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Mobile email hits the road

Gaining pace, but issues remain

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Mobile communications means different things to different people, but some common meaning is starting to gather momentum. It used to be the case that when you asked employees if they had mobile access to email they would say yes if they had a modem on their laptop and dialed in to a central server from a hotel room. Hardly immediate and continuous, but at least access from outside the office.

When we surveyed over 5700 Reg readers at the beginning of the year, 24 per cent said their mobile use of communications technologies was limited to email, with 47 per cent saying they could access most of their in-house applications while on the road. The reality for many will still mean remote access from a laptop over Wi-Fi, cellular and broadband in addition to the humble modem, but the rise in popularity of the two-way pager-PDA format of the BlackBerry has changed forever the way that mobile email is perceived.

The immediacy of mobile email in a handheld instant-on device delivers an alert with a quick preview so that decisions can be taken at any time of the day, no matter where the user is traveling. This gained rapid acceptance in the privileged few able to make the investment decision from positions of authority, but broad adoption to everyone else in the organization brings with it a number of challenges.

The upfront issue is cost, and the second related consideration is, are we making the right choice of platform?

Cost of airtime is a major issue. When we asked 240 managers in companies across Europe responsible for or actively involved in their companies mobile telecoms contracts, we found that average spend per user is increasing rapidly and a major concern, but over half of them were unsure as to what upper limit should be set on the monthly connection fees for mobile data.

Whilst in general the results showed they would set higher limits for senior managers, still 17 per cent expected a limit of 100 or more Euros for other professionals. Multiplied up, these notional limits might be high, but the main cause for concern is the lack of predictability. All-you-can-eat tariffs address this aspect, but the un-obscured high level of fixed cost might unnerve any finance manager and the IT manager too, when the other likely result will be in a rise in email volume and support calls. In reality, the variable costs of data traffic will, like voice, over time and with effective corporate policies establish a regular and predictable usage pattern.

Choosing the right platform might seem like a simple option – it's BlackBerry right? Push email from the enterprise into the pocket with an all embracing solution encompassing the push service, device and mobile email software. A good fit for some, but not necessarily for all. Despite the reduction in alternatives from some consolidation among mobile email software vendors, there are a number of acceptable software solutions which 'push' email to a wide choice of mobile device platforms suitable for email.

Choice of mobile device is an important consideration for users, but there are other considerations for the business – will the device be used only for email and voice communication or a platform for other types of mobile applications? No wonder over 55 per cent found determining which platform or device standard to adopt to be the largest challenge when considering broad mobile email access from phones or other handhelds.

There's also how the mobile device integrates into the rest of the IT infrastructure. Many companies have made significant strategic investments in email servers, groupware products and other applications that will all benefit from the immediacy of access – no longer just remote dialup, but into the palm of the employee. They will be looking to extend the value of this investment, not replace it.

For them the question is not so much whether broad access to mobile email is the ultimate solution, or just a step on the way. One thing's for sure, with over half of those surveyed expecting mobile email to become a standard facility offered to all or most mobile phone users, it's a step many will be contemplating. For a closer look at some of the considerations, read our report into Mobile Email Momentum.

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