Full-Fledged Business Apps Make PDAs Indispensible

For salespeople, convenience outweighs slow connection speeds and other drawbacks

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

October 19, 2001

6 Min Read

Businesspeople have been using PDAs to access E-mail and schedule appointments for some time, but it's only lately that full-fledged business applications have become available for handheld devices and even cell phones. As advanced applications such as customer-relationship management and sales-force automation software move down to mobile platforms, questions remain as to whether they can really provide full functionality and whether users will trade full functionality for anywhere, anytime access.

One company that believes the technology can pay dividends is Equitable Distributors Inc., a subsidiary of AXA Financial Inc. that distributes a line of variable life and variable annuities through financial intermediaries. Its sales representatives use applications built by Wireless Knowledge Inc. to access a range of customer information while on the road. Wireless Knowledge's Mobile Sales Desk application lets Equitable's wholesalers access and exchange information such as broker records, activity reporting, and contact and to-do lists using wireless Compaq iPaq Pocket PCs.

In July, the company purchased 3,650 of the devices, and Equitable CIO Eric Jansen says they're paying off. The devices, he says, give sales reps faster access to important client information such as transaction histories. They also give Equitable the means to track and measure the effectiveness of its sales force. "We get to know how many brokers they've seen in a week and we can correlate that with sales," he says.

Jansen says that, for the most part, integration of Mobile Sales Desk with Equitable's back-end systems was straightforward. The company is using middleware from Wireless Knowledge that buffers data back and forth from the PDAs to Equitable's corporate database. "At a bare minimum, everything is updated daily," Jansen says.

Despite the program's success, Jansen, like others, says bandwidth remains the big stumbling block to mobility. Slow connection speeds mean users at times suffer lengthy waits to access data, and limit the types of content that can be sent to handhelds. To boot, the lack of a nationwide wireless infrastructure means users traveling through some areas of the country are unable to connect at all.

Still, users of mobile sales-force and CRM tools say the technology is helping them access and manage accounts regardless of where they are. Consulting firm Butler Technology Solutions uses InfoView Mobile, developed by Business Objects SA, on Compaq iPaqs to do just that. The software lets users download WebIntelligence reports to PDAs via synchronization, then view and navigate the reports offline. A sales manager can get an update on revenue by territory or sales to top customers while riding the subway, on a plane, or even during a meeting at a customer's office. Wendy King, director of E-business intelligence at Butler, says she was able to take time out from a funeral several weeks ago to access critical business information. "I just got in my car and was able to get the information I needed," she says.

However, the downside to accessing reports via PDAs is that they must be reformatted to fit the parameters of the display device, King says. In some cases, that results in documents that aren't as easy to navigate as their full-size counterparts. "You have to experiment with the size and data of the reports to get the right balance," she says.

Sluggish connections through wireless modems mean logging on and accessing data can be an exercise in frustration, King says, noting that typical connection rates are about 14.4 Kbps. But King says it's worth the time and effort. "I don't care if the technology is awkward," she says, "because when it's fully developed, I'll be that much further ahead."

Other users of mobile sales-management applications say the technology lets sales representatives stay on top of their accounts because it lets them capture data while it's still fresh in their minds. Kirk Stremke, manager of sales operations at pharmaceutical distributor MGI Pharma Inc. in Minneapolis, says his company's reps are better able to manage accounts since they began using a mobile sales application made by StayinFront Inc., a division of Redi-Direct Marketing Inc. "In our older system, reps could only enter information once they got back to their desks; the problem was, they couldn't remember half the stuff that transpired during the sales call," Stremke says.

The StayinFront software, which MGI Pharma runs on NEC Corp. handhelds, includes an interface for capturing digital signatures. That's critical for pharmaceutical companies, because doctors must sign for all trial samples. The software also lets users compare signatures against previously entered signatures to ensure a match.

Instead of implementing scaled-down front-office applications, such as sales-force automation, for use with handhelds, some companies are using conventional messaging software that's been wirelessly enabled to keep their sales teams in the know. Lotus Development Corp. recently released technology that makes its R5 messaging, calendaring, and corporate-directory software available to handheld users.

E-business services provider Luminant Worldwide Corp. in Houston is already taking advantage of this. Using Mobile Notes on mobile devices that support the Wireless Application Protocol, Luminant staffers can access a Mobile Services for Domino server to send and answer messages without carrying a notebook PC. "Our people are now in a much better position to respond if someone such as a client sends an urgent E-mail," says Chetan Sharma, Luminant's director of research and development.

The company uses Lotus' Mobile Notes server to connect with its main Notes database. Luminant staffers can connect to the system via PDAs or WAP-enabled cell phones. The PDAs allow richer information display but present more connectivity challenges than the cell phones, Sharma says. That's because cellular antennae offer more dependable connections than wireless modems.

At present, Luminant is using the system primarily for E-mail, but it's looking at giving its sales representatives mobile access to the company's knowledge-management database.

Jim Hudson Lexus/Saab in Columbia, S.C., also uses simple E-mail combined with handheld devices. At the auto dealership, one sales manager is equipped with a Research In Motion Ltd. BlackBerry wireless E-mail pager to monitor information requests from customers surfing the dealer's Web site. Internet sales manager Tony Albanese, who carries a BlackBerry, says it helps ensure that he can respond to a customer's inquiry while that customer is still on the Web. "We don't want to be at the mercy of waiting for them to log on again," says Albanese, who joined Jim Hudson two months ago after managing E-commerce services for another auto dealership. Lexus mandates that dealers must respond to customer E-mails "within minutes, not hours, " he says.

The many uses that businesses are finding for PDA applications are no doubt driving the market's explosive growth. Research firm International Data Corp. says that the market for smart PDAs-those capable of displaying rich text and graphics-will grow from 12.9 million units shipped last year to more than 63.4 million by 2004, resulting in more than $26 billion in sales.

Hardware and software manufacturers are developing products to meet the growing demand. Last week, Handspring Inc. introduced a device that combines the functions of a cell phone, a handheld organizer, and a Web browser. Last month, Microsoft introduced the latest version of its Windows-powered Pocket PC 2002 operating system. The software features an interface that provides a look and feel more akin to what people are used to on a desktop PC. Analysts say that could help further drive sales. Says IDC analyst Kevin Burden, "2001 will prove to be the year when mobile-access devices hit their stride."

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