Mobile industry fails to get the message from corporate users

Business customers want safe, reliable, compatible phones. What they're getting are bells and whistles
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The Independent Online

The mobile phone industry - from manufacturers and application developers to network operators - is becoming corporate Britain's latest whipping boy.

Many companies want to raise productivity and improve customer service by embracing mobile technology, but that requires the right tools and services at an affordable price. The problem, it's argued, is that the industry is too focused on consumers, who buy 80 per cent of phones, according to analyst group Gartner.

At the Security Industry Authority [SIA], which polices private security firms, Tim O'Neill, an assistant director for IT, wants to turn home workers into mobile workers. The SIA's 50 investigators use a hefty laptop, with a fixed broadband connection, but they could be using hand-held devices with a fast wireless data service.

So what's stopping Mr O'Neill? Mobile data services are insufficiently fast, reliable or secure, pricing is uneconomic and unpredictable, and he can't find a suitable device that works with an external keyboard, screen and mouse.

The number-one gripe from IT directors is that consumer fashion determines mobile phone production. The range of business phones is growing, but camera phones still accounted for 55 per cent of output this year.

"Feature-heavy phones cause major headaches to businesses, particularly from the security perspective," says Will McMeechan, the lead business developer at Nationwide building society. "Bluetooth connectivity, cameras and the ability to download and store data give these devices the capacity to be misused."

Corporate customers are crying out for stable, secure devices employees can use to access applications such as email and customer records, or file a report. So-called smart phones are beginning to address this, but they come at a price.

In an industry striving to bring out the latest thing, handsets come and go quickly. That's great for a consumer, but it's irritating for a business that has invested in equipment and applications that don't work with upgraded phones.

"As a replacement for the much-loved Nokia 6310i, we've been offered camera phones and even a phone with a useless flip-out Qwerty keyboard," says David Geliher, the IT manager at Charles Wells, a large independent brewer. "Each of these means replacing the car kit throughout the company fleet."

IT directors also complain that suppliers keep product "roadmaps" under wraps. The more a company invests in technology, the more vulnerable it is to products being prematurely discontinued or a lack of information on future products.

Take, for example, eCourier. It prides itself on its technological edge over rivals. As customers place orders online, jobs are automatically dispatched to each courier. Customers can then track the package and receive an alert when it arrives. ECourier has worked extensively on the mobile devices and GPS systems carried by the couriers, to ensure they run seamlessly. Its chief technical officer, Jay Bregman, expects the XDA II, which it now uses, to be superseded but does not know if the XDA III will be compatible with the GPS device. "Everyone is really scared of a new device coming out," he admits.

Working with continually evolving platforms is just part of the headache. At Hogg Robinson, a travel management company, customers are sent itiner-aries and alerts to their phones. The next step is enabling them to access systems to make or modify a booking.

"The underlying issue is the lack of standards across the various devices and providers: some are Java based, some use Microsoft technology and others are proprietary," said Paul Saggar, director of technology development at Hogg Robinson's business technology division.

Businesses budget for expenditure in advance, but the unpredictability of mobile billing can cause friction between customer and operator. "I find the whole market holds the customer to ransom," argues the SIA's Mr O'Neill. "Buy a 3G phone, pay for GPRS monthly rental, pay for 3G monthly rental, pay on top per MB of data, pay for each photo message, pay for email. It's like buying a car and paying to push on the brake pedal."

For companies used to bartering with suppliers, it is frustrating that their wish lists appear to fall on deaf ears.

That is not to say the mobile industry ignores the corporate market. Operators and manufacturers have divisions dedicated to corporate customers - Orange points out that its 1,000-strong Orange Business Solutions team is big enough to be a FTSE-100 company in its own right. In the long run, most think the prognosis for the relationship between the industry and corporate customers is good.

But while the mobile heartland - the volume-driven, easy-to-please consumer space - remains highly profitable, operators won't be rolling out the red carpet for cost-conscious, demanding corporate customers just yet. As Andy Mulholland, global chief technology officer at consultants Capgemini, points out: "Ring tones are currently a better bet than a serious attack on the business market."