Mobile phone more than a communications tool


BY STEPHEN BOEY

THE ubiquitous mobile phone is today more than just a device for communications, whether voice or short messaging service (SMS). It is fast becoming a business tool that astute entrepreneurs are leveraging on for competitive edge.  

“We've seen the adoption over the last year,” Maxis Communications Bhd senior general manager and managing director (enterprise business division) Darke M Sani said. 

“It began slowly. But, increasingly, businesses are adopting mobile solutions because they are always looking for competitive advantage.” 

Among popular solutions today is sales force automation (SFA), which is especially useful for any organisation that has its sales force throughout the country, taking orders from small dealers that supply to small outlets and from retail shops using a mobile phone or personal digital assistant (PDA). 

The sales personnel are able to access information about inventory, to check whether the product is available, and if available can close an order on the spot with the retailer, transact the order, and get an acknowledgement on the delivery date. 

Previously, to complete the transaction, they would have to fill in a purchase order, send it via the fax, make a call or go back to the office. 

“So if you think about it, the mobile SFA solution really is a very productive tool, because you do it immediately over the air,” Darke said in an interview ahead of the Maxis Solutions Unplugged Conference and Showcase 2003 at the Mandarin Oriental in Kuala Lumpur on July 29 and 30. The Star is the media partner for the event. 

Toiletries and household products manufacturer Unilever has been using the SFA solution for some 8 months now, according to Darke.  

“Yes, the solution is already available. This is the message we want to send out at the conference and showcase. Last year, when we kicked off the Solutions Unplugged conference and seminar there were very few customers. Now, we already have some 30 companies that are either using mobile solutions, or have started pilots. This is slowly coming up. And as the solutions, the devices (cell phones, PDA or PDA-phones), and the network speed get better, there will be more and more applications that can be deployed. May be it will take a couple of years for it to be widely spread. Right now, you see the early adopters ... and they are the ones who will benefit from it, not only in Malaysia, but around the world as well,” he said. 

Maxis' SFA solution runs on the general packet radio service (GPRS) but can also run in circuit switch or global system for mobile communications (GSM) mode.  

However, the GPRS gives better throughput and faster response time, because it is always on, always connected. And since users only pay for what they download, it is more cost effective than the GSM, where the user pays according to time use.  

Darke said: “Maxis is very well known for its mobile business. There is very high awareness of what Maxis does in that area, especially for individuals. I guess many are also now aware that beyond mobile voice we have an enterprise business division that caters to our business customers.  

“Of course mobile voice is also used by our corporate customers. But in addition to that we have data services like leased line, satellite services, and other products for the business market. We call it enterprise business. This is the area where companies would use mobile devices like mobile phones and PDAs for business purposes. The value to them is that they can access information while mobile, and that brings about a number of advantages.  

“That makes them more productive because they don't have to go back to the office to get important information. Mobile solutions reduce cost for enterprises because there is less paper work. It enables business to offer new innovative services. Some are what I would say are very obvious applications, among them fleet management. You can monitor where each vehicle is through the network. You can do scheduling, you can do ad hoc re-direction. You can immobilise a vehicle, you can monitor its speed. All that is already available.” 

The humble SMS has also been pressed into service. Maybank uses it for bills presentment. The pre-registered user gets an SMS and needs only thumb in the appropriate response for the amount to be automatically debited from his or her account. Saves time. There is no need to go to and queue up at a payments centre.  

The acceptance of mobile enterprise solutions has been helped in part by fun-type applications – ringtones and images. 

“Our message now is that these devices used for fun and infotainment can also be used for meaningful business applications,” said Darke. 

“That is one of our directions. We want to inform and educate the market on the potential of this kind of technology. You can't leave it to the market to quickly adopt it. There needs to be very useful applications so consumers can say: I can use this. They use it and then move on from simple mobile phones to PDAs or convergence devices that can do more.” 

Maxis is not about to go over the moon yet. It only expects the mobile data segment to ac- count for about 10% of its total mobile business revenue this year, against 2% for 2001, and 7% in 2002. And this includes revenue from SMS. 

Currently, most of its mobile enterprise applications run on the GPRS. And, Maxis sees the advent of third generation (3G) telephony only bringing in better solutions, because of the higher speeds that will be made available.  

But will it be more cost effective? 

Darke said: “A lot will depend on the availability of devices at affordable rates. We will have to see how it works in other countries that have already done 3G. My belief is that one of the attractions of 3G is its applicability to business, for example, video consultation. Point a camera phone at some equipment you are repairing and get expert advice on how to go about it. All in real time. There are so many application possibilities.  

“But you need to develop all these solutions capabilities now. And when 3G comes you start enriching the application to take advantage of the higher speed. Because we are still at the starting stage, a very simple model that is customised to each business, is more appropriate right now.  

“One thing very clear in Maxis is that what drives all this is applications. Applications must be there. There is no use to have a big bandwidth without the application to make use of it. Many countries face that problem. They have a lot of capacity in broadband. But besides Internet access, what else do they use it for?  

“And the question always is: what are the killer aps? Therefore, we are focusing on applications that we know will be quite technology neutral. Whatever technology comes in the application will become better to take advantage of the bigger bandwidth. The whole enterprise solution is solely focused on providing the solution aspect, not the infrastructure technology.” 

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