications may be about to revolutionise the way business is conducted while on the move.
The smartphone is basically a combination of the standard mobile/cell phone with a typical personal digital assistant’s (PDA’s) ability to handle functions such as email, contact management or even web browsing. This consequently creates a more intelligent communication device for handling data transmissions of various types, not just voice and SMS text.
However, smartphones do have their limitations, especially when compared to PC web browsers, with their ability with display all the rich graphics content of the web. They have small, generally monochrome screens, limited memory and are constrained by a lack of bandwidth.
As a result the original smartphones were developed to access slimmed down, custom designed or auto-mapping transcoded content. Initially a host of computer and telecoms companies leapt to support this format with technologies such as Wap, GSM communications and GPRS.
Describing how the technology to support smartphones has developed, Mike Cole, director of communications provider WorldCom’s Mobile Product Centre, said: “The current mobile network is based on GSM, which is a circuit-switched technology. It delivers 9,600 to 14,400bps (depending on network configuration), or up to 28.8Kbps for networks that have deployed high-speed circuit-switched data such as Orange.
“This is why internet access by phones, laptops and PDAs appears to be slower than access via a 56k/ISDN modem from a fixed connection.
“Fortunately, the new GPRS infrastructure currently being deployed will offer greater flexibility and bandwidth capacity with potential data speeds three to four times faster than standard circuit-switched offers today.
“When more widely available, GPRS will provide users with ‘always-available’ internet access and the opportunity for operators to offer more content-rich services.”
However, GPRS is not the ultimate solution for mobile communications, as Cole goes on to explain. “GPRS is an interim measure designed to establish a critical mass of users in preparation for the introduction of third-generation (3G) wireless data technology, which is predicted for 2003. 3G opens up the possibility of a far richer mobile application environment with full graphical web browsing and full streaming video being promoted as popular future applications,” he said.
The smart money
There is little doubt that the mobile industry is pinning great hopes on the eventual introduction of 3G technology to kick-start the business use of smartphones. 3G opens up a huge raft of new application areas which can be exploited for business purposes. It will offer always-on connectivity at speeds up to 2Mbps, making the integration of voice, data and video a realistic option for mobile users.
The other key feature of 3G technology is the ability to accurately locate the geographical position of the device being used for data or voice transmission. Some people argue that this smacks of Big Brother, but the potential benefits for business are enormous.
“It is becoming increasingly obvious that location intelligence must lie at the heart of any customer service operation,” explained David Flower, vice president of location-based solutions vendor MapInfo. “Being able to accurately locate where customers are in relation to assets, services and networks brings dramatic efficiencies in terms of service delivery. The intelligence that can be derived from understanding this relationship is driving critical business decisions at all levels of an organisation.”
Citing BT as an example Flower said: “It is already demonstrating very tangible business benefits, saving £23m. The location-based solution is provided on laptop computers and gives users access to detailed maps of ducts and cables supplying business and residential customers, as well as accurate information on the location of the customers’ premises.
“It enables them to first locate a property and then progressively zoom in to view road networks and local plant and network details, the location of underground ducts and finally the individual cables within these.
“The ability to see the proximity of the network to the customer saves further time and effort, all leading to improved customer service levels.”
Kenneth Hart, European vice president at wireless navigation firm Webraska, also sees the introduction of location-based solutions as a key element of future mobile use, but warned that the technology must be linked to existing systems if it is to improve efficiency.
“As different applications make sense to different mobile market sectors that leverage the underlying location-based infrastructure, what is needed is the platform to pull the consumer and corporate markets together,” he said.
“For example, an end user may use a taxi finder service via SMS. The call centre, using a corporate application, can locate the caller and send a signal to the nearest taxi to pick the customer up. Linking consumer and corporate applications together is the obvious solution.
“The smart part is the middleware, which can achieve this automatically. I do not believe that the real issue is the technology that is being used to deploy mobile services. We need to focus on the application suite that can pull together all the various mediums, like Wap and SMS, that are most commonly used at the moment.”
But according to Hart one of the major stumbling blocks is the user interface. “As more and more consumers move to using smartphones, the more the demand for sophisticated and engaging community applications, such as buddy finder, increases,” he said.
“Although some of these applications can already be used via SMS, the handicap is the interface of the handset. There is no reason why we cannot side step this issue by using voice technology using the benefits of constant connectivity,” he added.
Paul Scott, general manager at digital communications vendor 365 Corporation, agrees that navigating menus and controlling mobile phones via voice commands is vital if wider adoption of the technology is to be achieved in the future.
“Some of the applications we are currently building and hosting are combining both voice and data accessible via Interactive Voice Recognition, for instance our email reader. This does not necessitate any further progression of handsets. We have no doubt that voice is the way forward,” he explained.
If smartphones are going to be widely adopted for business use, the issue of security needs to be addressed, particularly when it comes to allowing remote users to access corporate networks from remote locations.
One approach is the use of internet authentication services, such as those provided by Signify, but giving mobile users access to your corporate network can be a risky business.
John Stewart, Signify’s chief executive, said: “Signify delivers a unique, fully managed online security service based on RSA Security’s RSA SecurID technology. This provides corporates and service providers with a two-factor authentication security solution.
“Rather than relying on a single password, users must present two forms of identification: something they know – a secret PIN – and something unique such as a token contained on a smartcard or built into their phones.
“The mobile phone is a ‘must have’ for today’s businesses but many are wary of giving users unfettered access to their internal networks when they are out in the field. Extending our service to allow you to access corporate networks securely from your handset seemed an obvious step. The fact that the phone generates your one-time pass code makes it simple to use, and means you have one less thing to carry.”
The latest generation of smartphones is much more versatile than its predecessor, and is geared towards the use of newer mobile communications systems, such as the upcoming 3G services.
It is not surprising that smartphones are increasing in popularity, and are already quite common in Asia. In Europe their adoption has been slower, with Germany and Scandinavia leading the way.
According to research firm Cahners In-Stat, the overall wireless market in western Europe will have 277.6 million subscribers at the end of 2001, growing to 315.8 million by 2005.
Projections by 3G lobby group the UMTS Forum indicate that smartphones will generate global revenues of $1 trillion by 2010. Its research indicates that smartphones will be slow to catch on but their popularity will accelerate sharply from 2005.
Although the UK is not as advanced as some markets, this means that there are opportunities ahead to capitalise on the predicted growth in smartphones. However, not everyone believes that 3G will be an immediate success.
Scott said: “Any projections on 3G are largely guesswork which, given the damp squib of Wap, does not offer a great degree of comfort. Even when applications using these are available, it seems likely that there will be a delay before the consumer takes them up.
“It took several years of having SMS capability on our mobiles before there was any significant traffic, and the same could easily be true when it comes to more sophisticated content delivered over 3G networks.”
- Mobile data communications has had a chequered history with varying degrees of success along the way.
- Smartphones are a natural progression which combine personal digital assistant and mobile phone technologies.
- Functions such as securing authorised access to corporate networks need to be addressed before smartphones become widely accepted.
- The new 3G technology appears to be the solution that the whole industry is pinning its hopes on.
- Potentially there is a huge market for smartphone technology.
Enhancing the message
Over the past two years the mobile telephone industry has witnessed an explosion in the use of SMS text messages. Much of this has come from the proliferation of mobile phones among children. However, the 160 character limit of SMS has meant that it has proved less useful than email for business purposes.
This may be about to change with the introduction of Enhanced Messaging Service (EMS). Adrian Atwood, chief operating officer at Magic4, a company actively involved in the development of EMS, explained the potential of the technology.
“Basically, EMS allows SMS to be enhanced with images, sound and form elements. A typical example would be a birthday message which had the obligatory ‘happy birthday’ text, but also included the Happy Birthday tune, as well as a picture of a cake.
“In the business world EMS can be used to send barcodes to the phones of couriers to check in and check out goods. Other applications include electronic ticketing barcodes to allow entry into a cinema or theatre and money off promotional schemes which can be read by a retailer’s barcode reader.
“EMS enables ‘forms’ to be used to log any kind of information which can be sent back from the mobile and integrated with legacy database packages.
“This provides the ability to send potential customers a series of questions to immediately generate a database of responses.
“EMS is already in a number of phones, with more due next year, and will provide a roadmap to 3G multimedia messaging, allowing video clips and scanned images to be sent to phones.”
365 Corporation (08701) 107 600 www.365corp.com
Magic4 (01925) 286 300 www.magic4.com
MapInfo (01753) 828 200 www.mapinfo.com
Signify (01223) 472 572 www.signify.net
Webraska (020) 7368 3368 www.webraska.com
WorldCom (0845) 088 4455 www.worldcom.com
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