By Wilter du Toit, CEO of Virtual Mobile Technologies
So you know you need to mobilise your business. You’ve seen the forecasts for mobile uptake in South Africa, and also that accessing the web via a mobile device overtook desktop web access back in 2008. Moreover, it’s pretty obvious that your customers, suppliers and employees are hooked on their cellphones.
So what’s the next step? If you’ve embarked on any research, spoken to any mobile experts or popped into any mobile conferences lately you’ll have realised there are some fairly religious wars going on about which strategies and technology platforms to choose. None of which are very helpful in allowing you to decide the most cost-effective and risk-free path to take when mobilising your business.
To get you started, here are five technology-agnostic tips:
- Understand your market
Know your market, what devices they use, which channels they prefer and what problem they need solved, rather than jumping on the latest mobile flavour of the month. This applies equally to internal and external markets. There is no point in only launching an all-singing, all-dancing Android application, if most of your users only have Nokia feature phones. In addition, unlike any previous technology, a mobile phone is a very personal device, and the trend internationally is towards allowing employees to use their own phones, whatever they might be, rather than supplying corporate handsets.
- Understand all the mobile technology channels at your disposal
USSD (unstructured supplementary service data) – this is the communications channel used to top up pre-paid phone accounts. Although it’s not very glamorous, it works on all phones and many people are familiar with it.
Mobi sites – these are websites optimised for use on a mobile phone.
Applications (“apps”) – these are standalone pieces of software for smartphones that can harness the specific features of smart- and feature phones such as the GPS, camera or accelerometer.
HTML5 – this is the new kid on the block, an evolution of the website mark-up language that will allow mobi sites to include features previously only available on apps. The language is still being standardised and there are some concerns over cross-browser interoperability.
You should also understand how these channels can complement each other, and how customers are likely to migrate from one to another. Mobile banking is a great example of this: customers first became familiar with SMS alerts and then limited banking over USSD. Then people started using banking mobi sites, and only now has the first of the big banks, FNB, launched mobile banking applications for smartphones and tablets, with the additional functionality allowed by these devices. And that’s not to say that the older channels will go away either. It is likely that they will remain complementary, even for smartphone owners, because users will choose the technology they are the most comfortable with, for the specific task.
- Set a strategy
Once you understand your market, take a look at all your options for mobilisation, work out the expected return on investment and then prioritise accordingly. The first mistake too many companies make is taking an overly narrow approach to mobilisation. A flashy marketing-orientated application might be easy to understand, can result in good PR and drive a handful of additional sales, but mobilising your enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, could help you realise the value of an investment of several hundreds of millions of rands. Other internal mobilisation opportunities include mobilising your CRM or HR processes.
Your strategy should also include how you will develop, deploy and support future features and functionality, as well as future handsets. Look at how quickly the Android operating system has gained marketshare, and how fast Symbian is expected to lose marketshare. And new operating system Windows Mobile 7 is still a wildcard in terms of its impact on the smartphone market.
- Don’t just shrink the web
Going mobile isn’t just about shrinking the desktop web experience to fit a smaller screen. Feature- and smartphones have additional capabilities, such as a GPS, that can be used to enhance functionality and user experience. In addition, users have different requirements when using a mobile device, whether browsing the web, or using an app. For instance they don’t want to read your entire brochure, but do want to get to your contact details and opening times quickly. Apps need to have a small file size, load quickly and not drain too much power. Also, inputting information varies from handset to handset, and is generally more difficult on a phone than a computer.
- Choosing your supplier
Not all suppliers are equal. The developer of an Angry Birds style game is probably not equipped to understand business requirements, have a view across multiple operating systems, devices and channels, and importantly, meet the minimum security requirements you have in place across other systems. The mobile development market is still very new, very fragmented, and as mentioned, very evangelical about whichever service a supplier happens to have expertise in. Evaluate your mobile suppliers as you would any other supplier; make sure they can provide a service that meets your business strategy, rather than the other way around. Finally, consider the benefits of a mobile enterprise application platform (MEAP), which allows you to roll out services to all handsets, optimised accordingly, at once.