In his latest TV ad for the Abbey National, Alan Davies is seen popping into a clothes shop changing room, connecting his laptop to his mobile phone and dialling up to find out his bank balance online. This is a good example of how mobile computing has invaded all walks of life.
Ignoring the obvious point that the loveable Davies could simply use an ATM or walk into an Abbey National branch, the message is that mobile computing is here, easy to use and secure.
This is all very convincing and is backed by the numbers and the trends both in the user market and among the technology suppliers.
Ironically, selling mobile technology into the small and medium-sized business (SME) market should be easier than selling to large corporates. SMEs have an immediate need, tend to have more mobile workers and don't have huge in-house data centres with all the support needs which that implies.
Also, SMEs do not want to wait for Bluetooth or General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), but are willing to invest in existing technologies such as Global System for Mobile communications (GSM). Super-fast connectivity does not tend to be an issue, as most SMEs want an internet connection for messages and email, not to download huge files.
The move away from traditional laptops and PCs is obvious. Patrick Dryden, senior analyst at researcher Illuminata, said: "The PC Expo trade show in New York showcased more 'post-PC' mobile information management devices than desktop systems. These focus computing and communication capabilities on specific tasks, such as a hand-held personal assistant that adds voice and text messaging.
"Unlike PCs, these appliances provide simplicity, instant access and foolproof reliability. Consider the one-shot camera revolution as a parallel. Flexible, multi-function PCs won't go away, just as 35mm SLR cameras remain with us today for professional photographers. Most users want to simply read and answer their emails, in the same way they want to just take a decent photo without having to train or read a manual."
But the notebook suppliers are not going to lie down and die. IBM's latest ThinkPads come with an Ultraport for hooking up digital cameras and other devices, and the company will add Bluetooth connections through the port before the end of the year. The fact that notebook computers are cumbersome, relatively heavy and require lots of cables is nothing new, but the breed of devices that will augment, if not replace them, offers new functionality.
Exploiting sales opportunities
Kevin Bulcock, product manager for connectivity at Ideal Hardware, said there have always been mobile users in the SME market. "The real change today is in the breadth of organisations that are looking at mobile offerings. Previously, a manufacturer's sales force would have been kitted out with a notebook and a mobile phone. Now sole users, such as lawyers and smaller businesses, want to be mobile. But wherever they happen to be, they want to look as if they are at their desks," he said.
Bulcock said resellers are often too lax when it comes to exploiting incremental sales opportunities. "A lot of resellers sell a laptop and the only question they ask is 'Would you like a nice leather bag with that?' when what they should be asking is 'Are you dialling in from home? What about GSM connectivity?'"
Even at the SME level there are opportunities for multiple sales which lead to back-office opportunities. But beware of giving people what they need and managing their expectations. The IT industry's reputation is one of 'tomorrow will always be better, faster, smaller and will do more'. But if you are supplying an account handler they will probably need only a phone and a personal digital assistant (PDA).
Paul Hammond, sales director at Milton Keynes-based Psion Connect, said: "Sell what is available today. Keep an eye on the future but don't let it rule you. Customers, especially SMEs, that are not making long-term strategic decisions are not interested in what's over the next hill. They want something that works now. Last year, Bluetooth was going to be on every laptop sold this year, but it obviously hasn't happened."
It is not just the hardware manufacturers that are jumping on the wireless bandwagon. Almost all of the big software firms have set up wireless divisions, including Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, SAP and Sybase, which traditionally serviced offices with desktop or back-end software systems.
A report on the PC Expo show in the Wall Street Journal said: "Analysts say traditional software companies, though not generally connected with the wireless industry, are poised to benefit from the wireless boom. Their existing customers, from websites to large corporations, need to move their content and services - originally intended for display on PCs and laptops - to mobile devices. And they need the software to do the transformation."
Sybase spun off its wireless division and Oracle even launched Oraclemobile.com.
Gerry Purdy, president of wireless industry researcher Mobile Insights, said: "Mobile devices are becoming central to the future of computing. It is becoming mainstream when it used to be fringe. We're finally seeing applications that give people defined benefits."
There is a great deal of discussion about which countries, and therefore companies, are in the best place to take advantage of the wireless revolution. Europe benefits from its GSM standard for mobiles, and many rattled US companies and citizens are happy to dismiss mobile internet access by attacking wireless application protocol (Wap) phones as slow and difficult to use. At the same time, there are an estimated 86 million people in the US who subscribe to wireless services. But try moving from state to state and see if your mobile keeps working.
Riding the whirlwind
All of this suggests the mobile and wireless revolution is just starting and that Europe, and the UK in particular, is well positioned to take advantage. SMEs have already taken the technology leap and they like the idea of simpler, easier-to-use devices and constant connectivity.
The big cloud on the horizon is security. The doom-mongers warn of wireless viruses that will bounce around the airwaves making past bugs look harmless. One nervous individual said: "Wireless communications will bring about an unprecedented freedom in data transmission which today is inhibited by the physical network. Enhancements in wireless technology will now allow each hand-held device to be it's own transmitter, eliminating the role played by telcos.
"A virus is a thousand times more lethal because it can now travel across the ether. It can pass through walls and bounce off walls. New business opportunities will arise in the area of firewalls for the individual, for the home and for the car."
It is predicted that these personal firewalls will arrive next year, just in time for the Bluetooth explosion. But for now, the advantages of going mobile far outweigh the risks. The market for mobiles will continue to expand, fuelled by teleworking from home or other fixed sites, or by remote access for totally mobile workers.
A backlash is possible, of course, as mobile workers find themselves weighed down with phones, PDAs, notebooks, yards of cable and three different battery chargers. It is here that companies such as Psion Connect hope to make an impact. The firm has increased its channel activity and is keen to recruit resellers in the SME space.
Hammond said: "We see big opportunities in the SME market to sell to companies that wish to consolidate on a single-platform, hardware-based solution. The wireless world is fascinating at the moment and there has been a dramatic shift in the market. Connection rates will rocket once the tariffs have been decided for GPRS. I expect the network providers to go for a flat rate and then you will see users being always connected."
Open to persuasion
But like others, Hammond sounds a note of caution. "SMEs want to buy what is available now, but that doesn't mean there are no differentiations to be made. SMEs are more likely to be open to persuasion when it comes to add-ons and connectivity options. If someone wants to buy a notebook, he may opt for a Toshiba running Windows - there is not a lot of choice - but he will ask for a 3Com card, because that's what he knows. There are alternatives, and that is where the opportunities for resellers lie."
Over five years ago, two separate plans were announced to launch hundreds of satellites offering totally mobile access to the internet and other services from anywhere.
One of these was abandoned, and earlier this month Bill Gates announced he was increasing his investment in the Teledesic venture run by mobile phone billionaire Craig McCaw. The idea is to offer satellite-based global wireless internet access. But since the initial announcements in the mid-1990s, the scheme has been scaled down. It is now planned that the first services will begin in 2003 when, according to researcher Yankee Group, there will be more than one billion mobile phone owners, 60 per cent of whom will have internet access.
The point is that crystal ball gazing is a fine hobby but the money is being made today. There is already confusion among SMEs and corporates, and therefore there is a lot of mileage to be made from holding customers' hands as they take their first tentative steps beyond the desktop.
|IDC predicts continuing strong growth for mobile PCs but shows that more and more users are looking towards alternative mobile products. But there is good news for those servicing the small office and SME market.|
|Also contributing to the overall positive outlook, the booming notebook market is expected to increase shipments by more than a quarter.The notebook market should continue to boom in Europe. Driven by both business and consumer demand, and after impressive growth recorded in the past two quarters, portable sales should continue to record strong double-digit growth rates throughout 2000.||An increased price/|
performance/benefit ratio, an increasingly competitive environment, and a much broader product range are allowing Europe to increase its notebook penetration in both the business and consumer sectors. Consumer sales are expected to experience over 53 per cent growth in 2000 and business sales more than 22 per cent unit growth.
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