Remote Wireless Data: Is It Time Yet?

Wireless data was overhyped and then ignored by enterprises. Now, convincing ROIs are starting to emerge. Should your company reconsider?
Posted December 31, 2002

David Haskin

Two years ago, wireless carriers and many industry analysts claimed that remote wireless access to enterprise data would revolutionize how companies do business. Sales would increase dramatically when sales representatives could check inventory and submit orders from customer sites in real-time. Field service technicians could handle more calls if they could instantly check whether parts were in inventory.

So why have most companies failed to embrace remote wireless data access? And with the advent of faster wireless access and better devices, is it time to consider -- or reconsider -- wireless data for your enterprise?

The answer to the latter question is yes, according to analysts, vendors and end users with whom we spoke. But not for the reasons you might think.

After the initial wave of hype subsided, wireless carriers and some analysts claimed that enterprises would flock to remote data wireless access when that access became faster. In the last year, carriers have spent billions on faster systems, but it turns out that many enterprises have been waiting for something else.

"Wireless access is still happening in fits and starts," said Rebecca Wettemann, vice president of research for Nucleus Research, a firm that specializes in return-on-investment (ROI)-related issues. "But interest is increasing because we're finally seeing wireless applications that are actually paying off."

The ROIs Have Arrived

Wettemann noted that successful wireless applications pre-date the hype of a few years ago. For instance, parcel delivery companies learned long ago that, if they knew in real-time how many packages drivers were picking up, they could save money by deploying trucks and jets more cost-effectively. Hence, the wireless tablets carried by parcel delivery personnel.

Now, Wettemann said she's seeing positive ROIs for wireless access to customer relationship management (CRM), inventory and field service data. In addition, she said she is seeing a lot of interest in remote access to e-mail by organizations such as law firms, in which rapid response to clients is crucial.

"The three most positive ROIs are sales reps, people like attorneys who work on a billable hours basis and field service," she said. "Wireless is about productivity and that's particularly important for expensive people and people who are on the move."

As a result, more early adopters are finally starting to adopt wireless access to data. One such early adopter is Optimus Solutions, which, ironically, helps other firms install wireless data access applications.

"I guess it's like the shoemaker's kid not having shoes," laughed Steve McDonald, managing consultant of the Optimus' wireless and mobile practice. "But we're just now in the early part of our own wireless roll-out. We have about 10 sales reps using it and we'll be rolling it out to 50 or 60 reps before too long."

McDonald noted that his company got an early example of how wireless access can improve sales.

"We had a rep who checked his e-mail with his wireless device while at a customer site," he said. "He read a message from within our organization about some hardware we were having a special on and he mentioned it on the spot to the customer. The customer bought five of the 10 units we had for sale. That type of impact is more than enough to justify the use of wireless."

McDonald said the best payback on a wireless investment he has heard about came from a client that previously ran a call center just to provide information to sales reps in the field. After making CRM data available via a wireless device, the company was able to eliminate the call center.

"They never even did an ROI because the benefit was so obvious," McDonald said.

However, it is wrong to think that a positive ROI in one part of a business means it will be successful everywhere, according to Letina Connelly, director of pervasive enterprise strategies for IBM.

"If wireless access can give an hour of productive time back to the field engineer, the engineer can service more customers or do a more complete job," she said. "But if I give a sales guy an hour back, it's a different ROI. Will a sales rep really close the deal and go other customers or will he take a two-hour lunch? It's almost like a time and motion study needs to occur."

So What Changed?

All of the experts with whom we spoke said that faster speeds and larger wireless coverage areas often aren't important when considering whether to deploy wireless access to the enterprise.

"Faster isn't necessary much of the time," said IBM's Connelly. "Often, we're talking about basic applications, not streaming media that needs a lot of bandwidth." Also, most applications can wait until the person returns to a coverage area if he or she has traveled away from one, Connelly said.

In the end, then, the billions of dollars invested by wireless carriers to provide faster wireless data access is less important than successful ROIs. And the emergence of positive ROIs is just starting to happen.

"Wireless was definitely oversold at first," said IBM's Connelly. "But now, new applications are surfacing and better revenue streams are surfacing, too. Enterprises are starting to see that there are some real case studies that prove real benefits."

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