Wireless players: Cooperate, or else...

Wireless network operators and application vendors should start learning to play nice with one another. At stake is an industry that could be worth US$29 billion by 2006, a recent study revealed.

SINGAPORE--Wireless network operators and application vendors should start learning to play nice with one another.

In a recent report titled Mobile Intranets: Towards the Wireless Enterprise, UK-based Ovum observed that suppliers need to cooperate more with each other to maximize wireless data opportunities in the corporate sector.

At stake is an industry that could be worth US$29 billion by 2006--21 percent of which is expected to go to Western Europe, 39 percent to the US and Canada, 18 percent to Asia Pacific and 13 percent to Central Asia. Ample incentive for cooperation, said the market research firm.

Asia Pacific in this case includes Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam; while Central Asia includes China, Hong Kong, North Korea and India.

The report was based on economic and demographic data from 50 countries in Europe, America and Asia.

According to Ovum analyst Jessica Figueras, the "lack of understanding" between wireless operators and vendors is caused by different, and at times conflicting, interests of these groups.

On the one hand, "wireless network operators tend to be keen on online-only solutions. Unsurprisingly, these involve the use of lots of expensive airtime! On the other hand, application vendors are keen for their customers to access their applications in any way that allows the full functionality to be retained, which rules out the use of many simple mobile devices," she noted.

The story in Asia appears to be little better.

When contacted, Singapore's No.2 telecommunications company StarHub claimed that "the hindrance (the lack of cooperation between operators and vendors) was mainly due to the (mobile technology) platform".

"Before GPRS (general packet radio service), circuit-switched data was not ideal or optimized for corporate applications," a Starhub spokesman said in an email yesterday.

GPRS is a packet-switching technology that delivers high-speed mobile data transmission. To date, two of Singapore's three mobile telcos--namely Singapore Telecommunications and MobileOne Asia--have launched their GPRS services. StarHub is commercially launching its service by the end of the year.

"But now with GPRS opening up the data arena for the first time, you will find that operators and application vendors will work together more to push out new services and applications to benefit the consumers," he added.

That's good news for the local industry.

Partnership is imperative
Ovum, for one, believes that it is "impossible" to offer mobile enterprise solutions without mutual support from the wireless operators and software vendors.

"That could mean sacrificing some short term goals (such as operator traffic revenue)," admitted Figueras. "New service-based business models (would also) need to come into play."

Among others, application vendors would have to acknowledge the value of blending their applications' functionality with the network-delivered services provided by cellular networks.

Vendors can also help customers determine the applications or services that are critical to their business processes, and hence allow customers to better choose among the various mobile devices, she added.

Kelvin Tan, director of Asia Pacific Mobile E-services Bazaar, Hewlett Packard, affirmed the role that vendors in Asia now play in wireless applications deployment.

"We are helping the wireless network operator and enterprises design end-to-end solutions which can leverage on an architecture (that's able to address)...a varied customer base," he explained.

At the same time, he recognized that it is "critical (for vendors) to take a practical view of the existing infrastructure that an operator/enterprise (may be using) to get the maximum benefit from existing investments and benefit from the new technologies".

Wireless network operators, too, should consider the needs of business customers separately from those of consumer customers, said Ovum.

"Consumers don't worry about application integration, systems management or service level agreements," said Figueras in the report. Enterprises do.

"Wireless network operators must make it easy for businesses to make wireless data connectivity an integral part of their enterprise infrastructure, and they must offer them decent customer support," she explained.

A spokesperson for Singapore's No.1 telco Singapore Telecommunications noted that the mobile unit of the company works closely with the application vendors to ensure that its services can meet customer needs.

The problem, however, was not so much a lack of cooperation, but access speed and availability of wireless-enabled handsets.

"If need to, we will modify and adapt the services...The important factor is the speed of access, and that boils down to availability of handsets. For instance, SingTel Mobile's GPRS network can support speeds of up to 115kbps but the handsets today do not," the spokesperson said.

Ashley Barry, director of Strategic Services at Singapore-based communications infrastructure developer EdgeMatrix, also lamented on the lack of powerful handsets in the market: "There is always a lag for handsets to penetrate the market, and 2.5G handsets will be no exception."

Barry believes "it is unlikely that the advantages of a packet-switched network that may enhance the adoption of corporate applications--including higher data transfer speeds and packet-based billing--will be fully realized (in Asia Pacific) before the end of 2002."

Business benefits
Ultimately, Ovum sees the wireless market as a "mainstream channel for business data", thanks in large to the progress of 2G and 3G technologies, and to the standardization and fast packet-switched public networks.

The benefits of providing wireless access to corporate data and applications to mobile staff, for example, are obvious.

"A wireless implementation implies that enterprises are in a position to better service their customers and meet their ever-changing expectations, while at the same time helping the organizations internally realize process efficiencies that consequently improve productivity," explained Barry of EdgeMatrix.

And with the emergence of the wireless-enabled mobile workforce, such applications seem even more indispensable.

According to Figueras, employee mobility is the norm today, but organizations still treat it as an "expensive exception" in terms of the technologies used to support it.

"Investment in e-business technologies may go to waste as mobile workers are simply cut off from the enterprise backbone, unable to access or to feed data into enterprise applications.

"Wireless data has an important role to play in solving these problems, but it will be no solution until it can be integrated within mainstream corporate IT," the analyst said in the report.

In general, "blue-collar task workers" who work within national boundaries tend to make up the largest part of the mobile workforce market. "Transport workers, field service personnel, construction and engineering workers are all highly mobile and also have intensive needs for access to specialized business applications."

When asked how the international business traveler can effectively make use of mobile solutions, Figueras said in an email response that GPRS roaming--negotiated between network operators in different countries--is the key.

However, she believed that international travelers form only a small part of the market.

"I don't think (international roaming) is particularly crucial (to the development of the wireless enterprise market) at the moment," she said.

She added that this group of users tends to be professionals with very limited application needs--usually just email--which may be well served by other connectivity options such as dial-up access via fixed phone lines.

"For these workers, data roaming is a convenience but not a necessity. Indeed, all of the businesses we spoke to via our user focus groups told us that roaming inside one's own country is far more important. These included businesses with high numbers of international travelers," she said. In Asia, opportunities are "significant".

"Asia is a major force in terms of population numbers, and Asian industries employ hundreds of millions of mobile blue collar workers. Mobility isn't all about the stereotypical traveling executive working in a service industry--it's much more widespread," said Figueras in the email.

The biggest barrier to development in Asia, Figueras felt, is the modest level of IT investment in this region.

"Most of the growth in the wireless enterprise market will come from the wireless-enablement of existing business applications, rather than the adoption of new applications.

"Attitudes towards adoption of new software tend to be more cautious in Asia than in the US, which restricts the opportunity to extend business applications to mobile workers," she declared.

HP's Tan agreed that workforce mobility in Asia is becoming more widespread. He cited Etonenet (a wireless application developer) in China, Silktech (software developer) in Singapore and Science Arts (distributor of medical products) as examples of companies that have mobile-equipped their sales force.

On the other hand, Barry felt that "although there is enormous potential for enterprise applications even in the Asia Pacific, it is expected that widespread adoption will be hampered in the short to medium term.

"With most countries in Asia Pacific excluding Japan still in the early phases of their trials of 2.5G networks, it is unlikely that we will see commercial launches until the beginning or the middle of 2002".

Hot apps
Six wireless business applications highlighted in the Ovum report were messaging (e-mail, calendars, etc), customer relationship management (particularly sales and service applications), supply chain management (applications that support logistics, supply chain planning and procurement), corporate portals (those which are used to deliver business applications, as opposed to those which simply deliver information), telemetry applications (remote monitoring and tracking etc) and alerting.

Given the constraints of an unstable mobile working environment, the applications most suited to the wireless arena were those that were time-critical and comprising relatively simple data, it added.

In Asia, some headway has been made to implement enterprise applications for the mobile workforce. In May, for example, Hong Kong communications service provider SmarTone, using SAP's enterprise software, launched a solution that automatically alerts users on critical business information via mobile phones.

Singapore's EdgeMatrix agreed that simple applications that support communication best match the wireless corporate space.

"If the wired Internet proves to be any guide as to what may happen in the wireless arena, it must be noted that the early success of the Internet was not in e-commerce or corporate Intranets. The most popular applications were those which focused on communication, such as Web-based e-mail.

The next phase in the evolution was content-based Web sites. Once communications and content formed the foundation of a substantial user base, then we began to see the explosion in the use of the wired Internet as a business tool through e-commerce and corporate Intranets.

"The wireless markets will more than likely follow a similar path, so the first corporate applications will more than likely be accessing email and personal information manager (PIM) functions," observed Barry.

"There is no question that issues such as differing wireless standards, coverage areas, and transmission speeds all serve to reinforce the usual skepticism that accompanies any new technology," Barry continued.

"However, we believe that while companies are reluctant for the time being to deploy wireless enterprise apps, they will soon view wireless deployments as a priority to maintain their competitive advantage."