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The Mobile Paradox

Quietly, and without fanfare, mobile and wireless technologies have sneaked into the IT mainstream, Giga VP Carl Zetie says.

It's been a paradoxical year for mobile and wireless applications. Tremendous excitement met great confusion. Reports suggested that the mobile market was simultaneously dead in the water and thriving mightily. Yet, despite everything, real progress was made in enterprise deployments. In fact, a rare few companies have radically changed the way they--and even their industries--do business.

With hindsight, it looks like the market crossed a crucial threshold somewhere around the middle of last year, and mobile technologies broke out from being mainly confined to a narrow niche of highly mobile field service and sales professionals. Of course, there were plenty of examples of mobile applications outside those areas, even before last year's shift, but they were the exception rather than the norm. By the beginning of this year, it was clear that many more companies were looking outside the traditional hot spots for opportunities to exploit wireless devices. Quietly, without fanfare, mobile and wireless technologies had sneaked into the IT mainstream.

The first signs that something interesting was happening came around mid-2001. Three things struck me at about the same time. First, the tone of the questions Giga was hearing from vendors changed. Suddenly, a lot of them were asking questions like, "Which verticals have the most adoption?" and "Where is the greatest growth opportunity?"--essentially, variations of "Where have all the buyers gone?" In many cases, these were established and successful vendors who had thrived in meeting the needs of the early-adopter verticals. At the same time, users were asking, "What is the business value in deploying mobile technologies?" and "Should we go ahead now?" Yet despite this apparent confusion, Giga was also seeing lots of examples of both prototype and production deployments.

The resolution to this paradox can be found in the recognition that mobile technology was moving out of readily defined and easily identified niches--for both vendors and users--and was steadily finding a role in more and more areas of the business. Consequently, each business had to find a way to identify business value in its own organization, rather than looking to replicate narrow, vertically focused success stories of the past.

Mobile Adoption Rates Stay On Track
Giga has been tracking mobile adoption through polls at conferences, surveys of our user base, and other data-gathering exercises. All indications support the view that mobile and wireless deployments are steadily gaining ground in both the United States and Europe, despite continuing technical barriers and platform uncertainty (especially in the United States).

One particularly interesting measure of adoption rates is the poll we conducted at our annual Emerging Technology Scene conference in December. While the audience at this conference is by no means representative of IT as a whole (by definition, attendees tend to be early adopters of new technology) comparing results from successive conferences gives a useful "like-with-like" comparison over the past 12 months. The change in adoption between ETS 2000 and ETS 2001 was dramatic: the number of companies with at least one mobile application deployed in production shot from less than 15% to almost 30%, this despite the slowing economy and cutbacks in IT investment. The large percentage of attendees with projects in the prototype or pilot stage (almost 30%, again) suggests that growth will continue strongly in 2002.

So what are these companies doing with mobile devices? Business-to-employee applications remain the strongest driver. Almost 80% of respondents indicated that employees are the main target of deployments, divided almost evenly between professional productivity (E-mail, calendar, messaging, and so on) and vertical, line-of-business applications. Business-to-consumer was the primary focus of barely 20%, which explains another apparent paradox. The press for mobile technologies seems to be torn between apparent outright failure and persistent success stories. In fact, both are right. The continuing excitement around mobile and wireless technologies in the enterprise hasn't been dampened by high-profile failures, such as OmniSky, in the consumer sector.

Another important indication that mobile and wireless projects are moving out of niches is the very large number of companies--more than two-thirds, in our Emerging Technology Scene poll--that don't budget separately for "mobile and wireless" technologies. Aside from organizations in which this distinction really means there's no budget at all for mobile and wireless projects, the remainder appear to have made the decision that mobility is a dimension of relevant projects, rather than a project in its own right. In other words, it's mainstream.

Determining Business Value Remains The Key Issue
Finding business value remains the single biggest challenge to mobile technologies--and rightly so. In fact, "Where is the business value?" is still the question Giga hears most frequently, whether from a CEO who's being pitched mobility by the IT department or from a CIO who has been mandated to do "that wireless thing" by the CEO. To find business value in your own company, there are three key questions you can ask:

  • Who in the company must be mobile to do their jobs? How can they be made more effective with access to information systems? The answers to these questions were, typically, the earliest adopters of mobile devices: delivery drivers, field salespeople, and service engineers.
  • Who in the company must have access to information systems to do their jobs? How can they be made more effective with mobility? Last year, it was these kinds of workers who were the focus of mobile projects, be it the head of corporate treasury who needs to act immediately when large financial transactions occur or line managers who need easy access to analytical reports in meeting rooms or on the road.
  • How can we radically change business processes through mobile technologies? We heard about one company, for example, that reduced its order cycle from weeks to days, impacting everything from how it managed inventory to how it managed its supplier relationships. Another company narrowed its delivery windows from three hours to 20 minutes, redefining the way its customers managed their projects and dragging its competitors along, too.
That last kind of project has the potential to radically change the way a company does business and, in some cases, how an entire industry segment does business, creating new market leaders along the way. Those kind of stories are still rare today, but expect to hear more of them this year and next as aggressive companies embrace the promise of mobility.

Discuss this column with Carl Zetie, VP and Research Leader, Giga Information Group--from your mobile device or from the old-fashioned computer--in his brand-new discussion forum.

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