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Make mobility technologies work for you

Despite their consumer appeal, mobile technologies like the iPad are beginning to deliver even more game-changing functionality as small businesses use them to catapult themselves into the new era of mobility.

The key challenge for hire car company Acorn Rentals was giving field staff access to its central database, a Filemaker-based system that tracks all vehicles and relevant details. In the past, drivers would drop off a car, then fill out carbon-paper forms and enter the information into the database when they got back to the office. But this process carried all the usual risks of manual entry and the inefficiencies of double-handling, so a better solution was needed to keep up with growth.

“By implementing a mobile solution, we knew we could cut out a whole layer of administration,” explains Michael Coston, business development manager at Acorn Rentals. “It’s already a very admin-heavy industry as insurance companies require constant contact via fax – so wherever we can cut back on that, it’s essential to help us avoid being swamped with paperwork.”

Following the lead of courier companies, Acorn’s directors initially considered equipping their field staff with a software solution that would run on a handheld PDA to update information in the Filemaker database. But that approach quickly became too cumbersome because it required complex synchronisation between the handheld unit and the back-end database. Each time the database changed, each of the handheld units would have to be manually updated.

A chance discussion with Filemaker development company Keysoft pointed Coston towards Filemaker Go, an iPad app that gives the company’s mobile staff direct access to the central Filemaker database. It was clear from the start that the solution was easier and smoother than the custom app, and trials confirmed the solution suited the company’s needs perfectly.

Acorn has since provided numerous iPads to its Sydney staff on the way to a full nationwide rollout. Staff enter information about each transaction straight onto the iPad, with customers signing their names directly onto the screen using their fingers. Drivers can see their schedules of pickups and drop-offs, and the company can track its drivers’ locations using Apple’s Mobile Me service so they can give clients accurate arrival times.

The benefits of the iPad solution, Coston says, have been significant. “If drivers do a pickup and drop-off, there’s probably a half hour of administration work,” he explains. “In the course of a day the driver is doing anywhere up to 10 pickups and drop-offs, so the iPads are probably saving them up to five hours’ administration work per day. If we were doing it the old way, we would have had to send out more staff to do deliveries and pickups – but now we’re not having to use as many staff for that side of things.”

The mobile explosion

If your staff are like most, they probably already have everything you need to go mobile in their pocket. The dominance of Apple’s iPhone, and the growing popularity of competing smartphones based on Google’s Android operating system, have already made Australians avid mobile consumers of email and web content. If they’re not already checking their work email through such a device, setting them up with a smartphone and account can be an easy prescription for instant productivity gains.

Industry estimates confirm the rate at which consumers and businesses are flocking to mobile solutions. Industry watcher IDC recently pegged the ‘media tablet’ market – referring to devices such as the iPad – at 17 million units in 2010, 44.6 million this year, and 70.8 million in 2012. Paired with smartphone shipments that are increasing at over 87% per year and passed the 100 million mark during the fourth quarter of 2010, there are more mobile devices now than ever before.

An explosion in device shipments is creating a torrent of mobile data, with equipment giant Cisco Systems recently flagging a tripling of mobile-data usage that will surge to 75 exabytes (billion gigabytes) per year by 2015. Smartphones make up 13% of all mobile phones in use, but generate 78% of the more than 600 petabytes (million gigabytes) of mobile data traffic transmitted in 2010.

The implications of such figures are clear. People that have mobile devices are using them, and using them a lot. This trend lies at the heart of the new mobility options – and it’s a boon for small businesses hoping to tap into the benefits. Often these businesses were put off by the thought of shelling out thousands of dollars for purpose-built devices with steep learning curves and significant maintenance burdens.

Since employees are already likely to be acquainted with using commoditised devices like iPhones, mobilising your business can now be as easy as downloading and configuring a single app. Unlike conventional mobility programs based on employee laptops, there are no 3G dongles to manage, low battery life to deal with, or hard drive crashes. Smartphones and tablet devices all support 3G connections straight into your company network, they’re both easier and cheaper to manage than ever.

Finding the right app

Choosing which app, of course, depends on your circumstances. As Acorn Rentals discovered, suppliers of common small-business systems like Filemaker already offer smartphone extensions to their flagship products. If you’re on such a platform, a quick search through the relevant app market may turn up all the solution you need – for a few dollars.

If your requirements are more complex, you may need to consider getting your own app built. This can be done through any of dozens of newfound smartphone specialist developers who will be more than happy to write you an app – and, often, charge you through the nose for it. But since the benefits of mobility can pay for such an app many times over, don’t discount that possibility entirely without running the various numbers.

There are other options: some developers offer general-purpose mobility platforms designed to clamp onto existing business systems and provide a mobile extension without requiring major changes to your business. Blink Mobile Interactive, for example, has sold its BounceBack, blinkAnswers and blinkForms mobility solutions to a range of clients including Brisbane City Council, Wyong Shire Council, Central Coast Business Review and cruise travel agency Ecruising Travel.

“Price and functionality are often the difference between deploying something or not deploying something and sticking with a paper-based system,” explains Darren Besgrove, director at Blink Mobile Interactive. “Our architecture allows organisations to quickly and rapidly build mobile services from within their existing platforms. It acts as an aggregation portal – allowing you to build mobile services by repurposing and redeploying existing applications, as opposed to building a mobile app completely from the ground up.”

That can be a major time-saver for small businesses that don’t have the time, budget or inclination to totally reinvent their IT model. Yet companies eager to tap into new mobility options have many options other than making apps or buying extensions to their systems. Remember, for example, that modern smartphones and tablets are quite capable of providing strong web browsing capabilities.

Mobile gotchas

Rollouts of mobility devices also need to consider practical issues, such as managing a number of spares for rapid replacement in the event of failure. Tablet devices have their share of maintenance issues, as they may be easy to use, but their on-screen keyboards aren’t suited for extensive data entry. Thankfully, these sorts of issues are relatively minor obstacles.

With a bit of caution and good advice, it’s entirely possible for even the smallest business to ditch their paper forms and inefficient processes, and put smartphones and tablets to use in new and game-changing ways. Just be careful not to get too carried away. They’re great fun, but devices will do nothing for your business if you don’t think through just why you need them, and how much your business needs to do with them. It’s far from the death of the laptop, but assuming you’ve got a sound reason for making the shift, the right mobility investment will easily pay for itself many times over.

Image credit: Acorn Rentals

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