by CIO Staff

Taking Mobility Beyond E-Mail: Build or Buy?

Aug 21, 200611 mins

By Alvaro Pombo

So, you’ve decided to go wireless. After doing the research and looking at others’ successes, you’re confident that arming your field workers with the right mobile solutions beyond e-mail can increase their productivity and reduce your operational costs. With the compelling economics of such a move, you expect a measured improvement in your company’s top and bottom line. But how do you make it happen? What is the best way to go mobile beyond e-mail? Both outsourcing this process and building a customized in-house solution offer advantages and disadvantages. It’s important to consider a number of issues to help you make the right choice for your organization in the short and long term.

The first of many steps to make your mobile project happen is to define the needs of your business and specify which operational processes you want to improve. For example, you may want to allow mobile professionals the ability to interact with work order systems while in the field. Or you may want to have new and updated “content” automatically pushed to these employees so that they always have the latest work-specific information, such as price sheets, installation manuals or sales collateral at their disposal.

Another example of an operational process you may want to improve is mobilizing structured data. You may want to enable your mobile workers to collect work-related information by filling in forms on their mobile devices and submitting these forms wirelessly to the head office. This will allow them to avoid the hassles associated with using paper forms, such as commuting to and from the office to drop off forms and having to pay clerks to enter the information into corporate databases, applications and systems.

Factors to Consider

Once you know what goals you want to achieve you can start thinking about the various components of the wireless solution. These include the mobile device, the wireless service provider, the software platform and applications, the hosting, the back-office integration, the system implementation and rollout, and finally the ongoing system management.

Mobile Device

The most obvious component of a wireless solution is the mobile device. The issues you should consider when selecting the mobile devices for your wireless solution are:

  • What are the best device form factors, brands, models and costs given the features required for your particular deployment?
  • Which wireless networks can these devices operate on? Do you need wide area wireless connectivity, Wi-Fi, or will a cradle connection to a PC suffice?
  • Where is the best place to source your preferred devices? Direct from the manufacturer? Or via a retailer, VAR or wireless service provider?
  • How can you negotiate volume discounts and favorable payment terms?
Wireless Service Provider

In most cases you can maximize your investment in mobilizing your field workers by using a wireless carrier to transmit data to and from users and back-end systems. Issues to consider here include:

  • Which wireless carriers offer the most flexible choice of devices and the most reliable coverage in your geographic area and work conditions (e.g., inside buildings, rural settings, etc.)?
  • Which wireless carriers give you the best pricing (voice and data), provide solutions and offer superior technical support and billing flexibility?
Software Platform and Applications

Every business has a unique set of business needs, employee skills and even preferred mobile device. These factors all dictate what development platform or solutions to select. Before getting started, you must determine:

  • What functions do you want to perform? Will you want the solution for e-mail, job dispatching, forms-based data capture or multimedia (signatures, photos, sketches, voice notes) support?
  • How customized do you need the software application to be?
  • Can you source all elements of your solution from a single vendor or do you have to assemble from multiple vendors?
  • What degree of security, reliability, scalability and technical support do you require?
Hosting and Server Environments

Most wireless software applications need to be deployed and hosted on servers and delivered over a wireless network to the mobile devices. The issues you should think about here are:

  • What software and hardware components do you need in your server infrastructure?
  • What is the cost of hiring and training IT professionals and support staff to build and maintain that solution?
  • What level of software and hardware reliability, uptime and backup do you require?
  • How do you enforce and monitor security to protect your data from falling into the wrong hands?
Back-Office Integration

In order to achieve operational efficiencies you may decide to integrate tightly with multiple back-office applications. You need to consider:

  • What level of integration between the systems do you need?
  • Do you need real-time or near-real-time integration and interactions?
  • Do you have the right people and tools to develop, deploy and support integration?
  • How do you support changes and upgrades while guarding against the loss of critical “how we did it the first time” knowledge, if key employees leave the company?
System Implementation and Rollout

The key question to ask for rollout is, do you hire for system implementation, training and support or do you try to do it yourself? To determine what works best for your organization, consider:

  • How long will it take to build, test, document and deploy your wireless solution?
  • Is it possible to do a small-scale pilot before you roll out to the whole organization to de-risk elements of the solution?
  • Who will train and support your field and office staff during pilot and rollout phases?
  • How do you configure and manage mobile devices over-the-air, and properly handle common events like lost/stolen devices and employees trading devices?
Ongoing System Management

To determine whether you will need to hire additional IT professionals to manage and support the solution, you should consider:

  • Who will provide technical support when any element of the solution encounters a glitch?
  • How will your solution handle additional users, groups and devices in the future?
  • How do you perform future software and system upgrades and replacement of old equipment?
  • How do you quickly mobilize other processes to lever sunk hardware and device costs?
The “Build In-House” Option

The process of building a wireless solution in-house is achievable today thanks to complex and comprehensive development tools. If your organization has experienced technical resources available with deep knowledge, adequate support, training and project management capabilities, these tools can be leveraged to create an in-house option that’s tailored to your specific needs. Benefits of Building In-House

The build in-house option is attractive to companies that have access to a competent technical staff and the ability to invest time and money up front in building, deploying and supporting customized, end-to-end solutions. This option can result in extremely powerful solutions that offer many advantages to your organization, such as:

Personal fit: Maintain control over how the system looks and feels and maintain flexibility and creativity over the way business problems are solved.

Leverage existing expertise: If your organization already includes a strong and passionate IT staff, why not exploit their skills? By tapping into existing capacity, you can extract better value from your IT resources.

Knowledge gained. By keeping development in house, technical and functional knowledge are built within the company, thus improving the overall knowledge base of your IT staff.

Challenges of Building In-House

Although there are many benefits to building in-house, these projects are not without their challenges. The biggest is that these projects typically involve large up-front monetary and technical investments that can be more difficult for smaller organizations and work groups. Additional challenges of building in-house include:

  • The emergence of unforeseen expenses
  • Sourcing of components from multiple vendors
  • Multiple support contacts and processes (device, network, application, integration)
  • Use of a possibly overcommitted IT staff
  • Diversion of people and financial resources from core, revenue-producing business
The “Outsourced” Option

Two mega-trends in business technology are beginning to intersect and are fueling the rise of outsourcing: software as a service (SaaS), or outsourced, hosted, subscription-based software solutions; and enterprise wireless solutions beyond e-mail that are emerging as packaged solutions from mobile network operators. Benefits of Outsourcing

Some providers also bundle devices, support, mobile applications and wireless airtime with their service in order to offer a complete wireless solution for their customers on a single monthly per-user bill, with no investment up front. Benefits include:

Not reinventing the wheel: Many of the difficult technical and infrastructure decisions have already been made, so you’re left with less problem-solving up front.

Faster deployment: Since hardware/software infrastructures are already in place, new users can be up and running quickly once the system is configured.

Affordability: Wireless solutions are available for a predictable per-user monthly fee without investing up front.

Flexibility and scalability: You can add or remove users as your business grows, and pay only for what you use.

One point of contact: Dealing with a single vendor can avoid finger-pointing between multiple vendors, support models and frameworks.

System reliability: State-of-the-art hosting centers and dedicated resources offer expert system administration and high system reliability.

Technical support: You can obtain expert technical support when you need help with your mobile devices, wireless service or software applications.

Challenges of Outsourcing

While there are tremendous benefits to outsourcing for any sized organization, especially small and medium-sized businesses, there are some notable risks:

Connectors: Can the outsourced solution fit into your existing business and its back office legacy system?

Adding value: Are the software, hardware and processes going to fit and add value to the organization or simply cause headaches?

Business intelligence: When outsourcing technology, the outsourcer gains the knowledge of building and deploying the new system while you, the customer, pay for it.

Data security: Can the organization with which you are outsourcing ensure that your data will be handled confidentially and securely?

Choosing an outsourcer who demonstrates commitment, intelligence and a sense of responsibility can help to mitigate most of these risks.

Total Cost of Ownership

Ultimately, the decision to outsource or build in-house will come down to economics. The greatest appeal of the outsourced model for small and medium-sized businesses is that it does not require a significant up-front investment, but instead bills a monthly per-user fee for a packaged, end-to-end mobile solution. Under such an outsourced deployment model, the total cost of ownership is typically much less for small and medium-sized businesses.

Conversely, economies of scale favor the in-house option for larger organizations because of the bigger user base. It’s not unlike renting versus buying a car. There’s always a point at which it becomes more cost-effective to purchase a car outright, depending on the number of days you need it per month. By renting, say, five days a month, you save the initial investment (down payment on the car), maintenance and monthly fees, and you’re free to switch vehicles at any time if the one you’re in doesn’t suit your needs. However, if you know what you want, and you’re driving every day of the month, it becomes much more practical and, indeed, more economic to purchase the vehicle outright, and cover the costs of running it for yourself.

Making the Choice—Outsource or Build In-House?

Building in-house, if managed properly, can result in powerful mobile solutions that drive top and bottom-line economic performance and business benefits. Nevertheless, many smaller organizations and workgroups are now enjoying rapid, scalable and secure mobilization of their workforce “beyond e-mail” by turning to mobile network operators. This trend is also starting to extend to larger companies, which traditionally have looked to build their solutions only in-house. With on-demand solutions being pilot friendly, many larger organizations are using them to test and prove all the mobile elements of the solution, then deciding to either continue with a hosted offering or bring the back-end technology in-house to run it as an IT service.

As with any investment, it’s important to consider all the risks, costs and benefits before deciding where to direct your money and resources. Knowing these risks, as well as the possible rewards up front, lets you determine which option works best for your needs and abilities to give your enterprise mobility projects the best start possible.

Alvaro Pombo is the founder, president and executive chairman of the board of TrueContext Corporation, a provider of volume enterprise data services. Before starting the company, Alvaro was an adviser to Palm Inc. for its eBusiness/eCommerce strategy, and he was the chief information officer and vice president of global information technology for Alcatel, Carrier Internetworking Division (formerly Newbridge Networks).