Online Extra: Wireless Godsends for Businesses

American worker bees of all stripes are eagerly latching onto a slew of new applications coming to their cell phones

Business users have long been the cellular industry's cash machine. And with the explosion in nifty content washing over the wireless world, that's not about to change. The biggest consumers of new applications such as video and e-commerce and location-based services will remain worker bees in American business. Enterprises small and large are expected to generate $3.2 billion in data revenue this year, more than two-thirds of the whole pot for this category, according to researcher Instat MDR. In five years, they'll produce 70% of all data revenue, or $18 billion.

In an era when boosting productivity is key, businesses are expected to look to wireless technology to help them become more efficient. So cellular operators are selling business users smart phones that can do everything from make Net connections and send e-mail to connect with bank accounts or back-office files and stream video with e-mail. The industry is "working feverishly to extend the desktop to your mobile device," says John Jackson, senior wireless analyst at Yankee Group.


  The king of the enterprise market is Nextel Communications (NXTL ). It's selling Motorola (MOT ) phones that talk to satellites to determine where various places and people are located. Couriers at delivery businesses, for example, use their cell phones to get directions to destinations as they bicycle through town.

Late last year Chicago's government used Nextel's service for 175 building inspectors citywide. To help improve business processes last fall, the Buildings Dept. began using a location-based wireless Internet service offered by Nextel. From the field, these mobile workers are able to record and transmit time-and-date-stamped information, including property address and inspection status, to a data center, where it can be viewed over the Net by the department's 30 supervisors and bureau chiefs.

Previously the city's field staff would record this information on paper and submit it to supervisors for review. Now supervisors receive real-time info. All the workers have online maps that show the location of inspectors at any given time. "Location-based services are huge," says Lee Callaway, a director of product marketing at Motorola's cell-phone unit.


  Motorola has transferred its mobile-location technology to other markets. After all, one-third of all U.S. wireless users are interested in receiving location-based information such as driving directions, according to the Yankee Group. And the most needy of them are itinerant business users. So in May, Callaway's group at Motorola partnered with Avis Rent A Car to deliver a mobile-phone-based navigation system to travelers in 57 U.S. cities.

Called Avis Assist, the service gives travelers the ability to bypass unwieldy maps and confusing gas-station directions by gaining instant "talking" directions from a Motorola handset, which mounts in the car or can slip in your pocket. Street-specific directions are communicated through the handset's speakerphone. The phones give audible directions that say: "Prepare to turn right on 14th street," and display an arrow pointing in the direction to turn along with how many miles before the next turn. If the traveler takes a wrong turn, the system knows it and will recalculate the route.

Beyond navigation is e-commerce. Phones will soon morph into bank tellers. Sprint (FON ) plans to provide banking services to small and independent business owners with Sprint Mobile Loan Officer. Scheduled for launch this summer, the service will allow bank employees to process loans, establish accounts, transfer funds, and complete other financial transactions using wireless handheld devices.

The service is built on the M-Business Anywhere mobile platform by iAnywhere Solutions, a subsidiary of Sybase (SY ). It makes corporate databases come alive in your pocket, providing mobile workers with anytime, anywhere access to critical business information.


  IBM (IBM ) is developing Web Sphere, which will allow you to wirelessly access backend corporate data behind a corporate firewall. The idea is to link users to accounting systems, inventory, and other files when they're away from the office. "These mobile platforms will become more prevalent," says Jimmy Johnson, spokesman for palmOne (PLMO ), which supplies Sprint with the phones to run banking applications. "You'll have access to more types of data...SAP or Oracle or any type of backend data you can think of. The overarching goal is the true mobile office."   The new technology can be tailored to revolutionize specific industries. In health care, prescribing of medication is already going mobile as doctors view prescription info as they walk hospital halls, zap it to the pharmacy, and bill it back to the insurer. In real estate, agents use Palm smart phones to access all available data on a house. Sprint's service allows insurance adjustors to process claims on-site, access corporate applications for processing claims from their corporate systems, locate available local repair shops, and even issue checks to customers on the spot.

In coming months claims adjusters and doctors will be able to view and send video with the info. Motorola, the leader in walkie-talkie technology that lets users push a button and talk with a group of listeners, will unveil technology that enables phones to push pictures and video to a group of users. Rather than push-to-talk, Jason Few, Motorola's chief of North American phone marketing, calls it "push to see." Business users will be able to share a picture or a video or a broadcast message. That's the sort of mobile communication that should make enterprises happy, and the cellular industry a lot richer.

By Roger O. Crockett in Chicago with Steve Rosenbush in New York

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