Mobile e-mail--get it right

Mobile email shows plenty of promise but will be an expensive, messy failure unless organizations display joined-up thinking, says an industry observer.

It's hard to dispute that in 2005, mobile e-mail went mainstream. BlackBerrys, Nokia E-series handsets, Windows Smartphones and now the Danger Hiptop are the new must-haves (and don't wants) for whole armies of sales forces, field engineers and freelancers in the creative industries.

Even the public sector is seeing the merits of extending e-mail into the mobile arena. In fact it is placing a great deal of faith in mobile communications as a foundation for meeting e-government objectives: accountability, access to public services and reducing the cost of delivering those services.

Joined-up thinking says e-mail in the office is useful because it sits alongside customer/client/product databases. In the field, though, e-mail is all too often detached from the information in the office. If the two are brought together, productivity gains can be measured and business cases built. If mobile e-mail remains a standalone application, however, it will become a burden.

Public sector organizations need to see e-mail as the first step in their mobile data strategy. Although the project may only support e-mail now, it should be used as a deliberate ploy to familiarize users with working on PDAs, while the plans to integrate devices with backend systems are well underway.

On top of their e-mail, workers need access to those confidential files and databases built up over many years of bespoke public sector IT purchasing. If a housing officer is out inspecting properties or visiting tenants, for example, he needs access to the rent account, or status of a repair and so on. If he receives an e-mail from a tenant with some issue, all the housing officer can respond with is, "I'll deal with it when I get back to the office."

Billions of pounds have been spent on bespoke systems in countless councils, quangos and support agencies up and down the land. The cost of extending database interrogation to mobile devices will cost hundreds of millions more, particularly as the interfaces are so often proprietary. It's a scary job for any IT department but it will need to be faced sooner or later.

Access to client records and interagency collaboration are the must-have mobile data tools. Only when a social worker can use their mobile or wireless PDA to access medical or housing records while visiting a vulnerable client will mobile data really be supporting e-government--improving access, accountability and reducing the cost of delivery.

Even simple mobile e-mail projects are not a guaranteed success. Although e-mail is undeniably one of the most important business applications, it can also be the scourge of productivity. Extending it out of the office is unlikely to make people more effective.

For some workers, it will be an extra opportunity to avoid doing any real work. A survey carried out by Clearswift earlier this year, found that 40 percent of U.K. workers spend an hour or more every day messaging friends and relatives--and IT departments proved the worst behaved, spending 17 days per year chatting with friends.

Organizations will also need to solve their spam problem before making e-mail mobile. No mobile user wants their BlackBerry inbox to be three-quarters filled with spam and unwanted e-mail.

As an executive toy, e-mail on-the-move can be very useful. But to deploy hundreds or thousands of mobile e-mail devices in one swoop needs to be more than useful. It needs a tangible business gain, a guaranteed return on investment within three years at the most. The danger of a poorly thought out mobile e-mail strategy is a backlash against mobility.

Stewart Baines is a freelance journalist and director at Futurity Media.

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