The “Cool” Factor
Posted: 02.01.05 - By Arielle Emmett

Eric David Greenspan, the flamboyant CEO of Make It Work, a Santa Barbara-based computer support company for home users and mobile professionals, couldn’t exactly ignore the coolness of the Nextel/BlackBerry 7520 combo phone. It had a squat, holdable handprint with touchable keys and a Bluetooth headset. It had a walkie-talkie feature. And most important, the phone had a large fat color screen bursting with those homey BlackBerry icons like comfort food for the traveling soul: phone, browser, wireless e-mail, tasks, calendar. The device seemed tailor-made for Greenspan’s aggressively mobile technicians buzzing around Southern California in red and white BMW MiniCoopers and carrying IBM ThinkPads as part of their mobile office. Why not a combo phone tied into the company’s CRM work order system?

“It was a slam dunk. The BlackBerry revolutionized our business,” claims Greenspan. He said he had tested Palms, Pocket PCs and all manner of tablet PCs and PDAs, but nothing else provided the combination of functions, feel and wireless CRM access he was looking for. “Before, when technicians were en route to a customer, they’d have to access their next work order by logging onto Citrix through the customer’s home Internet connection,” he explains. “It was tedious and time consuming,”he says—“implausible” for long-term field force growth. By contrast, “the BlackBerry was instant, always on, fully integrated with our CRM and the logical choice in our evolution: No touchscreen, no fancy pen, just a simple little track wheel that I can operate while feeding a baby, riding a bike or rummaging through a busy NYC street in the holiday season.”

Cool Factor Rules

As enterprises go, Make It Work got lucky. The ‘cool factor’ of the BlackBerry handheld device was matched by equally sophisticated software—a new RIM Enterprise Server that worked beautifully with Greenspan’s business goals. The Enterprise Server was easy to use and required slim server resources; Make It Work’s engineering director, Jeremy Anticouni, successfully configured the company’s CRM system requirements in three days.

Now the company’s mobile computer technicians get their field assignments over-the-air, pushed directly to their BlackBerry devices. In turn, the technicians instantly upload invoices, hours, rates, coupons and other forms to the company’s accounting system from their BlackBerries without using a customer Internet link. Moreover, the new solution is comparatively cheap and scalable, putting into retirement Citrix and the other mobile device solutions Greenspan had tried. “We had been using the Microsoft Mobile Enterprise Server for some time prior with Pocket PCs, but the solution was limited and unreliable,” he says. “The Pocket PC had a tiny screen, took two hands to operate and was tedious to use. We had collected in drawers many expensive mobile devices that never made it into production.”

As stories go, Greenspan’s is probably unique. A chance purchase of the new Nextel/BlackBerry combo device by the company engineer resulted in a quick resolution to five years of agonized searching. For most companies, though, the process can take even longer, and some make very expensive mistakes. Is there a right or wrong way to procure mobile devices? The verdict is mixed.

The coolness factor—gizmo sex appeal, so to speak—is frequently frowned on (officially, anyway). Mobile computing requirements, application size, over-the-air data networking costs, weight, form factor, ruggedized design and scalability are considered much more critical to a mobile hardware acquisition than ‘coolness’ alone. Yet the coolness factor does play a role, and cool isn’t completely frivolous: It sells devices and encourages active usage, according to Greg Speakman, a director of marketing for PC Cards and mobile products at Sierra Wireless in Vancouver, B.C.

“It’s been a long time coming, but we’re now at a stage where there is enough visibility in the wireless marketplace that people are actually having that initial reaction: ‘Wow! That’s a cool device—I wonder how we can build it into what we do?’” Speakman says. Product awareness is being built by the carriers’ increasing role in the sales process, he continues. “They’re making the business world think and look at these products, so there is actually a change in what we’re seeing as the starting point,” he says. “But is that a right or wrong thing?” Speakman is diplomatic. “I believe that focusing on the hardware device [at] the starting point is not the best way to go about things,” he says politely.

On the other hand, after rattling off a laundry list of reasonable criteria by which businesses should analyze their mobile solution needs, Speakman proudly introduces Sierra Wireless’s ultra-cool baby, the Voq Phone. “It’s a Windows mobile smartphone with a [flip-over] keyboard,” he says, suggesting that it has the muscle to handle many field force chores. “And it’s a cool device.” But for higher-level management control and big files (e.g., schematics, technical diagrams, PDF files), corporations may need to give mobile workers a more muscular CPU and applications support (i.e., a laptop).

Cool vs. Logical

Giles Padmore, Janet Boudris, Beverly McCrae and George Faigen all have something in common. They are wireless data marketing experts, all veterans at one time or another of Broadbeam or its working contractors. Broadbeam’s specialty is optimizing enterprise mobile systems.

Interestingly, Boudris, the current CEO of Broadbeam, and McCrae, director of sales and marketing at USAT, a company focused on selecting and implementing mobile field force solutions, agree on one thing: Most companies focus too narrowly on the initial hardware purchase and not enough on the business problems that need solving. Says Boudris: “Actually, the applications that you want to put on the devices drive the types and categories of devices [needed].”

Dumb decisions about hardware can result when managers try to force a white-collar solution into a blue-collar van, Boudris observes. “For example, if I have technicians and they’re going to work predominantly outside under extreme environmental conditions, a ruggedized device will be needed,” she says. Selecting a device depends on multiple factors, such as applications and environment (e.g., dashboard, PDA, portable laptop, one-handed phone, etc.), as well as support for specific kinds of networks. Boudris says she is shocked by how many companies choose a device whose battery can’t even last through a mobile worker’s full workday. “Most companies think the real decision in mobile is which network and which device, but that thinking comes from the wired world of LANs,” she continues.

Like Boudris, McCrae says the decision is too important to merely shoot from the hip. Both women advocate a rigorous set of questions and business requirement analyses—what Boudris called a “Mobile Process Review.” Questions such as the length of the workday, preferred user interface (i.e., keyboard, touchscreen, voice-activated, etc.) the skillsets of the workers, the need for in-vehicle mount or an on-the-body device, power adapters, battery life, always-on connectivity, development environment and other criteria are discussed. Once compiled, the laundry list helps clients and integrators like USAT narrow down the range of device and network choices. USAT’s McCrae adds, with frustration, that many enterprise clients are still too focused on low cost, not long-term performance, reliability or TCO.

Obsession with Form

Neither McCrae nor Boudris mentions that “cool” is a necessary component of a hardware solution that works. Giles Padmore, Broadbeam’s overseas manager, and George Faigen, senior VP of sales and marketing at Kayak Interactive, look at mobile devices differently. “It has to be a piece of hardware that’s complementary to the person’s job,” says Faigen. “Workers have clearly stated that they won’t use a device that is not easy to use or complementary to their job.”

When Giles Padmore approaches enterprise customers, a big concern is whether to go rugged or not. Ruggedized devices can be 300 to 400 percent more costly than a non-rugged device. “On the basis of cost constraints, that should be a fundamental question—which form factor is more appropriate to the business function,” Padmore says. For example, “if it’s just a job dispatch, a PDA or a Windows Pocket PC phone edition may be good enough. If you’re an engineer for a utility company that is digging holes in the street, you probably need a larger screen and form factor.”


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