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Building Blocks to Close the Gap

Let's look at how we can solve this problem. Figure 2 shows the functional components needed to bridge the gap between the mobile professional and critical information.

Figure 2Figure 2 The Solution.

Portable Computing Device

The mobile professional needs a computing device that can be carried around. A variety of devices are available: data-enabled cell phone, personal digital assistant (PDA), smart phone (hybrid phone/PDA), tablet computer, notebook computer. Your selection will likely depend on a variety of factors, including cost, boot-up time, size of the keyboard and screen, and how much your mobile workers are willing to carry around with them. Other considerations include whether the device needs to be "ruggedized," and what kinds of add-ons are important. If your field engineers are working in a rough area, for example, ruggedized devices might be necessary. If they also need to take pictures, you might need a camera add-on.

You need to understand the different kinds of portable computing devices available today, and how they're likely to evolve. Combinations of devices are also worth considering. You may even decide to select different devices for different job functions. Managing these devices will become an important function of your IT department. You'll need ways of replacing lost or stolen devices, performing backup and restore, and upgrading software with little or no user intervention.

User Interface

You need to think through an appropriate user interface to ensure acceptance of this new paradigm. After all, you can't expect your sales and service force to spend a lot of time figuring out how to use the new tools. These tools should be intuitive—and even fun—to use. If your mobile solutions aren't a delight to use, they probably won't be used.

The user interface depends on the selected device. You can't fit an entire web page on a cell phone or a PDA, for example, and you can't expect users to enter large quantities of data on a cell phone. On the other hand, it's probably not a good idea to have users work through a voice menu from a notebook computer.

Most companies select more than one kind of device, since different job functions have different requirements. If this is the case with your company, you'll want to avoid buying and operating a new version of each of your enterprise applications for each device. For this reason, you'll need a wireless application gateway, which can be configured to reformat application output to fit the device from which the application is being accessed.

Wireless Network

Wireless networks are fundamental to the mobile enterprise. You should understand how these networks work and their limitations. There are several networking standards (for example, GSM, CDMA, and Mobitex) and several network operators (such as VoiceStream, Sprint PCS, and Cingular Interactive), which makes selection very confusing for the buyer.

Some networks—Cingular Interactive and Motient, for example—are designed specifically to provide data services. These networks have a head start on cellular networks, which are now beginning to provide useful data services. You should consider both options, and make an informed decision on which one best fits your needs.

Forced by regulation to offer the capability of determining the location of a subscriber, cellular network operators will soon be able to offer location-based services with reasonably high resolution and on a wide scale, providing local information to the user, helping the company track workers, and helping workers find a particular destination.

Wireless Application Gateway

The job of the wireless application gateway is to take care of the characteristics of small devices and wireless networks on one side—and interface with enterprise applications on the other side.

There are special constraints of mobile networks, such as low bandwidth, unstable connections, and high latency (the time it takes a bit to get from one end to the other). The wireless application gateway works within these constraints so your enterprise applications don't have to be modified to be accessible to mobile professionals.

Different workers may be using different kinds of portable computing devices. The wireless application gateway interfaces with enterprise applications and reformats the data from those applications so that it fits on the small screens of the mobile devices. It can also present application output to match the device being used.

Data exchanges between mobile workers and enterprise applications may occur in different ways. A good wireless application gateway will operate in all of these modes:

  • Data is pre-fetched and aggregated on the wireless application gateway.

  • Data is fetched from enterprise applications on demand.

  • Data is pushed to the mobile worker without a request.

  • Data exchange takes the form of desktop synchronization.

Enterprise Applications

The critical information your mobile workers need may belong to enterprise applications you're already using. You need to understand which information can be obtained from which applications, and how it can all be integrated to provide a meta-application tailored for the mobile workforce.

Mobile workers need access to several classes of applications that manage information:

  • Enterprise resource planning (ERP)

  • Supply chain management (SCM)

  • Customer relationship management (CRM)

  • Knowledge management (KM)

  • Email

You need to know which applications hold the information required by your mobile workers.

Enterprise application integration (EAI) also plays a role in how you mobilize your enterprise. You may already be integrating several of your applications using EAI middleware. In this case, you might use this same middleware to extract the data needed by mobile workers.

Synchronization

In many cases, the information your users need can be pre-loaded on the portable computing device. This is true for static information that doesn't change throughout the day—or in cases where it doesn't matter if the user gets a version of the information that's slightly out of date.

Users may also perform updates throughout the day and then synchronize with enterprise applications later. This works well when it's important to capture the information immediately, but there's no urgency to share it with the rest of the company.

In these cases, synchronization is important. Synchronization can occur over a fixed-line connection—for example, over the Internet or on the company LAN. It can also occur over a wireless connection when the quantity of data exchanged is relatively small. For example, if a mobile professional is working in an area where there is little or no network coverage, he or she can capture data on the device and then synchronize from a place where there is adequate network coverage.

Security

The mobile enterprise comes with a new set of vulnerabilities. Portable computing devices are lost and stolen more easily than desktop computers. Any sensitive data on those devices has to be encrypted. Some mechanism should be in place to allow only authorized users to access the device.

You can't control all use of portable computing devices—and a number of computer viruses already target these kinds of small computers. For these reasons, you should use virus-protection software.

Some of the other vulnerabilities are similar to those you encounter when setting up a way for employees to work from home. That is, you have to be concerned with eavesdropping and unauthorized access to applications behind the company firewall.

You need to think through security from the beginning. Take a new look at your company's security policy and update it for this effort. Consider vulnerabilities, think about the value of what you're protecting, and imagine the motivations of potential intruders. Apply the appropriate set of countermeasures to protect your company's intellectual capital.

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