Monday, November 29, 2010

Wireless technology improvements set the stage for killer mobile apps

By Niel Nickolaisen, Contributor

In my quiet moments, which occur about once every five years, I think about what my dream job would be. Ideally, it would be something interesting, yet not too stressful. Time and time again, I decide my dream job would be IT futurist. I imagine myself gathering data, talking to technology experts and CIOs, and then pontificating about the next big trends in IT.

Like a highly paid hitter in baseball, I figure that if I got one in three predictions right, I would be an IT futurist superstar. The problem is, I am not sure I am prescient enough to determine the next technology wave.

I do feel confident, however, that I can predict accurately that mobile applications are something we CIOs should adopt, and adopt quickly. My rationale is based on four realities:

  • The wireless infrastructure is becoming ubiquitous. We can get a wireless signal almost anywhere.
  • Wireless bandwidth continues to improve.
  • Devices are getting smaller and smarter (a few years ago, I was pondering replacing laptops with netbooks, but now I am bypassing netbooks entirely and going straight to tablets).
  • We are accustomed to being connected to our work nearly continuously -- how many of us don't check our email way before and after normal working hours?

If I am right, and mobile applications are the next technology wave, how can we ensure we are successful in adopting and exploiting them?

I have decided to focus on making my mobile applications "killer apps." What does this mean? It means I will identify a high-priority problem or opportunity that can be solved with an application that can be accessed anytime, anywhere on a mobile device. I admit I am a little behind the curve on some of the broad-based mobile killer apps: Someone already has figured out how todeliver email on a smartphone; and someone else already has linked GPS data to smartphones so I can get driving directions to the latest and greatest barbecue hole in the wall.

With those problems solved, I want to focus on niche killer apps -- applications that will more directly help my enterprise reach its goals. To identify these apps, I have to do what I have always done to ensure the technology I deploy adds value. Put another way, I have to make sure I understand the needs of my internal and external customers, brainstorm about how technology can meet those needs better, and experiment to validate our assumptions about the value of the technology

But I need to do all this with one critical twist: I need to reorient my thinking to the mobile world. To do this, I need to travel to the far reaches of my organization and my customer base. Who is mobile? What work do these people do? What applications -- ones they can access anytime, anywhere -- would help them be more successful?

I do feel confident, however, that I can predict accurately that mobile applications are something we CIOs should adopt, and adopt quickly.

For example, our salespeople spend most of their day on the road, meeting with customers and taking notes on deals they are negotiating. When they get back to the home office, they sort through the notes they have taken and document the deal points. Eventually these documented deal points end up in proposals and pricing schedules. This process is prone to errors, however. Deal points the salesperson documents today might be different from existing proposals and pricing schedules. These differences can result in incorrect invoices and customer frustration. If I want to use technology to improve this process, it needs to be a mobile technology -- one that can go on the road with my salespeople.

So, we set about designing a killer mobile app our salespeople could use to create and update proposals and pricing schedules immediately. To increase adoption rates, we focused on usability and simplicity. We did early prototypes and pilots to get early feedback. We worked closely with our salesforce influencers to get them on board -- and on board early. The result was a great deployment for an anytime, anywhere mobile solution to a nagging problem.

Not all problems are best solved with mobile applications. Nevertheless, it seems that network and device technologies have converged in a way that can cement IT workers' role as innovators -- especially if I dream about how my mobile apps can be killers.

Niel Nickolaisen is CIO and vice president of strategic planning at Headwaters Inc. in South Jordan, Utah. Write to him at

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