Timely access to corporate data is the lifeblood of most organisations. Deals fall through because information is not available at a critical moment in the sales process. Conversely, the most ambitious of targets can be reached if the right person has the right information at the right time. Indeed, improved access to corporate data is now the expectation – not the hope – of many employees.
Most, however, lower these expectations when they are out the office, working from home, on the road or in the field. Even laptop users expect to work with slightly dated information until they can locate a phone line for their modems. Yet advances in technology are making corporate information pervasive to many workers when they are travelling, at home or otherwise away from their desktop PC.
The main issue is connectivity. Without some kind of physical connection to a network, access to corporate systems and data has been impossible. Even the advent of dial-up connections (either to the Internet or to remote access servers),
failed to address vital issues of security, price, speed of access and availability of phone points.
“Enterprises have invested huge amounts of money in modem pools around the world to provide their mobile workers with Internet access and access to their own networks,” says Dr Hong Chen, CEO of Internet-based mobile office communications services specialist GRIC Communications. “But these are hard to manage and are expensive to maintain,” he adds.
GRIC Communications’ MobileOffice technology is designed to provide organisations with worldwide Internet access for their mobile workers in the form of an outsourced service. Subscribers to GRIC’s MobileOffice are provided with a constantly updated database listing local access points in cities around the world on their laptops, together with security services that include virtual private network (VPN) support so that they can connect securely to their company’s network, firewall technology to prevent unauthorised access to their machine, and intrusion detection software that can spot attempts at unauthorised access.
However, while GRIC provides cheaper and almost-global Internet service to its subscribers, it is still a dial-up service and so comes with restrictions on its speed and how it is accessed; for example, GRIC MobileOffice needs to be dialled over a phone connection. If there is no wall socket nearby, there is no Internet access for the conventional laptop user with a modem card.
Mobile phone technology addresses some of these issues, but introduces others. Many mobile phones have infra-red ports or have optional data cables so laptop users with the appropriate equivalent connections can use their mobiles to provide the phone lines for their modems. However, infra-red is notoriously fiddly and short-range, requiring a line of sight between laptop and phone to work, while cables are usually non-standard, require software drivers to work and are an additional item to be packed – and potentially, mislaid – on business trips.
The emergence of laptops and mobile phones equipped with Bluetooth, however, is making it far easier for mobile users to connect their devices. Bluetooth is a short-range wireless system for connecting personal devices to each other without the need for cables. It requires little power and no large aerial. Rather than having to connect up the phone to the laptop, the Bluetooth user can leave the phone in his or her pocket while the computer accesses the phone wirelessly.
Bluetooth’s low power requirements mean that it can also work within PDAs. Pocket PC- and Palm OS-based devices are already available that can browse the Internet and access corporate networks over a VPN using Bluetooth connections to mobile phones. Some phones – such as Handspring’s Treo Communicator – are also Pocket PCs or Palm OS devices. These ‘smart phones’ provide similar capabilities to PDAs and mobile phones in a single, integrated device.
Dean Murphy, chief technology officer at wireless consultancy Satsuma Solutions, says there are arguments in favour of both approaches. “For some, it’s easier to have an all-in-one system. You only have to give the employee one device, he or she only needs to carry one device, they cost less than the two devices combined, and are smaller. But the all-in-one systems tend to compromise in both areas – they’re not as good a PDA as a dedicated device, and they’re not as good a phone as a dedicated phone.”
Murphy has extensive personal experience of these drawbacks, he adds. “Personally, I’ve upgraded my PDA twice and my phone three times in the last few years, getting the device with the features I need at the time. With an all-in-one device, you have to upgrade the whole thing to get the new features you only want from the PDA or the phone,” he says.
The other drawback to using a mobile phone for connectivity is the speed of its connection. Standard GSM networks have a data transfer speed that was often considered less than adequate in the days of the 14.4Kbps modem. Now, with 56.6Kbps as standard for dial-up connections, and offices generally having ISDN or ADSL Internet connections that run several times faster still, mobiles are no longer considered by many workers to be fast enough for anything except short emails. Network operator Orange has touted its high-speed data network for business users for some years, but that still only offers transfer speeds of 28.8Kbps. Anyone wanting to access a corporate database via their phone, for instance, usually gives up, unless the interface has been heavily optimised for low bandwidth usage.
Fortunately, there are other solutions available. General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) is the interim stage between the speed of GSM networks and the broadband capabilities of the infamous 3G networks. It has two big advantages over standard GSM: it is faster, approximately the same speed (on a good day) of a 56.6Kbps modem, and offers the additional benefits of being ‘always on’, so that the user no longer has to dial up every time he or she wants to access the Internet. A Bluetooth-enabled phone with a GPRS connection is arguably the best option for a mobile business user, since he or she can use their laptop or PDA as if it was permanently connected to the Internet using a standard modem.
All the UK network operators offer GPRS services, which are also widespread in the rest of the world, even in the notoriously GSM-phobic US. Roaming agreements between operators are also being sorted out in a manner similar to international call roaming, but GRIC is keen to point out that its MobileOffice service includes local GPRS providers around the world that will charge local prices. GPRS cards that can take a mobile phone SIM and connect using GPRS to the Internet without needing a phone are becoming relatively easy to obtain.
GPRS is not the only higher-speed wireless service available. Some providers, such as Inmarsat, offer satellite-based Internet connections, but these require expensive equipment. Already big in the US where every Starbucks now offers wireless Internet access, Wi-Fi aka 802.11b networking has moved out of its intended corporate and home networking setting and is becoming a powerful alternative broadband Internet technology. Capable of speeds far in excess of GPRS – 11Mbps, which is faster than most office networks were five years ago – Wi-Fi is identical to standard office networking but does not require wires. It is relatively easy to manage, albeit insecure without a VPN connection on top, and the hardware is cheap, running at £50 for a network card.
All these capabilities, however, are worthless without available access points, and several companies are providing the infrastructure for businesses, airports, retailers and hotels to offer wireless Internet access to customers, either for free or for a charge. Cisco’s Mobile Office works in a similar way to GRIC’s MobileOffice (which also includes wireless access points), by providing lists of local providers with wireless ‘hot-spots’ where subscribers to the scheme can take their Wi-Fi enabled devices and access the Internet at broadband speeds. It has also created wireless access points for moving vehicles such as aircraft and trains that share satellite and GPRS Internet connections with Wi-Fi users on board. In some parts of the world, large Wi-Fi networks have been established to create wireless ISPs.
A Wi-Fi device can also connect easily to an office network as though it was wired to the network, providing there is an access point to bridge the two networks together. A mobile user could potentially travel around using wireless ISPs for a connection to their office network until they return to the office and re-join the internal network.
Hot-desking, where a worker can switch physical location and still have the same level of connectivity to the corporate network and access to data as before, becomes trivial in such a situation. Even without a wireless ISP, the same level of mobility with different degrees of bandwidth is obtainable from combined GPRS/Wi-Fi cards that switch between networks depending on availability.
While this kind of mobility was hard as little as a year ago, the technology is now mature, the service providers are finally able to offer full services and the cost is now affordable. Employees can be better-equipped than ever with the data they need to close deals.