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10/2/2008
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Is The Smartphone Your Next Computer?

How BlackBerry, iPhone, Windows Mobile, and Symbian-powered handhelds are becoming over-the-air portals to enterprise apps, and why they could ultimately edge the laptop aside.

Is the smartphone the new laptop? Can we really ditch our Windows-powered portables when we travel, in favor of BlackBerry, iPhone, Windows Mobile-, or Symbian-powered handsets? It's true that full-fledged x86 computing excels at supporting deep views into business intelligence and CRM databases. However, most professionals would like nothing better than to lighten their load on the road. And hey, if they can access their companies' Oracle, Salesforce.com, SAP, or Sybase apps from a lightweight mobile interface, why not?

It's reasonable to think such a scenario will be par for the course for the typical knowledge worker in three years' time. But what's the reality today? That's the question we bounced off three categories of stakeholders: IT organizations, enterprise software vendors, and cell phone platform suppliers.

[See sidebar:Symbian Stakes A U.S. Claim]

What we found is a mixed bag. Smartphone makers are rushing to partner with software houses, as both see big bucks in giving their customers mobile enterprise access. The former envision over-the-air ERP and CRM as ways to drive expensive handsets into the hands of workers who currently don't rate more than commodity cell phones. And software vendors anticipate broader usage--or at least heightened mindshare--for their apps if they can get many more people to spend more time interacting with customer and transaction-oriented data on their handsets.

InformationWeek Reports

As for users, we found a market clearly in its early stages though poised for rapid growth. In an InformationWeek online survey of 1,139 business technology professionals, 30% of smartphone users say they use their devices for enterprise connectivity, and 37% either occasionally or frequently leave their laptops at home in favor of their smartphones.

Many more users would like to ditch their laptops when they travel but are afraid of being caught short. Most midlevel execs will only cop to arriving at a meeting armed with just a smartphone if they're on a day trip. So, for the near-term, a dual-use scenario will be the norm, where laptops lumber on in their traditional role.

chart: Get Up And Go -- Which mobile apps with enterprise connectivity are used, or being considered, by your organization?
At the same time, smartphones aren't simply taking up the slack. Forward-looking organizations already are propelling them into broader roles. Take General Motors. "Our senior executives are demanding more capabilities on their smartphones," says CIO Ralph Szygenda. Specifically, GM is looking to provide more business intelligence and real-time dashboards and reporting on smartphones, including apps that drill down into vehicle sales information, financial performance, manufacturing metrics, and project management status. "This means not only supporting a wider variety of mobile devices--for example, iPhones--running on 3G networks, but also ensuring that these devices seamlessly access our corporate wireless network using Wi-Fi technology," Szygenda says.

A piloting mode, where smartphone applications are tested, assessed, and slowly rolled out, seems to be the norm for large IT installations. University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is exploring smartphone apps that interface with medical records and UPMC's Picture Archiving and Communication System, an "always online" X-ray and CT scan database, says CIO Dan Drawbaugh. UPMC also is piloting Salesforce applications on smartphones.

Smaller shops are more likely to have anted up to the mobile application pot already. At Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream, the Palm Treo 750 is being used by some 50 field sales representatives to access the company's back-end CRM database.

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The company's field-sales reps tried laptops and tablet PCs, but their battery life was too short and rebooting took too much time on sales calls, which number 20 to 25 a day, says Mike Corby, director of direct store delivery. Dreyer's reps also found the laptops to be too bulky to tote around, "not to mention the theft worries with notebooks visible on their car seats."

At Astra Tech, a medical device maker, some 50 sales reps access Salesforce CRM apps on their smartphones. "Salespeople say they now check yesterday's sold or returned products plus the overall revenue trends, five minutes before meeting with a customer," says Fredrik Widarsson, Astra Tech's sales technology manager, who led the deployment on Windows Mobile smartphones (and is testing the app on iPhones). "Another interesting effect is that once a salesperson is back home for the day, the reporting part of their job is done. During waiting periods throughout the day, they put notes into the CRM system, using their smartphone."

Moving forward, Corby and Widarsson, like most managers surveyed for this story, foresee additional CRM uptake. "The ability to capture in-field sales orders would seem a natural application," Corby says.

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