Can you even remember what it was like to have to be in a "place" to make a call? When a flat tire meant a search for a pay phone? When email was something that accumulated between Friday and Monday, until the office computer was powered back on?
It's hard to believe that when the first commercial cell phone was brought to the market in the early 1980s, anyone could have predicted the impact mobility would have on the world.
"In many ways, mobility has the potential to have as great of an impact as the invention of the wheel," said Seema Ghanekar, head of mobility for L&T Infotech. "The wheel enabled people to move between places efficiently. Mobility enables people to be virtually present anywhere and at any time. Both innovations altered the way we work and live. As far as mobility in the corporate enterprise is concerned, mobility enhances the fidelity and expediency of informed decision making. "
Devices have rapidly evolved – becoming smaller, more powerful and more affordable. Network speeds continue to increase. But, one of the biggest drivers in today's mobility is more emotional in nature; namely, the importance consumers now attach to their devices.
"The amazing thing about smartphones is that they are always with you. Everyday, I leave home with my keys, my wallet and my phone. If I forget my wallet, I may not go back for it. But, if I forget my smartphone, I'm definitely going to turn the car around," said Steve Roth, senior director and mobile product manager for ADP.
Companies are now ramping up to take full advantage of this mobile phenomenon. After spending the previous year identifying how to manage a multitude of employee-owned devices, setting policies and keeping company data secure in a virtual world, corporations are now exploring how to engage mobility to do everything from reducing costs to increasing sales.
"Enterprise-level mobility adoption is changing in a fundamental way," said Dr. Satya Ramaswamy, vice president and global head of the Mobility Solutions Unit for Tata Consultancy Services. "In 2011, many enterprises were in trial mode when it came to applying mobility to their businesses – both internally and on the consumer-facing side. Today, these companies are engaging consultants to look at their complete value chain and come up with comprehensive roadmaps for transforming entire business process flows."
Let's take a look at some of the dominant trends.
It's Not Just for Email Anymore
Email in the office to email everywhere was the baby step in what's become a full-scale sprint in the mobile enterprise evolution. Company app stores are becoming the norm, chocked full of downloadable applications nestled securely behind the firewall.
"We're seeing a lot of interest in applications that push analytic and customer data directly to the mobile sales force," explained Darren McGrath, global product marketing manager for Mobility, HP Enterprise Services. "For example, while a salesperson waits for an appointment, he or she can quickly access that prospect's history on a mobile device – from what was discussed at the last meeting to the name of the prospect's kids. Anytime you can push meaningful information to your employees, in short, digestible data bites, you improve productivity and performance."
Companies with remote field workers, like plumbers, electricians or appliance repair firms, are turning to mobility for workforce optimization.
"In these types of businesses, it's essential to get the right people with the right equipment to each customer call," Roth said. "There's a huge ROI if personnel can solve the customer problem on the first visit. Return trips waste time, gasoline and cut into profits."
Through applications that take advantage of a mobile device's built-in GPS features, dispatch can track employee location, push out daily schedules and instantly change next-call information to accommodate client emergencies or cancellations. When the call is completed, the employee can finalize the invoice, email a receipt, and move on to the next destination – all without the usual paper shuffle.
But, today's enterprise applications aren't limited to road warriors alone. Outsourcers are working with organizations on something for nearly every type of employee, from the executive suite on.
"We've seen a number of requests for mobile enterprise applications, like Leave, Travel and Order approvals, which connect to enterprise back ends, like PeopleSoft and SAP. Manufacturers have a number of tasks that are right for mobile, including inventory and materials management and production tracking," Ghanekar said. "We've also developed some interesting applications for a leading U.S.-based client in the entertainment industry that enable collaborative reviews of videos and documents through mobile devices."
A New Kind of Customer Engagement
But, what about the company-consumer connection? How can this new, vibrant channel be used to market products and services effectively? The answer is not mass marketing, but finding ways to personalize messaging and add value to the customer experience.
"If implemented with care, the smartphone channel can become a powerful and indispensable connection between a company and its customers," Ramaswamy said. "For example, we helped a major paint manufacturer in the U.S. develop a mobile app that lets consumers take pictures of items in colors they like. The application analyzes the colors, lists the closest-matching paint names, and directs the consumer to the nearest retailer with those paint colors in stock."
Consider the traditional discount programs, where a specific retailer offers discounts to the employees of specific large companies. Every week, these employees receive an email detailing the discounts, and a list of participating retailers. Now, when you apply a little mobile innovation, the dynamics change.
"What if, instead of getting these emails at work, I could see the offer on my phone when I drove by or walked into a participating retailer? That could make marketing more interesting," Roth said. "I think, in the future, we'll all have the option of creating our own profiles, accessible to designated retailers. Based on analytics, retailers will push out special offers to you, and continue to refine these profiles based on your response. It's one-on-one, totally customized, mobile marketing. "
Not only can the consumer get product information, and even compare prices on a smartphone, but he or she will soon be able to use the phone to pay for that product, even if it's purchased in store. Near-field communications, or NFC, allows connections between devices in close range to facilitate both person-to-person and traditional retail payments. In a retail setting, a digital reader in store scans a barcode displayed on the customer's smartphone screen. That barcode is linked to a credit card, bank account or other payment vehicle.
Will people really trust the smartphone as a payment option? All indications say "yes." A well-known, U.S.-based coffeehouse started offering a mobile payment app as a more convenient way to make purchases than its ever-popular reloadable card. In just one year, this retailer logged 26 million purchase transactions via user smartphones. No one can say if it was the novelty of the payment option or the demographic of this company's customer base that drove such a huge response. But, it does indicate that smartphone users are ready for and open to change.
Anticipating What's to Come
While it's true that companies should get serious about their mobile strategies today, going mobile for mobile's sake is not the answer.
"Every company has to look at what makes the most sense for them; to identify areas where mobile apps can bring the most value, " McGrath said. "Then, they have to make sure have the IT environment to support the initiatives they've identified."
In the future, our experts agree: expect more rapid change. Significant advancements in mobile device processing power, bandwidth connectivity and continued mobile adoption are all on the horizon.
"Seamless broadband connectivity at speeds nearing half a gigabit per second, when coupled with quad-core processors running at two GHz and above could be quite transformational, enabling all of us to hold super computing capability in the palm of our hands," Ramaswamy said. "This will enable widespread use of voice-enabled applications that flawlessly understand natural language commands, and enable artificial intelligence to benefit everyone in ways we never imagined before."
Although no one can predict the future, one thing is for certain: the static world is ancient history. The era of mobility is upon us and will continue to change the way we work, the way we live and the way we interact with the world around us.
It's the modern day wheel that's going places – and taking all of us along for the ride.