Device Redux

— April 10, 2007

Though much attention is focused on the increasing number of organizations dipping into the mobility waters for the first time, what about those innovators who jumped in years ahead of the crowd? Many are reaching the natural conclusions of those early mobile devices and applications and are looking to catch the next big wave.

Organizations that were on the cusp of the mobility revolution may be wondering if there's truth to the Tiger Lou song lyrics, "everything is easier the second time around." Is it easier making the business case for second- and third-generation devices or software? Will deployment be more predictable, executive resistance less troublesome? Is our potential ROI greater?

Second (or third) generation deployments are not to be confused with basic upgrades such as version 2.3 of an application, or a mobile device with a handful of minor new features. Next-generation in mobility means different applications entirely, significant additions to hardware or software functionality and outfitting other departments in the organization with devices for the first time.

When Waiting Isn't an Option
Many early pioneers are being forced into new deployments by circumstances beyond their control, and the business case is driven by necessity and inevitability. "For us, the biggest factor moving us to the next generation of Symbol devices was that our network provider was slowly removing towers and so reducing coverage," states Barry Craver, director of freight processing applications for Old Dominion Freight Line.

"We felt that the Motient network (formerly Ardis) was eventually going away entirely and we wouldn't be able to communicate with our drivers. Our handhelds had radios that only communicated with this network, and it wasn't practical or affordable to replace the radios. So we decided this was the best time to replace everything and we needed to go with standard cellular networks."

When an organization has a large mobile workforce, such as Old Dominion does, with over 3,000 drivers, it likely has several people on the business and IT sides who monitor changing internal business needs to ensure mobile applications keep pace with those needs. But it is also important that someone on the IT side keeps their finger on the pulse of external changes that can impact the technology currently in place.
Eric Hughs, project manager at biotechnology leader Genentech, explains, "We have someone on staff who is our lead architect for mobility. He's responsible for evaluating new technology. He keeps abreast of what's out there and helps us through activities such as analyzing the technology roadmap for the particular mobility OS platforms we use."

Organizations that have deployed specific mobile applications such as field service or direct store delivery find that they can keep going for 8 to 10 years and not be adversely affected by changes in device functionality or new bells and whistles. The data they needed to capture in 1998 hasn't changed much in 2007. But eventually even the sturdiest of rugged devices, unlike the Energizer Bunny, is going to stop working.

As hardware reaches the end of its lifecycle, organizations find this is a good time to look at their hardware and software options to determine if now may be a good time to think outside the box to evaluate the full range of available solutions. As the old adage says, in for a penny, in for a pound.
Hughs comments that when their mobility team of IT and business side representatives first evaluate new technology and find it's a whole new direction that needs a business case, "We all work together to build that case. However, we made the case for mobility early on and we have a long-term mobility program. So each new release of devices or applications gets reviewed in the context of that program."

Proactively Embracing the Next Generation
Departments and business units that have ruggedized hardware and predictable data capture and transmission needs can stay the course longer before making significant changes. But when a mobile workforce relies on devices such as smartphones, which have lifecycles in the field of three years max (one year on dealer shelves), it makes sense to build a business case based on frequent turnover.

Genentech has 3,500 BlackBerrys, Treos and other devices spread across its ranks from admins to executives, with various professionals in between. "We have cases where various devices are being end-of-lifed, so we're being forced to make decisions about the next generation," reports Hughs. "We have to make choices for which direction we want to go."

Given that reality, organizations should proactively plan for change. Those such as Genentech have key "build or buy" decisions that factor into their business cases. Several applications, such as one for sales force automation, were developed in-house, which was the best option several years ago. But software development is not their forte, so does it make sense to spend resources overhauling these applications or replacing them with new in-house software? Many organizations will determine the answer is no.

Anees Haidri, IS manager of retail systems for Home Depot, believes organizations do themselves a big favor by spending extra time evaluating the device OS platform they select. "Several years ago you would have one platform that supported only one application with very specific custom code to get into backend systems. Now you want a platform that is both stable and scalable."

Haidri believes that Windows Mobile 2005 is a platform he can live with for three or four years. It helps create applications that use Web Services, and thus is more flexible, so The Home Depot can add more applications over time to run on that platform.

Sometimes it is advisable to bring in next-generation technology even though an organization may not use certain functionality immediately. "To protect against future obsolescence we look closely at what functions we can add later," states Craver. "We can train our drivers to do only so much when they first receive the devices, but we want to be able to address future needs without buying new products.

Defining the Next ROI
Determining the ROI for the next generation of mobility technology should be much easier than for those early deployments. For one thing, the success of devices such as the BlackBerry within executive ranks has reduced fear of the technology within many boardrooms. Though it isn't always an easy sell, IT today isn't met with as many deer-in-the-headlights stares as they received in 2000.

Mobility project teams need to point to the success of those initial applications. Highlight the simple applications because these are easy for less tech-savvy executives to understand and the benefits are often easier to quantify. "If you are at a smaller company and more focused on a single application to solve a business problem, such as managing delivery drivers or enabling field service workers to receive payment on site, these single-use apps are easier to cost justify," states Hughs. Larger organizations present a bigger challenge.

Quantifiable ROI is elusive in organizations where there is widespread use of mobile devices for email and calendar access since initially, according to Haidri, "these applications were too complex or too expensive to do the most basic things. Now the cost is low for mobile email, and standard development platforms make it easier to implement. So people are open to mobility and aren't scared of the technology."

IT can use this reasoning to assure management that, by extension, other mobile applications won't be as costly, particularly if the organization's same mobile software infrastructure can be used for new solutions. Since the cost of devices can be difficult to justify (some executives still view smartphones as toys), present multiple applications as a bundled arrangement that can offset the cost of hardware in terms of benefits.

Haidri believes one key to success in getting buy-in for the business case is to tie next-generation applications directly to the organization's strategic objectives.

For The Home Depot, improving customer service is a top priority. When Haidri's team was updating an application that ran on rugged computers linked to printers and transported on carts, they realized the application could run on Symbol handheld devices. Once they determined that associates equipped with these devices could additionally speed up shelf re-stocking and other tasks that directly influence customer satisfaction, management got fully behind the project. "Though you can't show hard dollar savings, you can clearly demonstrate improvement," says Haidri. "And once you have that in place, the devices become springboards for other applications."

Lisa Boles, director of computer networking for Old Dominion, concurs. "Our first-generation devices had monochrome screens. The scanners originally only read bar codes, and now the devices enable us to take pictures if freight is damaged before we handle it. We see features like these leading to new applications later. You always have to look to the future. That's how you sell to management." //

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