August 2005 | Commentary | IT Matters

Going Mobile: The Time is Right

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In today's fast-paced world, with online stores, just-in-time inventory, and micro-managed supply chains, near real-time supply chain event reporting is critical. Consumers who shop online from the comfort of their bedroom—or in front of the TV with wireless access to a home shopping network—are not satisfied waiting in the dark wondering when packages will be delivered.

Factory production managers are no different. To manufacture products while meeting production schedules and minimizing inventory costs, managers require accurate and current ETAs for inbound parts and raw materials. IT executives across many industries have realized that deploying mobile computing is the best way to satisfy this demand for up-to-the-minute event reporting.

A Competitive Advantage

Mobile computing should be an integral component of IT strategy for any organization that relies on information transfer to and from field personnel, including external sales and service forces.

Whether your business is pharmaceutical sales, package delivery, law enforcement, utilities, or freight transportation, having the ability to receive, distribute, and integrate information to and from remote locations gives you a competitive advantage.

New hardware, software, and communications technology, which has become more readily available during the past five years, makes it easier than ever to integrate remotely captured data with industry-specific applications in near real time.

The Time is Now

"Mobile technology is currently reaching the all-important critical mass. For organizations that plan to make a strategic investment in mobile technology, now is the time for IT to sit with business management and create a mobile strategy," reports a recent AMR Research study.

For the freight transportation industry in particular, the need to implement mobile computing and disseminate real-time data is clear. Railroads, for example, have implemented mobile computing applications that enable train crews to report near real-time information—such as work order completions and car movement event information—while still onboard trains.

Until recently, railroads were plagued by having to use numerous manual processes to update these critical events. Reporting delays between rail crews and offices negatively impact event reporting timeliness, which in turn hinders operations, billing accuracy, and overall customer service.

By utilizing mobile computing, railroads can access up-to-the-minute shipment location and status information that supports operating decisions and provides customers timely shipment visibility.

Thanks to wireless communications' rapid evolution, businesses now have several reliable and cost-effective options for communicating with remote workers via mobile technology.

Wireless Goes the Distance

For applications in closed environments, such as distribution centers or factories, 802.11-based networks offer low-cost communications at adequate speeds. Most cellular providers now offer General Packet Radio Service data communications at reasonable rates for applications requiring greater distances.

And for extremely remote locations where cellular coverage may not be adequate, satellite packet data is readily available.

The key for businesses implementing wireless technology is designing a mobile communication application that is flexible enough to work with any or all of these technologies.

Proper training and ease of use are also critical success factors. Though often overlooked during mobile computing application implementations, businesses must not forget about end users. When end users participate in a mobile computing project's design phase, the implementation is more likely to be successful.

In addition, companies need to make sure adequate time and money for field testing and training are included in the project budget.

Integrating remotely captured data with existing internal systems is where the rubber meets the road with any mobile computing project. The tendency is to focus on the remote side of the application in the early stages of a mobile computing project.

Questions such as which hardware to use, what communications protocols to employ, and what software to use for developing the remote side of the application are common.

Most developers soon learn, however, that they will likely spend as much time on the application's "host" side, ensuring that remote data is properly synchronized and processed according to the application's business rules.

The future of mobile computing looks brighter every day. In the coming months and years, advances in communication technologies such as 3GSM, EGPRS, and Wimax (802.16) are likely to create a buzz. These enhancements to existing technologies will deliver greater speed, reliability, and security to mobile communications.

Embracing mobile computing solutions can help automate manual processes, improve the timeliness of critical information, and ultimately move companies closer to a paperless environment.

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