Going mobile sounds enticingly easy: slap some wireless modems on some mobile devices and suddenly your business applications are available in the field.
Alas, it’s not that simple. Implementing a mobile solution involves dealing with headaches such as:
•wireless carriers and their networks;
•your enterprise’s LAN;
•multiple operating systems;
•and, finally, mobile devices themselves.
Finding the necessary expertise in your own staff is generally unlikely, and having a different vendor handle each aspect will likely result in a flurry of finger-pointing whenever the slightest problem occurs. Your response: Find a mobile integrator who can handle all the chores. Finding the right one may not be as involved as Donald Trump’s search for an apprentice—but it can come pretty close.
“A lot of resellers claim to be mobile integrators, but the mechanism they use to support that business is based on questions they can have answered by a carrier,” says Tom French, president of Global Wireless Data in Norcross, Ga. “But the most common questions from users are how to link disparate databases and how to deliver different subsets of data to different types of users—what the salesperson needs is vastly different from what the delivery driver needs.
“That takes expertise, not just on the database side, but an understanding of the nuances of formatting data for mobile terminals,” French adds. “Anyone can sell a BlackBerry these days, but it takes a specialized integrator to deliver meaningful content. It’s best to have someone who understands the applications in your field.”
Beware the Dabbler
Experience, sources agree, is essential. “You really want to have someone with a lot of pilots or projects already in production—don’t go with someone who dabbles, but someone who lives in it,” explains Paul Giobbi, president of Zumasys, a solutions implementer in Lake Forest, Calif. “It’s hard enough to keep up with what the carriers are doing.”
You also need an integrator who understands the big picture, rather than just isolated pieces of the puzzle, cautions Neil Lodin, lead technologist for EDS in Kokomo, Ind. “Some small guys get it and some big guys may not,” he contends. “Checking references may help differentiate the wannabes from the real guys, but it can take six months for the reference customer to figure out it was the wrong answer. The difference has more to do with the integrator knowing how to drive business value from the solution. If they talk about the technology and the product, great. But I think you need a more holistic approach, including ROI.
“Meanwhile, the ROI may not come with the first application,” Lodin says. “The first one may just put the infrastructure in place, with the benefit coming afterward. So look for people who can talk about ROI and about the big picture.”
First impressions count. John Keane, CEO of ArcStream Solutions in Watertown, Mass., suggests that you look for an integrator who, even during initial meetings, can display proficiency in each of the core topics: wireless devices, networks, operating systems, middleware, security and project management. “Also, the integrator must be able to show expertise beyond one favorite
technology, because there are so many choices,” he adds. “But of course, with experience you learn to have favorites.”
After the integrator stops talking about the big picture and gets to specifics, sources agree that you’d better make sure the integrator has an organized approach to recognizing and then meeting your actual needs.
“If the integrator does not start with a requirements and documentation effort to understand what you want to accomplish, then they are not experienced
in the mobile space,” says Kevin Price, CEO of Accucode, an integrator based in Denver. “Many say they are integrators but they are really resellers, and whatever they have to sell is what the customer needs. That seldom works out well for the customers.
Method, Not Madness
“The measure of a good or bad integrator is their methodology,” adds Price. He suggests keeping your eyes open for a step-by-step process: 1) Start with the functional requirements; 2) Turn the functional requirements into a detailed project plan; and 3) Transform that plan into a design for a software application with ties to the existing hardware and legacy applications.
Outlining the functional requirements usually takes a couple of weeks, according to Price, and will give you a cost estimate of plus or minus 10 percent.
“Anyone who gives you hard numbers before getting functional requirements is setting you up,” Price added. “Then they come back and say, ‘Oh boy, there was a bunch of stuff I didn’t expect.’ Of course there was—they didn’t know what you were trying to do.” Meanwhile, many end-users are lured into a mobile program thinking they might be able to plug and play an off-the-shelf solution. But Price warns: “There is nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t mean you can skip the requirements phase.”
In fact, Price’s company requires customers to
submit to Accucode’s functional requirements process. “Then we generate a document saying this is what we heard and this is what it will look like, and if you say yes, then we submit the estimate. This may take several iterations, but it is better to make changes in the requirements phase then during implementation.”
The best-laid planning and design process can be negated, however, if your company’s mobility is limited. One vital issue to consider is exactly how wireless technology will play into your business needs. You must determine how many different carriers your integrator specializes in, advises French. “They may have a great application, but what if they only have a relationship with Verizon, and there is no Verizon coverage in your area?”
Incidentally, some of the factors that form an integrator’s relationship with a network carrier have nothing to do with technology—or even networking—admits Giobbi. Sprint, for instance, pays a double commission—one to Sprint’s sales rep and one to Zumasys’—for a sale. Says Giobbi, “Verizon pays no commission to our sales rep if we make the sale and vice versa, so we do little business with Verizon.”
Meanwhile, when you sit down with the integrator, hardware should not be the first thing you talk about—although, sadly, it often is. “It typically starts with people wanting to have the client device—the thing they are touching,” agrees David Almonte, president of Datec, an integrator in Seattle. “They are looking for integrators who can sell it, but then they find that the hardware is only the beginning—they need a connection to the back end.”
Price concurs, noting that 8 out of 10 customer contacts start with hardware. “They have their minds made up about what hardware they need because a hardware sales rep has them convinced. But if you have them go through the requirements process, the mismatch becomes apparent.”
When the integrator does get around to talking about hardware, keep in mind that there are many choices. A portable device that’s suitable for a warehouse worker will not be suitable for a delivery driver who wears gloves in the winter and will drop the device in the snow. “There are about two dozen ruggedized handheld devices on the market, so you need someone who has done their homework,” French says.
When it comes to talking about an implementation, the integrator should propose a small, initial pilot project. While tempting, it’s a mistake to confine the pilot project to computer-literate users, Price intones. “Pick guys who can’t even spell computer. If it
can work with them, it can work with everyone.”
On the other hand, the integrator should not be in a rush to cram everything into the pilot. “In many successful projects they want to accomplish five things, but the first pilot covers only one of the five,” explains Brian Solomon, co-founder of CDCE, an integrator in Yorba Linda, Calif. “It may be months before you change everything. Of course, all this is gone over previously with the customer.”
Speaking of change, change management is another issue that the integrator must talk about, notes Hakan Altintepe, principal in the field service optimization group at EDS Consulting Services in New York City. “The people are already doing their jobs somehow,
and you are asking them to do things differently. It changes the workflow and the focus of power as the control mechanics become centralized or decentralized,” he adds. For instance, if field service technicians had previously been limited to specific customers because of the need to stay in touch, but they can now roam thanks to mobile technology, the system will have to accommodate new travel and billing activity.
“You are taking computers to the last groups in the organization to have access to the IT infrastructure—everyone else has a PC on their desk,” notes Price. “We’re talking about delivery drivers and warehouse workers who may not even have a computer at home. It’s a different IT implementation than most integrators are used to.”
A final component to any integrator relationship is post-sales
support. No matter how comprehensive your pre-deployment planning is, every system will require some (hopefully not much) tweaking after you throw the switch. Ironically, you might not find out how solid your integrator really is until something pops up that is not part of their game plan.
“The measure of a good integrator is the level of post-sales support they provide. For instance, moving you to another carrier if needed. And you will have to be flexible yourself—don’t assume that what you rolled out is what you will stay with,” says French. But, at the end of the day, “If you start with some firms with good track records and follow up on references, you’ll be in the driver’s seat.” •
Lamont Wood is a Texas-based freelance writer and author specializing in technology. He can be reached at [email protected]