Getting mobile: The rise of portable technology and the pocket PC

Mobility can be mayhem for businesses that make the wrong software and hardware decisions, Simon Clark, CargoWise Vice President Business Development discusses some of the potential pitfalls

The idea of having instant access to desktop and corporate data has been the ultimate goal of mobile business technology since a virtually unknown company called Psion launched the Organiser II in 1984. Promoted as the world’s first practical pocket computer, the Organiser II looked like a giant grey Blackberry, and was little more than scientific calculator with a clock, but nonetheless was enough to inspire many to think what the next generation of pocket PC’s might offer.
Flash forward a quarter of a century and the consumer mobile phone you have in your pocket is vastly more powerful than even the mainframe computers banks were operating off in the 1980s, but are they any more useful to your business than the Psion Organiser II.
Over that time mobile technology has swung back and forth between the consumer and business markets. The very first mobile phones were too expensive, and simply too large for most consumers to be bothered, then came funky form factors, digital communication and texting, and the pendulum swung back towards the consumer space.
Then in 1999 RIM launched the first Blackberry and the focus again shifted back to the business space. While mobile phones were getting smaller and more colourful, the Blackberry offered a sleek officious design which delivered emails directly into your pocket.
So the pendulum swung the other way, and this made-for-business format became popular as consumer mobile manufacturers struggled to decide whether to add more features to their phones, or focus on making them smaller and more compact.
The spell was broken however, when Apple released the first iPhone in 2007, totally changed the market for mobile devices and pulled the pendulum firmly back into the consumer space. Three years, £100 million and thousands of the brightest software and hardware developers had all contributed to creating a mobile device which was more than a mere communication tool, it brought the internet into our pockets, and permanent connectivity into our lives.
It also set a difficult challenge for corporate software and hardware providers, because the emergence of rapidly developed software applications changed the way we all think about software.
Suddenly we were all inundated by clever consumer technology, and the ruggedised mobile devices designed for business operations in the field began to look like old and outdated.
As a result more than a few IT Departments found themselves opening up the Bring Your Own Device option, and IT Managers who’d largely had an opportunity to select mobile devices according to functionality in the past, finding themselves pressured into buying a fleet of consumer smartphones.
Unfortunately, what’s good for the consumer isn’t necessarily good for the corporation, especially a corporation involved in transportation and logistics, and here’s why:
1) Reliability – Consumer devices are not built to operate “on the road” – and need to be regularly replaced.
2) Design – Consumer devices are designed for entertainment and communications, and don’t communicate well with corporate software systems.
3) Desirability – Smartphones are very desirable consumer devices and often end up being used for non-work related activities.

Many companies that have made the mistake of buying a fleet of consumer-focused devices have found themselves paying out far more than they ever bargained for, without realising any of the significant productivity outcomes they were aiming for in the first place. This is mostly because the upgrade cycles are shorter, operating expenses are higher, and consumer phones are simply not designed to withstand the sort of wear and tear that happens on the road.
The rapid replacement cycle associated with consumer devices is also at odds with the way software is bought an implemented in a business environment. Unlike consumer applications, which can be knocked together in a matter of days or weeks, enterprise software is dense and complex, and takes months and often years to develop.
Business software rarely looks as good as consumer software, because the focus is on providing deep functionality, not pretty pictures, and this is particularly relevant to mobile business software because it’s may not look as nice, but it usually offers deep functionality.
The classic example of this is mapping software, because there is a vast difference between the functionality you need to run a logistics business, and the software you need simply to see where your trucks are at any given time.
Back in 2003 consumer GSP systems were still new and shiny, Google had yet to acquire the companies which would ultimately become Google Maps and Google Earth, and there were already wild predictions about GPS skyrocketing.
As the new millennia progressed GPS chips were being fitted into all manner of business and consumer device, and the domestic transport industry soon became one of the most important markets for devices which would let fleet managers track the progress of all their vehicles.
It’s easy to see why these systems became so popular. You don’t have to be a cartophile to appreciate the apparent clarity of maps, but when it comes to domestic transport technology, investing in a system because it looks great may limit your overall ability to run your company.
Transport management systems have typically been developed by companies with expertise in either spatial or mapping technology, or in enterprise resource planning software. The best software to run your business will always be the one derived from the ERP system, because it will offer deeper functionality, and higher levels of integration with other systems, but the mapping and spatial systems often win out because of the interface: they look better.
And while it’s easy to get excited about the maps, it’s a mistake which has left many logistics companies spending tens of thousands of dollars on a software package which is the wrong fit for their business. In most cases simply having visibility of your fleet does not give you access to the historical data, or analytical functionality that lets you optimise routes, and improve the efficiency of your operations.
It might be easy to see where your vehicles are with an interactive map, but without sophisticated back-end software with proof of delivery, job list and scheduling features it can be impossible to say where they have been, and whether or not a consignment was actually delivered.
Picking the right software system for your business is process which needs to begin with a deep understanding of your requirements, not with pretty interactive maps.
And a similar approach needs also to be taken with mobile hardware devices. If you start out by selecting the hardware you may well end up with a fleet of mobile devices which are incapable of running the software which runs your business.
All decisions regarding information technology need to begin with a very clear notion of what you’re trying to achieve, your operational performance objectives, customer service goals or compliance requirements.
Once you’ve got this figured out you’re in a much more powerful position when it comes to assessing different software packages or devices, and so you’re less likely to pick up a system which looks good, but fails to deliver in terms of functionality.
By making your IT purchasing decisions based on underlying functions also means you’ll be able to make a more informed choice when it comes to hardware, in-cab, and handheld technologies. While it might seem like a good idea to let drivers pick their own smartphones, rather than investing in ruggedised purpose built hand held devices, you may end up spending a lot of money subsidising devices which do little more than let people access Facebook, and play Angry Birds.
Unless you begin with your requirements, let these determine which software system is best suited to your business, and then which handheld system is best suited to your software, you could just buy yourself a costly headache.