King of the Road — The Mobile SMB

By Adam Stone | Posted September 08, 2004

Staying connected to your business while you're out of the office has distinct advantages, as we'll hear from a couple of experienced SMB owners. Of course, with so many options and technologies available, it's important to consider your mobile goals before you buy. Here's a short guide to get you started.

For Cherie Gary, the idea of running a small business without her handheld multi-function device is simply unthinkable.

"As a small business, being responsive is something you can do better than your larger competitors," she says. "You may have to travel for one client, but that doesn't mean you quit working for the other three."

Gary owned her own marketing and PR firm in Dallas for three years before taking her current position as vice-president of corporate communications for Sony Ericsson North America. As a business owner, she had three employees watching the shop, but that wasn't enough. When she was on the road, she needed e-mail, plus Internet access, calendaring and, of course, telephone capabilities. "I had clients that traveled frequently to Asia, which has a huge time difference. If I wanted to be responsive to them, I needed to be available," she explains.

So, What do You Need?
Small-business owners today have a range of handheld devices from which to choose: Everything from $50 cell phones to mini-computers for $500 and up. How much power and the kind of features you need depends on what you plan to do with it. "The first step is to think about how mobile you already are, and how much more mobile you need to be" says John Brandewie, a marketing manager for HP Converged Products, makers of iPAQ handhelds

In certain cases, says Brandewie, mobile access will be vital. "Is your business rapidly changing? Is it high customer-contact business? Do you handle demanding information-based or transaction-based business?" In these scenarios, an owner will likely want to stay in close, constant contact — both with customers and the home office.

And it's not just the owners. Sophisticated mobile devices that you can plug into the company database make it possible for the sales staff to access crucial customer data when making sales calls.

"The most common thing — and the first thing we see people implement — is the ability to look at their sales force automation," says Julie Palen, the president and CEO of InterNoded, a wireless managed services provider. "I may be sitting in a meeting and get a note saying that such-and-such a customer wants to meet with me. I can click an icon; pull up my sales force information with the company name, company information and so on. I can read the information about that account, instantly launch a phone call to my contact there and go into that meeting totally prepared."

Don't Go It Alone
While most handhelds deliver basic functionality right out of the box, the demand for the type of services Palen's company delivers helps to demonstrate the complexity that can sometimes accompany a more involved deployment. Say you own a Blackberry device. If you want to use all the encryption and other security capabilities, you need to plug it into a Blackberry Enterprise Server. Without a big IT staff in house this can be daunting, but Palen will handle it for you at $40 per user per month.

For the small-business user, this suggests that the move to a handheld environment should not be made alone. So says Martyn Mallick, senior product manager at mobility-services provider iAnywhere Solutions. "While great for productivity, mobile/wireless software is not yet as easy to set up and use as 'plug-and-play' desktop software," he says. "Therefore, since most small businesses don't have an IT staff to lean on, it's imperative to find a trusted integrator partner that understands the technology and the needs of small businesses."

Features
When it comes to choosing a handheld, there seem to be two schools of thought. Some experts believe the key to selecting the right device is to allow for future flexibility. "Hopefully your small business will become larger one day, and planning accordingly in terms of technology is certainly a prudent move," Mallick says. "Selecting an application development platform based on open standards, such as the iAnywhere platform, as well as one that can integrate with a variety of backend systems, such as databases and messaging servers, is a wise move."


 Sony Ericsson P910
The Sony Ericsson P910 is just one of many hand-held devices that perform a wide range of wireless communication tasks.

Others say functionality is the prime consideration: Not just the bells and whistles, but also the nuts and bolts. "I want something that excels in voice, because while it's nice to have e-mail or these other functions, voice is really the top priority," Gary says. "You see a lot of these devices that started out as PDAs but then they added voice later, and it frequently doesn't work as well."

If it is bells and whistles you want, there is no shortage. Gary relies on a Sony Ericsson P910 these days. What can it do? It has a wide variety of input methods including a full QWERTY keyboard and handwriting recognition capability — plus a large screen for easy viewing. Triple band GSM /GPRS coverage means you get a signal just about anywhere. It's got Internet access and e-mail (of course), and can plug into a secure corporate network. It'll stockpile literally thousands of contacts, keep track of your calendar, take pictures, store music and images, and scramble your morning omelet.

Okay, not the omelet part, but you get the idea. For small business owners on the go, or those who need around-the-clock access to their data and communications, today's handhelds offer a compelling proposition at a price point that most SMBs can bear.

Adam Stone writes extensively on business and technology issues. He makes his virtual residence at inkbiz@yahoo.com and his physical home in Annapolis, Md.

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