CIOs Gripe About Enterprise Mobility

By  Pat Brans — March 30, 2009

In the first of our two-part series, Pat Brans spoke with the CIOs of four leading organizations -- the U.S. Census Bureau, The U.K.'s Royal Mail Group, Liverpool, UK-based Bibby Distribution, and Transport for London -- about how they're using mobility solutions. In part two, these CIOs share their views on what's missing in mobility for the enterprise.

What's Missing in the Market Place?
As we saw in Part One, each of these four organizations has different needs to be met by mobile technology. I thought it would be good to find out what different perspectives they might have on what's missing from the market place, so I took the question to the four CIOs.

U.S. Census Bureau's Rick Swartz1 says that for them human interface is a big issue. A lot of people doing the NRFU are retired people -- older people who are not computer savvy. And now they are going to be asked to fill out forms on handheld computers that are even more difficult to use than desktops. If the Census Bureau goes through with equipping workers with mobile technology for NRFU, they are considering holding a five-day training course for each of the 500,000 users. That's quite an expensive undertaking!

Ray Vaughan2 of Royal Mail Group says that one of his biggest concerns is integration with back-end applications. He thinks his organization is generally using all the mobile technology in standard ways, but application integration is almost by definition different from one company to another.

Vaughn also is concerned with the constraints imposed by limited battery life, limited memory, and unreliable network coverage. These three factors feed into each other: using data communications runs the battery down quicker, and when you don't use data communications -- or where the network is unreliable -- you have to queue data to be sent later. The amount of data you can queue depends on the amount of available memory on the device. Any improvements in battery life, memory capacity, or network services are welcome.

Vaughn also sees as a problem that the market for mobile software consists of big players on the one side, who don't get enough of their revenue from mobility, and therefore don't give it the attention they need, and small players on the other side, who have great software, but don't have the proper controls for release and configuration management. For a big rollout like the one RMG is expecting, you really need to have quality assurance and release controls to make all upgrades run smoothly.

Bibby Distribution's Robert Lee told me they would like to implement an RFID solution, so that each vehicle has a unique tag, and the handhelds would serve as RFID readers. This eliminates line-of-site requirements, and it allows them to easily identify things at an item level.

But Lee doesn't think RFID is mature enough. The technology is still expensive, and it's something the entire supply chain has to agree to use. For that to happen, either the supply chain has to agree on standards, or somebody is going to have to create readers that are flexible enough to read all the different kinds of tags used by all the different manufacturers along the supply chain.

Transport for London's Phil Pavitt explains that TfL has lots of relevant information and their aim is to exploit this for the customers' benefit by enabling the traveling public to "pull" information  relevant to where they are.

However, the user interface is still weak according to Pavitt. The re--purposing of information for a given device type remains an issue, because currently some data is not fully readable. Early adopters can tolerate it, but the larger user population still has trouble with it.

Pavitt sums up the problem: "I'm waiting for a company to do what iPhone has done for phone users: provide a beautiful interface. When somebody 'Apple-izes' a business interface for data going to real customers in a mobile environment, that's when the market will happen. We'll flock to them! "

While there's nothing tricky or unique about the mobile email solutions that most companies have put in place for executives, solutions designed for specific business processes are very much bespoke.

Such has been the case up until now; and the company-specific nature of business processes makes it hard to imagine this ever changing. The customization required for these solutions brings about at least two challenges.

First, there is the expense of building an application from scratch. Second, maintaining such an application means maintaining a staff of developers and support personnel knowledgeable in that unique application.

Security is very much a concern, but the market is already providing the pieces needed to meet the requirements of the CIOs I spoke with. The requirements are generally that there be user authentication, and data encryption both on the device and over the air. Also, it's necessary to be able to lockdown a device and wipe it clean of data when it is suspected that a device has been lost or stolen.

Likewise, support is a concern, but all the components required are already available. Supporting mobile users is different from supporting in-building users. It's important to be able to correct problems in the field and avoid having the user make a trip to the office for repairs. For this reason, remote troubleshooting capability is needed; and, in fact, this feature is already present in the market.

CIOs are still concerned with the human factor. Many mobile users aren't computer savvy in the first place, and mobile technology is inherently more difficult to use. The devices are smaller and the interface is constrained. On top of that, since business process-specific mobile solutions are generally bespoke, the applications are not common applications with a large population of users that can share learning experiences.

I'll leave you now with a few humdrum predictions for the next five years. These are probably somewhat obvious, but still worth stating:

  • Certainly, RFID will be more mature within the next five years. The technology will improve and stability will be enhanced, a growing number of companies along the supply chain will put it to use, and the companies developing RFID solutions will be making enough money to allow a nice ecosystem of vendors to flourish.
  • Location-based technology will be commonplace. But, first, several things have to happen. Legal issues around tracking user location will have to be worked out. There needs to be enough relevant content to make location-based services worthwhile. And work needs to be done to present the information to users in a meaningful way.
  • Somebody is going to come up with a revolutionary new user interface that will make using small computers for special tasks much more natural. The company that makes this happen will have divorced themselves from the notion that a handheld computer has to be a scaled-down version of a desktop computer.
In the first of our two-part series, these CIOs discussed how they're using mobility solutions in their enterprises.

Pat Brans is an author and independent consultant based in France. He has held senior positions with Sybase, HP and CSC

1 Swartz was CIO of the U.S. Census Bureau at the time of this interview. He left in April 2008 to join the U.S. Department of Treasury. It was during his time as CIO of the U.S. Census Bureau that most of the big decisions on mobile technology took place, so I thought he would be the most appropriate person to talk to for this article.

2 Vaughn is technically not a CIO, but is the IT Director responsible for all things mobile within Royal Mail Group. He reports to Robin Dargue, who is the CIO. Robin thought it would be best for me to talk directly with Vaughn.


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