Wireless e-commerce promises to free sales people, empower field techs and delight customers

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The Web is a wonderful, highly targeted e-business and marketing tool, right? That's true--as long as your customers are tied to their desktops.

But as soon as they step away from their PC, you've lost them.

The rapidly emerging world of wireless e-commerce aims to change all that, delivering on the Web's one-to-one promise with the ability to target promotions, product data, customer alerts and even personalized pricing strategies right to an individual's hip-pocket.

The components needed for this wireless revolution are falling into place to give businesses "anywhere, anytime" access to information. As hardware, software and service vendors team up to leverage the technology, the opportunities appear limitless. Wireless devices like the Palm VII wireless hand-held and a wide array of Internet-enabled cellular phones are proliferating like wild-fire.

"I think we're on the front end of a big explosion in the business market," says Jay Highly, VP of Sprint's PCS business customer unit. "Most of that explosion, ironically, isn't going to be around a bunch of killer apps. It's all built around taking the applications that already reside in the corporation today and extending those onto a wireless device."

Indeed, wireless applications have already taken hold in industries such as transportation and shipping, where many field sales forces have been equipped as wire line connections aren't an option. Field service organizations, too, have found value in wireless applications to not only dispatch technicians, but also provide meaningful customer information.

For example, vendor Peregrine Systems is helping its users track its physical assets with handheld devices (see page 14).

Meanwhile, Mesa Energy Systems, an Irvine, Calif.-based HVAC service company, will soon be extending an existing wireless solution from FieldCentrix, Irvine, Calif., to connect technicians with suppliers' inventory information. Field technicians needing a part could then query local supply houses and have the part waiting at the counter for them. No phone lines required.

Help in the field

"With [wireless] technology, you can put all that information in [the technician's hands]," said Tracy Singh, president of Mesa Energy Systems. "You can say, `here's the main supply houses we use, here's the majority of [stockkeeping units] we buy.' These guys have committed to have these things in stock, and if they start letting us wirelessly peek into their inventory system, we're going to become pretty efficient."

Until recently, such wireless applications have required highly customized solutions. However, as communication costs continue to decline and new wireless devices are developed, software vendors are working to develop more mainstream solutions for businesses.

For example, Siebel Systems recently announced a new series of wireless e-business applications to provide field sales and service professionals with real-time, wireless access to time-critical customer data from their mobile phones and other wireless Internet handsets. Expected to be released this spring, Siebel Wireless will integrate with Siebel's current customer relationship management vertical solutions. It will also allow companies to quickly deploy wireless-enabled Web sites for sales, channel management and customer service.

"The evolution of the wireless market is focusing on improving customer relations and extending CRM technologies," says Karen Smith, research analyst at Aberdeen Group's CRM practice.

Emerging wireless markets

Wireless applications ultimately will allow companies to communicate with customers through handheld devices to target personalized promotions, provide access to customer service information, automatically alert customers to new products, and even test pricing strategies. "There's an abundance of new uses that we'll probably see emerging," Aberdeen's Smith says.

Wireless marketing and advertising solutions are on the way, as evidenced by a recent partnership between Nokia Ventures, an affiliate of Nokia Corp.; FusionOne, a developer of Internet synchronization technology; AdForce, a provider of ad management and delivery systems; and SF Interactive, an e-marketing services agency. The companies will develop strategies and creative approaches for the delivery of advertising to FusionOne subscribers on wireless devices, such as smart phones and personal digital assistants.

Another emerging area of development will be in partnership relationship management, according to Smith. "Many vendors are talking about mobile PRM--which is providing suppliers, partners and the whole channel with information," she says.

From vertical to horizontal

More solutions are also expected as vendors partner up to take advantage of this burgeoning marketplace. In March, IBM Corp. and Motorola said they will join forces to help meet the growing demand for e-businesses worldwide to link data and applications to wireless devices. The companies will jointly develop a "voice and data engine," which will offer businesses an easy way to develop and access wireless applications and services.

These types of partnerships will help move wireless applications from vertical markets to more horizontal applications, an area where many analysts predict the big action over the next couple of years will be. "A lot of the work we're beginning to see germinate for b-to-b involves inter-enterprise applications," says Kelly Quinn, another Aberdeen Group analyst."We're seeing a real drive toward wireless enablement of the desktop. If you can get desktop functionality of basic applications, like e-mail, calendaring, basic access to databases through a wireless connection, that's going to be where it really takes off," Quinn says.

However, Quinn is quick to point out that there are still security issues to be resolved and there's still a question of finding out what end users really want.

"That's what is going to drive the market," she says. "A lot of people get wrapped up in the hype. If you think about companies that do more specific focused applications like wireless e-mail access, they're the ones we're watching to see where the market is going to go.

"The more focused you are on serving the end-user's needs the more immediately you'll have adoption."

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