Stand and Deliver

— September 04, 2007

By Arielle Emmett

The value-added reseller (VAR) who specializes in mobility solutions is no longer the guy unpacking the cell phone boxes. "We're the glue between systems," explains Brad Leiby, CEO of Uncommon Solutions, a Denver-based VAR. VAR work is increasingly complex, and VARs in the wireless space play a critical role in linking existing IT infrastructure, including IP PBXs, wireless LANs and other networks, with mobile handsets and laptops operating within and outside of the corporate firewall.

Moreover, wireless is becoming yet another seamless extension of IP communications networks rather than a distinct field driven by cellular voice applications. "Traditional systems integrators have been selling servers, desktops, laptops and 802.11, and their customers are getting comfortable with that," says Steve Brumer, CEO and president of Wireless Rain, a Georgia-based national master dealer of mobile products. "Adding wireless to their line is a no-brainer." Brumer specializes in recruiting VARs and channel partners to deploy and activate wireless devices and solutions.

VARs are actually brewing the creative new solutions for small and medium-size businesses (SMBs), a market that wireless carriers have traditionally short-changed, Brumer asserts. "We believe the SMB market by far has the most potential for low-hanging fruit to close deals and implement solutions faster, because most of the large accounts have already been tapped and deployed." 

Steve Hilton, a VP of enterprise research at the Yankee Group, says wireless providers tend to push SMBs to the retail channel, which business managers abhor. "SMB managers with 200 employees don't want to talk to a retail guy who makes $12 an hour," he said. "They're talking to Cisco or Linkys or Avaya agents to find out what they can do to solve their problems."

Consequently, says Hilton, "It doesn't surprise me that the agents getting the mobile deals to enable a wireless enterprise will come from the IT side. The current crop of wireless providers don't have solutions for SMBs and they don't have the 3 "C's" for channel [excellence]: They have no credentialing or training, they don't have certification programs, and they aren't creating incentives to deal with the SMB."

Though Hilton points to a traditional carrier focus on low-hanging fruit, carriers take issue with that view, especially now that SMBs are showing an appetite for mobile data. 

Verizon Wireless, for example, is developing suites of products and services geared directly toward SMB data needs. Its Wireless Office, says a spokesperson, "delivers a network-based solution to SMBs to merge fixed and wireless so the business can use features such as a common PBX, abbreviated dialing and call control to wireless devices." The company also works with a core group of value-added distributors, offers VAR training and cultivates a network of 80 nationwide partners and solution providers in 16 vertical markets geared toward SMBs.

At AT&T, a new push toward data for SMBs (especially in the 9 to 50 employee range, the fastest growing data market) has resulted in significant changes. In April 2007 AT&T opened its Exclusively Business center in San Antonio, catering to SMB voice and data needs, and the company partners with big vertical solution providers such as Salesforce.com and TeleNav. It also has business relationships with 9,500 agents, VARs and independent solution providers.

Until now, though, wireless carriers have focused less on individual handholding than introducing solutions indirectly or training a particular market through consultants.  The VAR community, by contrast, is trying to solve SMB challenges more directly. On one side, the boutique VAR is acting as a savvy applications-driven integrator that doubles as a technology advisor. According to Uncommon Solutions' Leiby, who recently managed a successful deployment of satellite-based SwitchVox VoIP systems for Clarion Mortgage, Colorado's largest private mortgage lender, the tools are now available for an array of custom jobs.

"We're on the brink of taking a lot of customer databases and custom portals and going wireless with them using an Open Source portal framework [built on the Microsoft platform]," Leiby explains. "I can't say it's been embraced and utilized extensively, but you're starting to see [wireless] capability more and more."

Cost considerations, along with engineering expertise, are still major factors in choosing VAR solutions, says Al Crawford, a VP of technology at Texas-based CipherLab, a provider of automated mobile data collection and scanning solutions. Cipherlab is actively seeking vertical VARs not only to sell more hardware, but because "most customers don't know how to do [the integration.] VARs that were from a particular industry frequently quit and start their own company, and they become the [sought-after] experts in their area," he says.      

Rigorous VAR Certification

Larger equipment and infrastructure suppliers such as Nokia Enterprise Solutions and BelAir Networks (a Kanata, Ontario--based supplier of mobile broadband mesh networks), and even smaller suppliers such as CipherLabs are aggressively developing VAR programs to boost sales and improve the training and technological competency of reselling partners.

Nokia, for example, started its Nokia for Business Partners certification program for VARs in October 2006; more than 1,000 partners have registered for the program and Nokia has certified 350 partners worldwide. Although the company is focused on training VARs for a variety of enterprise solutions, mobile IP voice and data integration remains a holy grail, especially for larger business, says John Mason, Nokia Enterprise Solutions' VP of global channels and operators.

Nokia has structured a two-tiered VAR partners program consisting of training, financial incentives and certifications that require such things as customer satisfaction surveys and monitoring of channel distribution partners. While some mobile applications are relatively simple, other new integration challenges for larger businesses are far more complex. For example: integrating mobile workers who access corporate directories and other IP services through a Cisco IP PBX linked with Cisco Wireless LANs and Cisco Call Manager 4.0 and 4.1. "This type of challenge requires integration of the Nokia Intellisync Call Connect software client along with E Series mobile devices from Nokia," Mason explains. "You can't just throw the solution out there and let anyone do it. You have to be authorized and accredited as a voice partner and have specific training."

In many cases, mobile solutions are changing so rapidly that VAR programs are a sine qua non for equipment providers such as Nokia and even smaller vendors selling integrated hardware and software solutions for verticals. "What's changed is that mobile devices have become much more capable," says Mason. "That's why we're making a significant investment in VARs today. There's still a lot of mystery [involved in integration]." //

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