What businesses really think of mobile email

Research has revealed what's holding back some companies from giving staff access to email on the move

Most UK organisations now consider providing staff with email on the move to be a key vehicle for boosting efficiency and enabling remote and flexible working.

According to a study, undertaken by ZDNet.co.uk and market researcher Rhetorik in association with Orange, 84 percent of the 371 organisations questioned in a broad-based mobility survey now use mobile email — although such adoption is not necessarily widespread across every business.

Moreover, more than half of all respondents in a sample of 311 companies that have at least some mobile-email users (a subset of the larger mobility survey) are currently deploying "push" technology as their delivery mechanism of choice.

The perceived advantage of such push technology to businesses is that it is "always on". This means that, as soon as a back-end mail delivery server receives an email, it forwards the message directly to the relevant user's handset and alerts them to its presence.

But the downside of such a service is that, because the device is always on, connection charges tend to be higher than those incurred with more traditional "pull" technology. With this technology, emails are only accessed at either designated time intervals or when the user requests it.

As would be expected of companies with a small head count, small office/home office-based (SOHO) businesses deploy push email to a higher percentage of staff. One quarter of all users here have equipped 70 percent of their staff with mobile-enabled handsets.

This compares with only three percent of large corporations that have done the same because, as Rick Paskins, managing director of Rhetorik, points out: "These organisations do not have such a high percentage of mobile workers as the smallest organisations."

Looking at the figures for all organisations — small, medium and large — nearly half, 44 percent, said that less than 10 percent of their personnel were provided with mobile email access and a quarter indicated that the figure was less than five percent.

As the Rhetorik report concludes: "This is perhaps not surprising, with usage dependent on the needs of the business, acceptance of the individuals within it and the degree of mobility amongst the general workforce."

Nonetheless, adoption of mobile email is set to increase over time. About three-fifths of respondents anticipate that penetration levels will rise over the next few years, particularly in the corporate space, while only two percent expect them to fall.

This move is attributed to growing levels of mobility in the workforce, including remote- and home-working, as well as progressive recognition by management of the business benefits to be gained in terms of increased productivity and efficiency. Other drivers include rising demand from end-users, falling prices and recent improvements in both the technology and its availability.

In terms of the push versus pull debate, meanwhile, the former delivery mechanism is now the most popular overall. About 55 percent of organisations of all sizes opt for push technology, while around a quarter prefer pull, although a number of enterprises use both concurrently.

By vertical market, however, finance and banking companies appear to be the biggest fans of push, with more than 80 percent of respondents going down this route. But the situation is the opposite in the SOHO sector, with only just over a quarter employing push email techniques and 55 percent favouring pull technology. This is likely to be because, in some instances, such businesses have too few mobile users to make the costs involved in deploying push email worthwhile.

In two thirds of cases where a particular preference for push email was expressed, the appeal centred on being able to provide a rapid and efficient means of communication both for and with key remote workers. Because such personnel were constantly accessible, it was perceived that they were able to respond quickly to customer and supplier requests and requirements. Another plus was that they were highly contactable by office-based employees and management.

In fact, some 92 percent of those questioned agreed with the statement that "access to work email for key staff anywhere and anytime through push email devices is of great benefit to my organisation". Some 88 percent also confirmed that: "access to work email for key staff anywhere and anytime through push email devices is of great benefit to key staff".

But a rather lower number, 67 percent, agreed that "staff like having access to work email anywhere and anytime", which is likely to reflect the perceived disadvantages of being contactable in a work capacity at all times of the day and night.

Nonetheless, where they had deployed push email devices, the perceived benefits and desirability were highest among the smallest organisations, possibly because...

...users are more likely to be senior managers who decided to deploy the technology for their own usage.

As to which particular offerings respondents favoured, about three quarters opted for Research in Motion's (RIM) BlackBerry system. This was particularly marked among large enterprises in vertical markets such as finance, banking and government. Three quarters of BlackBerry users also preferred to have RIM client software running on a RIM handset, rather than on hardware from third-party providers.

But many companies appeared to have more than one push email device supplier anyway. About half of respondents also equipped their employees with a Microsoft Direct Push client offering, while about a third — mainly smaller companies — employed POP3-based systems.

Paskins said: "We could speculate that RIM devices for BlackBerry use have been available for longer than those of other manufacturers. As we are analysing installed-base figures, older devices are more likely to be RIM ones and this would, therefore, influence the results. If we had analysed only recent sales, the results might have been different."

When looking at back-end servers to power the clients, the most popular, unsurprisingly, was the BlackBerry Enterprise Server for Microsoft Exchange. Microsoft Direct Push and Exchange 2003 came in second, with BlackBerry Enterprise Server for IBM Lotus Domino being next in line.

But, despite the apparent popularity of push email, there are certain important barriers to adoption. Of those organisations that had chosen not to go down this avenue, 45 percent indicated they were satisfied with their existing communications system and saw no need to switch.

About 38 percent saw the cost involved in running such devices as a big obstacle, while 28 percent said that they had experienced no demand from end-users. However, around a third of non-users indicated that they had not yet evaluated the technology, opening up the possibility that they might choose to do so in future.

Similar reasons prevailed for those companies that had introduced the technology but were unsure about rolling it out among larger groups of users. About 57 percent felt that cost was a constraint, with a further quarter citing existing pricing structures as an issue.

Some 37 percent voiced security concerns, while 31 percent were unable to identify a business requirement for broader adoption. Others felt that increased pressure on staff was also an important factor against wider uptake.

As to what improvements respondents would like to see in their existing push email systems, only 87 out of the total 311 questioned gave an answer. Of these, 15 percent requested faster download and upload speeds or data compression capabilities in order to improve delivery times for large data files and other sources of information.

Another nine percent were keen to see costs come down, seven percent wanted better synchronisation facilities and six percent thought improved spam control and filtering would be of benefit.

The 311 companies that responded to the online survey were of a range of different sizes. They included SOHO businesses with one to 10 staff, comprising 20 percent of the sample, and large corporations with more than 1,000 employees, accounting for 33 percent of the total.