What Goes Mobile?

Companies are going far past standard smartphone apps, with tools to tackle specific business problems.
E-mail and Web browsing are obvious applications for smartphones. But some businesses are doing much more--using the smartphones that increasingly are in more employees' hands to solve specific business problems and hit specific business goals.

General Motors is looking to a new iPhone application to change how and even where people sell cars. A national chain of rehabilitation facilities sees smartphones combining with cloud computing to improve patient care and employee productivity. A heart hospital is using BlackBerrys for nothing less than real-time alerts of patient distress, including images of bedside monitors. And around Los Angeles County, law enforcement officers are using BlackBerrys for such tasks as taking and searching fingerprints.

General Motors provides a good case study of how smartphone-based apps are cutting to the core of how companies do business. Having emerged from bankruptcy protection, GM has a lot riding on the new Chevrolet Cruze, a five-passenger compact sedan due to replace the Cobalt in the United States in the second half of 2010. The Cruze will test whether GM can, finally, deliver a small car that appeals to the young and hip and compete in a segment dominated by Toyota and Honda. So GM packed it with features ranging from the practical (40 miles to the gallon, 10 air bags) to the modern (USB connection and Bluetooth).

And it also gave Cruze's salespeople a new tool: a proof-of-concept iPhone application to test whether the way GM peddles cars is also due for an overhaul. Mobility is key here. Using the iPhone app, salespeople can move the sales process far enough along for a new Cruze that there's little left for a buyer to do except sign on the dotted line. "A salesperson could be sitting next to you at a soccer game, meet you in your office or at a Starbucks, and complete a sale transaction or lease agreement without your ever even having to set foot in dealership," says Bill Houghton, process information officer for global sales, service, and marketing at GM.

The app includes links to videos of the Cruze's exterior and interior, and will link back to a dealer's management system, so a salesperson can search inventory and retail and wholesale prices for a potential customer. If the dealer's out of stock, the salesperson will be able to search other local dealers' inventories.

GM hopes the app will eventually eliminate all paperwork related to a sale, but it has some problems to work out. For one, a signature is required for a customer to apply for financing. One idea is to capture the signature on an iPhone screen using a stylus, similar to a point-of-sale system at a retail store. Houghton's team hasn't come across a stylus option for the iPhone, "but that doesn't mean it's not out there," he says.

GM chose the iPhone platform for its graphics capabilities, and also for what the phone represents. "We have a new vehicle being sold by a new GM in a new way," Houghton says. "If you're trying to capture what is new and what's coming in the future, clearly the iPhone has a lot of market share and a lot of growth." GM will consider other mobile platforms as the app matures. With the proof-of-concept complete, GM's U.S. sales and marketing organization has gotten inquiries from its counterparts in South Korea and China.

To integrate into dealers' back-end management systems, GM had to modify the Web services designed to support dealer transactions, as those relied on high-speed Internet connections. Mobile devices using a cellular network have less bandwidth. GM, using its IT outsourcers, had to do some translations and mapping through SOAP to allow reliable communications between back-end servers and a RESTful interface on the iPhone. The app has to be able to support up to 300,000 concurrent users (the potential number of salespeople using it in the United States) at any time over a cellular network, and the only way to do that is to make sure the iPhone app only calls on back-end systems when a sales process is active.

After a harrowing year that included a bankruptcy filing and federal loans totaling $50 billion, there are some positive signs at GM: Sales of cars and trucks in October were up 4%, the first monthly sales gain for the company in almost two years. Next year will be critical for the automaker as it introduces several new models in the United States, a region where overall sales have declined sharply. The Cruze could make a difference.

Smartphone As Computer

In the spring of 2008, when Apple announced that it would support Microsoft Exchange on the iPhone, it was enough to convince John Short, CEO of RehabCare and already an iPhone fan, that this was just the beginning of the device's impact on business. "Our CEO held up the iPhone and said, 'This is going to be everyone's computer,'" recalls CIO Dick Escue.

Not long after, Escue and his team began work on a smartphone-based patient pre-admission screening app for clinicians at RehabCare, which operates a nationwide physical rehabilitation service, plus 33 rehabilitation facilities and hospitals. RehabCare competes for patients requiring rehabilitation following a hospital discharge, so rapid response to referrals is critical. Although Short and Escue prefer the iPhone's interface, the pre-admission app can be used on BlackBerrys and other devices as well. The most important feature of the app is true mobility, so that clinicians no longer need a laptop to check e-mail for referral alerts or to fill out the pre-admission form.

After getting a referral, a clinician typically heads to the hospital to interview medical personnel and possibly the patient or the patient's family. The clinician enters information about the patient into the iPhone app, and then submits it to the medical director, who makes final approvals, often using his or her own iPhone. RehabCare is thinking about how it can now streamline that process even more--for instance, by working with hospitals to structure referral information submitted in an e-mail in such a way that it can be immediately dropped into the pre-admission app, Escue says.

Escue didn't get a blank check to develop a smartphone app, and in fact his goal was to create an app that didn't require any additional investment in IT infrastructure. After reviewing many options, RehabCare developed a prototype of a mobile app in four days, with some help from cloud computing consulting firm Appirio, that runs on's cloud computing platform, Developers use Salesforce's Apex programming language to write the apps, which run on servers in Salesforce's data center. Developers can work quickly because Apex lets programmers create the function-specific interfaces, but the core logic and database capability of the Salesforce online platform is already written, allowing only limited customization.

This approach was a whole new way of rapid application development for RehabCare. The first version of the app wasn't perfect, "but that was OK, we decided, because we could quickly rebuild it," Escue says. "We'd never had that kind of conversation before." RehabCare pays a monthly subscription fee to Salesforce for hosting the iPhone app.

RehabCare is developing a second app, scheduled to be ready in February, to let about 12,000 therapists retrieve instructions and record therapies on their iPhones at the point of care with each patient. The app is expected to improve accuracy and productivity: Therapists will get specific directions while they're with a patient and can eliminate hours spent inputting data after their shifts. That app is being developed by a specialist software vendor that's not a Salesforce partner, so it won't run on, and it will be native to the iPhone.

RehabCare is keeping its options open. Its execs are impressed with Google's Android mobile operating system. Since it's less proprietary than the iPhone, Android is likely to draw more software developers and device makers, resulting in more choice for his organization, Escue reasons. "The vendor lock-in situation is always dangerous," he says. "While the iPhone is a wonderful product, there could be better options coming in the future from Google. Android will pose an interesting choice in the near future."

Wireless Link To The Bedside

Most companies use Research In Motion's BlackBerry devices to keep customer contacts and exchange e-mails. Oklahoma Heart uses them to help save lives.

About two years ago, the hospital began providing nurses with BlackBerrys that instantly ring if a patient's heart monitoring system picks up signs of trouble. At the same time, a visual image of the patient's heart rhythm is sent to nurses' BlackBerrys, so their trained eyes can assess the situation.

The in-room heart-monitoring system identifies changes in rhythms, or "events," and sends that information over the hospital's LAN to a server running Globestar Systems' Connexall, software that can be set up to filter non-serious events (a patient simply moves) from potentially life-threatening ones. Any serious events and images, along with vital statistics, are forwarded to a BlackBerry server, which then forwards that data to the nurses' BlackBerrys. The whole process takes less than two seconds, says Steve Miller, the hospital's CIO.

The BlackBerrys solve a few problems. For one, Oklahoma Heart has been able to eliminate central monitoring rooms that were manned 24 hours a day. It still has monitors at nurses' stations for backup, but with the new system, nurses are instantly alerted to potential problems with assigned patients, no matter where they are in the building. And if something very serious shows up, they can instantly call a code blue, before they've even visited the room. Previously, for example, if any type of arrhythmia occurred with a patient, the monitoring system alerted nurses with a call to their pagers, without supporting data as to the seriousness of the arrhythmia. Oftentimes, it was a false alarm.

Previously, nurses were using 7270 BlackBerrys but were recently upgraded to the 8900, a smaller form factor with longer battery life. These are Wi-Fi-only devices, however; there is no SIM card or cellular plan, and they're not designed to work outside of the hospital.

Oklahoma Heart is also conducting a pilot project for doctors that have purchased iPhones for personal and professional use. The hospital was built in 2002 from the ground up as a digital hospital--all patient records are electronic. Physicians can now download Citrix software called Receiver for iPhone at the Apple App Store to access from their iPhones any apps they normally get from their Citrix networked desktops, including patients' charts. Physicians can also view images such as X-rays attached to charts. While they're not diagnostic quality, they can provide enough information to let a physician know whether he or she should head to a PC to call up a sharper image. Use of the application does require physicians to download and agree to security policies that CIO Miller's team devised, including a wipeout of all data if the iPhone is lost or an incorrect passcode is repeatedly entered. However, since the Citrix app makes the iPhone simply a browsing tool, patient data typically isn't stored on the devices, Miller says.

BlackBerrys Vs. Bad Guys

In the crime-fighting business, cops know something's working when the crooks start talking about it. And word's started to spread that some police around Los Angeles county can take a photo of a suspect with a BlackBerry, or grab a fingerprint using a scanner connected by Bluetooth to the device, and send it for identification. In less than a minute, a search comes back of about 5.5 million photos and 11 million fingerprints of people, making it more likely they'll catch someone trying to pass themselves off as someone else.

The L.A. County Regional Identification System supports about 1,500 BlackBerrys in all. They're used by officers at 43 of the 48 law enforcement agencies in the county, including the L.A. Sheriff's Department, which has issued BlackBerrys to select officers to send in fingerprints, access driver's license photos, and more.

Once officers had the BlackBerrys in the field, they came up with new ideas. What if they could take photos of gang-related graffiti, to help with an existing cleanup program? Done. Now officers can snap a photo of graffiti; it's recorded in a system called CalGangs along with the location using the device's GPS, and the cost of cleaning it up is collected so the "tagger," if caught, can be billed for the cost. The team has since added other tools, such as access to a CopLink records management system and facial recognition software.

P>The sheriff's department started using smartphones in the field about 18 months ago, initially with Windows Mobile devices. It switched to BlackBerrys because the server-side support, such as remote management of device upgrades, is much easier, says Sgt. Thomas Smith, who's assigned to the Regional Identification System.

Biometric logins are the next big challenge the group faces. Such logins, likely using fingerprints or perhaps facial recognition, will be needed to access the FBI fingerprint database of "persons of special concern" from mobile devices, to make sure it's an officer accessing the information and not someone who found a lost device.

The team's looking at ways to connect remotely to other databases, such as those containing outstanding arrest warrants. Ideally, a search for a person's fingerprints also searches to see if there's a warrant for that person. The same could then be done for a stolen vehicles database. Most new tools can be offered as a Web application, so they're not difficult to implement, Smith says. Today, only the fingerprint ID and graffiti software are native on the device; everything else is a Web-based app.

The lesson L.A. County learned is that once officers had mobile devices in the field, they came back with ideas to do more with them. That's the reality for IT teams everywhere. So the question will become inescapable: Can we use a smartphone to do ...

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