Meeting Real-Time Demand
Microsoft's Kevin Kerr discusses the pace of business, what it takes to be competitive and where mobility is headed.
Mobile Enterprise: There's a video case study on the Microsoft Web site about Lifetime Products, a manufacturer of basketball equipment, and in it Lifetime's senior VP of sales explains that Wal-Mart, its biggest customer, has a "sundown rule": When Wal-Mart asks a question, it expects a response by the end of the day. Initially, this was a challenge for Lifetime's traveling sales staff--and it was compounded when Lifetime moved part of its manufacturing operations from Utah to China, building a 14-hour difference into the equation.
Is Wal-Mart's sundown rule a good example of current business expectations, or is it an exception?
Kevin Kerr: It's very much indicative of what's going on right now. If you went to a food service organization five years ago, or to many retailers, and talked to them about real-time information and what that meant to their business, a lot of them would have sent you packing, saying their batch-update process was good enough. Now you can go back to those same people and not only are they working on real-time or have implemented real-time information systems, but they've gotten really serious about it.
ME: Are there specific components that must be in place for a real-time information solution to be effective?
KK: Absolutely. We know that using smart applications--in our case at Microsoft, .NET applications, Web services--is really key to producing usable mobile applications. I've seen so many mobile projects that have failed because of usability, as opposed to bad ideas. So when looking at the components I need, one is an application that has a very high usability format. It can't try to replicate a desktop. I have to have the information in the size screen I need on a mobile device. And it's got to be presented in a way that I can use it, understanding that I'm using my finger or a stylus to navigate this kind of an application.
The second thing is, Web services are probably my favorite way to implement live, real-time application data. So in a smart client framework you have a rich application, but its data does not reside on the mobile device, it resides on a Web service. So for those components, all you need is an IIS server, which will provide you XML Web service capability. And then you need an application that has a high usability form factor for mobile devices.
Depending on what your line of business is, though -- there are many effective ways to manage this.
ME: Is there a classic mistake that gets made when designing solutions for meeting real-time demands?
KK: I guess the classic mistake is that companies try and take exactly what they do on a PC and move it to a mobile device. I've seen many, many mobile projects that were excellent ideas, but their implementation was done so poorly that the project failed. And the bleed-over was, well, maybe mobility isn't required in this scenario. And it wasn't about mobility. It was really about them taking the PC world and putting it on a device and saying, "OK, ready to go?" And that's not really what you can do. You're dealing with different size devices, different capabilities. And you need to be cognizant of that when you bring down an application to a mobile scenario. It doesn't mean it's more complex, it's just an understanding that, in a mobile world, real estate and input are limited.
The second thing is, when they think they need a mobile solution, people tend to jump right into the solution, or jump right into the hardware. Sometimes you just have to prove out what the core concept is. So, "Having this information available to this person will impact my business in X way." Understand what you're doing, how you're doing it and what the potential impact will be before you even start to think about solutions or hardware or things like that.
ME: How critical is the pilot to the bottom-line ROI?
KK: It's pretty critical, but when you start to talk about piloting, you have to take it back a step and say, as a company, do we have an atmosphere of innovation? Do we have an innovation framework--or what I call a rapid prototyping framework. Then, set your expectations properly--how many people in your company have a mobile device? How many people actually need this? Set your expectations, take customer feedback, understand where it works and doesn't work and be able to measure against your core concepts what you're trying to achieve. And then if it's still not working, be able to tear it down and not feel bad about it. Because this is still an incubation environment. Mobility is still an emerging business and an emerging technology. So sometimes I'm going to hit it and sometimes I don't. But if I've got a framework for putting up and tearing down pilots rapidly, that don't involve major costs but involve major learning, then I will be a leading-edge company that can go and do more of that innovative thinking and therefore set myself up in an atmosphere of innovation.