Remember the Apple Newton, one of the earliest mobile computers? It isn't difficult to recall, mostly because it was the size of a car battery, weighed as much, and the fact that it resembled something Mr Spock carried around in Star Trek. It is also memorable as an indicator of the fact that companies have been thinking mobile for a very long time and not always getting it right.
Today the mobile market is taken for granted, but questions remain as to whether spending on mobile technology makes for a sound investment.
Despite the Wap backlash and the questionable applications that some vendors are touting as a reason to go mobile, there is a slew of product announcements due from manufacturers for kit that will hit the streets in the third quarter of this year. This onslaught of mobile-mania will lead to a greater than ever choice, and no doubt will confuse the hell out of users. The manufacturers concerned are all 'big beasts' of the IT jungle - Sony, Compaq, Hewlett Packard, IBM and even Casio.
SMEs are likely to be the first target of these new products, as vendors see small businesses as being the first to benefit from the wireless revolution: they don't have to ditch expensive technology and write down investments in order to exploit the new products.
Learning to think small
Another factor in favour of smaller businesses is that vendors are learning to target the SME market as a separate entity and are finally putting some effort into understanding the dynamics of the smaller user. While some vendors are still obsessed with dealing with the big corporates - and leaving it to their 'channel' partners (resellers and retail outlets) to service smaller users - the landscape of the market is slowly changing.
Market research from the US suggests that in the mobile market, vendors are attempting to differentiate between small business market sectors. The broad swathe of SMEs must first be broken down into 'vertical' segments, which cluster businesses around their core activities.
"Because small businesses are so diverse, it isn't possible for vendors and service providers to effectively reach all vertical markets," said Mary Porter, senior analyst for IDC's Small Business Market Research.
"Instead, to succeed in the small business market, vendors need to identify the most attractive targets based on current and future technology acquisition potential. For example, the real estate industry exhibits high use of wireless communications and many retail firms invest in ecommerce-enabled websites. Transportation/communication has high use of local area networks, and accounting firms tend to use portable PCs."
She added: "By aiming to meet the needs of the most advanced small business, technology providers will be well positioned to serve the majority of firms as they grow more sophisticated."
In this context, "sophisticated" means bigger and mobile.
IDC's latest figures for PC shipments in Europe showed a slowing in all sectors except SMEs, with demand growing for notebook and mobile computing solutions. The report stated: 'The demand from small and medium-sized businesses remained sustained and grew at a faster rate as a result of continued renewal cycles and the healthy investments of a large number of new companies (particularly Internet start-ups) emerging.
Consumer sales also remained healthy in Western Europe, fuelled by continued demand for Internet access, and leading to sustained double-digit growth of the market in Q2 2000. The notebook market continued to grow dynamically as predicted, with a buoyant desktop replacement and ultra-portable market and continued consumer notebook demand.'
Moving away from the desktop
It is the sophistication of the market that is spurring a lot of activity in this area. Today an increasing number of professional sole traders or partnerships such as accountants, lawyers and consultants are invariably working outside their office environment but need to present a face to the world that projects the image of being at a desk, i.e. always contactable and always online. A good indicator of this is the number of business cards in circulation with just an email address and a mobile telephone number.
On the technology front, the shift away from the monolithic desktop is happening fast, and the long awaited convergence of technologies is accelerating.
Patrick Dryden, senior analyst at Illuminata, said: "The annual PC Expo tradeshow in New York City showcased more 'post-PC' mobile information management devices than traditional desktop systems. These focus computing and communication capabilities on specific tasks, such as a handheld personal assistant that adds voice and text messaging. Unlike cantankerous PCs, these appliances target simplicity, instant-on accessibility and foolproof reliability."
It is this sort of functionality that is attracting the small business user to the mobile market. Notebook PCs are just the start. Sony is launching a handheld based on the Palm operating system which will offer video playback and internet connection via a mobile phone. For the average business person, the ability to download the latest movie trailer is unlikely to have you rushing to the shops; what is more likely is that you will want to be able to access the Web and to have access to all kinds of customer information.
Compaq is touting its iPaq colour pocket PC as the thinnest colour handheld on the market, or at least it will be when it ships. Both the iPaq and the HP Jornada can access AOL email.
SMEs harden attitude towards hype
But scepticism is increasing among users, and especially SME users. A survey of 800 people, carried out by Embedded Solutions of Wokingham, found that workers would use mobile technology for a variety of functions, with email the most popular application cited by 94 per cent of those surveyed. Next came Web access, telephony options, office applications and games. Just over one third said they would be interested in video on demand.
But the survey also revealed a hardening of attitudes towards the technology hype. Embedded Solutions said the survey should be heeded as a warning to manufacturers that not all new technology is viewed as a force for good by the people it is aimed at.
Mobile technology has the disadvantage of putting people in contact at all times. Manufacturers need to be aware that the applications they are offering must service a genuine business need lest users become disillusioned.
The thing all users wish to exploit is bandwidth. Bandwidth will allow wireless access to anything and everything, and it is here where the most interesting developments are taking place. The convergence of technologies which will allow mobile access to company information and also allow wireless Web and messaging, is where investment is currently focused.
With Wap fading from the headlines - or at least entering the trough of disappointment among early adopters - the focus is shifting to GPRS, UMTS and Bluetooth.
The widespread adoption of GPRS (General Packet Radio Services) will mean 'always on, all day' wireless connection to the internet and faster data transfer. Mobile devices using UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications Services) will offer broadband, packet-based transmission of text, digitised voice, video and multimedia at data rates up to and higher than 2Mbps.
Finally, Bluetooth is a radio frequency (RF) specification for short-range, point-to-multipoint voice and data transfer. What these services will mean is that mobile users will have exactly the same functionality as deskbound workers with no delays in access to information.
It is these services the manufacturers are hoping will spur investment in mobile technology, although they accept that it will be Q1 next year before they start impacting the market.
The Weather report
One example of a small company building a technology-based business in direct competition to an established player is Weather Consultancy Services (WCS), a Staffordshire based business that supplies a variety of customers with weather information. WCS specialises in the media and aviation sectors, and has seen steady growth despite being in competition with the Met Office - which is often thought of as the only supplier of weather information.
WCS says it has been successful so far by depending upon technology for fast delivery of its products. Services can be offered that would be impossible without the use of technology. But the technology it uses is not bleeding edge.
The company has seven forecasters based around the country and it is essential that the forecasters and the office keep in touch. Laptop computers, via modems and telephones, link the forecasters to the company network. They are issued with 0700 numbers (provided by the Personal Number Company) which means they can be contacted on the same number, wherever they are.
The company also operates a website that provides a one-stop shop service and which has proved to be an effective outlet for its products. It has been instrumental in increasing the size of the company's customer base.
Managing director, Simon Keeling, keeps his ear to the ground concerning new business applications of technology, but considers his company to be a general technology follower, rather than a leader. His advice to other businesses: "Give it a go - but don't invest more than you can afford to lose."
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