It's not good enough to mobilize existing business applications. You need to build them from the ground up and make them a priority.
Mobility and the enterprise should be a natural fit. The mantra of business consultants has always been about getting to know your customer, getting close to your customer and anticipating your customer's needs.
None of those activities can really take place without enterprise applications that are designed from the ground up to be mobile and available when you are at a customer's location. Mobilizing existing business applications that have grown up in the confines of your business has never and will never meet your goal of becoming a truly available anywhere, anytime business.
The reality and the promise of mobile applications for business was reinforced for me recently when I moderated a panel and spent some time wandering the exhibit floor at the Yankee Group's Mobile Internet World in Boston.
The reality of mobile application development for business is that it has taken a backseat to consumer applications. Heck, those business apps may not even be in the same car as the consumer apps. The Apple iPhone app store has had something like 200 million downloads. Those applications range from the useful search and mapping services but fall quickly into the game category and then continue their downward trajectory into the pet rock category.
Now Google has joined the app development parade with its Android model, but like Google itself, I'm guessing most of the activity will be aimed at the consumer. And then there is Microsoft's Windows Mobile platform, which needs a strong dose of Seattle super-caffeinated coffee or risk being left behind in the race for the hearts and minds of mobile developers.
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Why the consumer focus? It is clearly a spin-off from the carriers themselves, which relentlessly focus on getting more consumers to sign long-term contracts aimed at consuming more minutes on new phones. Not a bad business model when times are good.
But the economic pendulum is swinging ever further away from wanton consumer spending toward a consumer winter where new purchases are delayed and the focus is on more mundane items like paying the mortgage or buying groceries.
So with consumers taking a break, is the timing right for business mobile? Yes, and I think that a chilly economic 2009 holds the right ingredients. Here's why.
In a staggered economy, efficiency rules. Salespeople need to close sales at customer locations, field service needs to be efficiently dispatched with all the parts necessary for repair, and business delivery operations need to make their daily runs using the least fuel with the shortest distances between drops. You can try to do all this with voice calls on a cell network, but you will fail.
In an uncertain economy, fixed costs start to feel like a boat anchor. Reducing real estate and office costs by creating a work force that operates at home and remotely is one of those rare business tactics that makes everyone happy. The business owner can see office costs reduced, and the worker gets to save some money on gas and hassle.
Again, simply taking existing business applications and letting a remote worker tunnel into the network via a VPN is not a long-term solution to having a truly mobile business.
Here's what is needed to make business mobility a priority.
1. Make it a priority from the corporate officers on down.
Checking your e-mail constantly on your BlackBerry is not mobility. The corporate boss needs to spend some time thinking about the business and what revenue benefits could be achieved through mobility.
2. Develop a mobile application development team.
Designing, creating and deploying mobile applications require different skills from updating the aging inventory control system one more time. Your company needs to figure out what skills are needed to build those apps and then figure out where it will get those developers.
3. Start small and think big.
Take one group of employees that is already on the road a lot and ask them what apps they need. You'll get a big list of needs that may not at all be part of the current technology agenda. But that's the list you need to build a mobile enterprise.
Do all that and maybe you can move the development of mobile business applications from the backseat to the driver's seat.