As more businesses join the mobile revolution and more employees work remotely, IT administrators find themselves asking: What mobile technology is the best fit for my company?
The choices abound, from notebook computers and smartphones to netbooks, which are small notebooks designed primarily for e-mail, web browsing and accessing web-based applications. The goal is to allow increasingly mobile workers to stay in contact with their offices and access e-mail, corporate applications and data when they’re on the road or at home.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, says analyst Jack Gold of J.Gold Associates in Northborough, Mass. “It’s not universal. It very much depends on the workers and what they’re trying to accomplish,” he says. “If workers are primarily e-mail focused, a BlackBerry  works great. But if they need to walk around with an Oracle database, they need a PC to look things up. That won’t happen with a BlackBerry.”
Many factors play into the decision about how to equip employees: the types of applications and amount of data they will access, the data format and whether it requires a large screen, and whether users will create documents or simply access them.
“If users are traveling, walking around with a smartphone is much more convenient than a laptop,” Gold says. “But if they are creating PowerPoints and Excel spreadsheets, it’s not convenient to do that on a smartphone. They still need access to a PC.”
IT departments can personalize mobile solutions for each employee. They can give employees one device, or they can mix and match and provide multiple devices. It depends on employees’ needs and how mobile they are. For example, workers with desktop computers may need smartphones only when they are temporarily out of the office, while road warriors may need both notebooks and smartphones. Cost and budget also affect purchasing decisions.
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Here’s a look at how four businesses deployed mobile computing technologies to meet their employees’ and businesses’ needs.
Ohio telecommunications service provider Horizon Chillicothe Telephone standardized on netbooks for its 40 outside technicians for one simple reason: The price was right.
For technicians, a mobile computer is as important as having pliers, wire cutters and other tools as they troubleshoot or install cable TV, Internet and phone services. They use their computers to fetch new orders and trouble tickets that are assigned to them. They check their e-mail and connect to the corporate intranet to fill out their time sheets. They also use a web application to check cable TV and Internet signal levels inside customers’ residences.
This year, the IT department needed to replace the technicians’ five-year-old notebooks. IT staffers tested Panasonic Toughbooks  and were impressed with their ruggedness, but in late spring, the company bought Lenovo IdeaPad S10e  netbooks because they offered all the functionality the technicians needed at a fraction of the cost — just $285 each compared with $3,000 to $4,000 for Toughbooks.
What are the top mobile devices that companies provide to on-the-go employees?
Source: CDW Poll of 278 BizTech readers
“Our decision was financial,” says Bob Newman, Horizon’s IT manager. “We can buy a lot more netbooks than we can buy Toughbooks.”
The netbooks have worked fine, Newman says. The Lenovo S10e features a 10.1-inch screen, standard-size keyboard, 1.6-gigahertz Intel Atom processor and 160-gigabyte hard drive. The computer runs Microsoft Windows XP  and supports Wi-Fi. During the workday, technicians connect to the Internet through 110 public Wi-Fi hotspots that Horizon has built for its customers. Battery life is never a problem because the technicians have DC converters in their trucks, allowing them to charge their batteries.
A few technicians have commented on the small screen size, but there have been no major complaints or problems, Newman says. Most view the netbooks’ smaller size as a benefit. “The technicians like them. They are smaller, lighter and more portable than carrying a full-blown notebook around,” he says.
Surveyors and construction crews at North Arkansas Electric Cooperative roam around — a lot. It’s their job to build and maintain about 5,000 miles of power lines in a mountainous, rural seven-county region. They also have compute-intensive needs and rely heavily on geographic information system mapping software and a large database to help them locate and track the co-op’s 90,000 electrical poles.
Sometimes workers even need to leave their trucks and drive all-terrain vehicles to their work sites. Global Positioning System devices and the GIS mapping software help them find the precise locations for building electrical services for new and existing homes and businesses. For the utility’s IT department, it’s a no-brainer to equip employees with powerful and durable notebook computers.
78% North American IT departments that support and manage BlackBerry devices
41% Those that support and manage Windows Mobile devices
SOURCE: Forrester Research, 2009 first-quarter survey of 302 North American enterprises
“I’m sure other companies can get away with handhelds or smaller laptops, but we require horsepower,” says Jim Blackmon, manager of IT at the 125-employee utility, which provides electricity to 34,000 co-op members. “Our mapping software is a full-blown application with an extensive database. We require plenty of hard-drive space, RAM and a big screen — 15 inches at a minimum — so our construction personnel can see the maps.”
About four years ago, the utility’s IT and engineering departments bought a new, upgraded version of the mapping software and began equipping trucks with notebook computers. Blackmon first standardized on Hewlett-Packard systems, but this year, he switched to Panasonic Toughbooks and bought 10 of them. Their rugged form factor is important because the crews are often out in the wilderness and carry the notebooks with them as they ride their ATVs or walk in the woods, he says.
Businesses can provide employees with ubiquitous Internet access through wireless PC cards from cell phone providers. But the utility’s mobile employees don’t need constant Internet access. Their notebook GPS works through satellite communications and doesn’t require an Internet connection. During the workday, when employees return to the co-op office, they can connect to the corporate network to check their e-mail.
The notebooks came in handy this January when a huge ice storm hit northern Arkansas, damaging or destroying about 4,000 electrical poles and knocking out electricity for many residents. Employees spent three weeks working 15 to 18 hours a day to get services back up and running, and the notebooks played a critical role.
The phone systems were down, making communication difficult. But using the GPS and GIS apps, crews were able to keep track of where they were, document storm damage and report on the repairs they were making. At the end of their shifts, employees returned to headquarters and, with their computers, uploaded everything they had completed that day onto the servers. That updated the database, providing the entire company with an up-to-date view of their progress in returning services to normal, Blackmon says.
“It was a major catastrophe,” recalls Blackmon, who kept IT operations running with generator power during the first few days after the storm. “Everything here is spread out with miles and miles of country roads, so during the storm, we used the computers to find out where everything was located. We’d go out, map out and document everything that was down, and we’d send crews to clean up those areas.”
Absolute Brilliance, a New York-based direct manufacturer of diamonds, takes advantage of smartphones to improve customer service.
The company provides BlackBerry devices to eight of its 20 employees, including its management team and marketing staffers who regularly travel to meet with its retail store customers to train them to sell the latest products.
Absolute Brilliance Vice President Dov Lisker says having continual access to e-mail along with business documents stored on the smartphone allow him to answer customer e-mail whenever they have questions, even after business hours.
“No one wants to keep a customer waiting,” Lisker says. “The fact that we can give them an instant answer gives them that added bonus to want to deal with us.”
The company standardizes primarily on desktop computers but has a few notebook computers on hand. Lisker says he depends on a notebook for his regular computing needs, but for immediate communications, nothing can beat the BlackBerry.
“For our purposes, it’s most important to answer questions over the phone or e-mail, and BlackBerrys are perfect for that,” Lisker says. “With a notebook computer, you have to find a place to sit down, open up the laptop and wait for it to boot up. The BlackBerry speeds things up. You always have an Internet connection. It’s always on. It gives you enough without you having to carry the extra bulk of a laptop.”
What is your highest priority when it comes to supporting mobile devices?
63% E-mail access
10% Access to corporate applications and data
7% We do not support mobile devices.
3% Internet access
Source: CDW Poll of 279 BizTech readers
Lisker hired an IT consultant who installed BlackBerry Professional Software, a small business version of its enterprise product. The software connects the devices to the company’s Microsoft Exchange  server, allowing the BlackBerry users to access their e-mail, calendaring and contact information. Absolute Brilliance also plans to do some integration work so that BlackBerry users can access the company’s proprietary customer relationship management software, he says.
Smartphones bolster employee communication and collaboration, says Paul Zimmerman, IT manager for Webb Landscape, whose Bellevue, Idaho, company provides landscaping services and sells gardening products in two retail stores.
If employees are visiting customers onsite and customers want to see how a specific tree looks, employees with smartphones can instant message or e-mail retail store employees, and those retail store employees can use their BlackBerrys to snap a photo of the tree and e-mail it back, says Zimmerman, who initially standardized on Windows Mobile smartphones but has switched to BlackBerry devices.
“Being mobile is empowering,” he says. “You can interface with clients, and you’re never out of touch with the office.”
The purchase price of smartphones is less than computers. But smartphones do require monthly subscriptions for data and phone services. At Webb Landscape, Zimmerman says, the purchase price for each smartphone runs between $50 and $100, but it’s another $864 a piece per year for phone and data services. At Absolute Brilliance, Lisker estimates the company pays about $500 annually for service per phone, but adds that the price is worth it because of the improved productivity.
“When you compare the price to the time savings that you get by dealing with business issues as they come up,” Lisker says, “I would think it’s a pretty good return on investment.”