Once you go mobile, you won’t go back. We uncover the hardware, the plans and the services that’ll unshackle you from the office.Business mobility is about getting the right information to the right people instantly, wherever they may be. For the mobile sales force, it’s about checking live stock levels and ordering information when on the road. For executives, it’s about being able to communicate with the staff and with business partners via email, voice or video while sitting in an airport lounge. The purpose of business mobility is to deliver increased productivity, faster decision making and better customer service. It’s not always successful, of course, and many people are (often rightly) concerned about the social effects of being always ‘plugged in’, but a well-managed implementation of business mobility technology can keep both the accountants and the staff happy.
Handhelds and smart phones
Over the past three years, smart phones and handhelds have become jacks-of-all-trades, some even approaching low-end notebooks in their capabilities. Smart phones and PDAs have converged into devices capable of sending email, browsing the Internet, connecting to corporate databases and VPNs (see below) and even running limited productivity applications. For many mobile users, a good handheld or smart phone is all they need.
The industry has now crystallised around a limited number of operating systems – Palm OS and Windows CE/Mobile for handhelds, Symbian OS for smart phones. As a result, there is a healthy raft of applications available for the major platforms.
There are many things to look for in a handheld, some of which are entirely a matter of personal preference. Full keyboards are the order of the day on many new devices (especially following the success of the BlackBerry), and support for email and calendar forwarding services has become very popular on a range of devices. These services let you read and respond to all your emails from wherever you are. Large screens are always good, especially for viewing Web pages, and it’s surprising how useful an integrated camera and voice recorder can be in a business context.
Of course, the most important features of the handheld involve messaging and communications. With the national rollout of 3G, it’s worthwhile investing in a handheld or smart phone that supports it – 3G is streaks ahead of the older GPRS technology when it comes to data and Internet access. Bluetooth connectivity has become almost essential for communication with other devices (including notebooks) and wireless LAN capabilities can be very useful for when you return to the office. Instant messaging is a great tool for mobile users and of course the handheld or smart phone should support decent telephone and SMS messaging.
Security services like VPN connectivity and data encryption remains largely the preserve of third-party software developers. Business users serious about protecting their data should look at investing in such services.
An ultraportable notebook is designed to strike a balance between the portability of the handheld and capability of the notebook. Generally weighing less than 2kg, ultraportables run a PC operating system like Windows XP, but tend to have smaller screens, slower processors and fewer features than full-size notebooks. Toshiba’s Portege range, Dell’s XPS, Lenovo’s ThinkPad X Series and HP’s Ultra Light range are example of ultraportables.
Buyers of ultraportables should look at more than just the obvious specifications: weight, screen size, performance and battery life. A good business grade ultraportable shouldn’t sacrifice security features. A key specification to look for is the presence of a trusted platform module (TPM), which makes possible a range of business security features – most notably drive encryption.
Good connectivity is also vital. Bluetooth makes connecting to peripherals and other devices like handhelds and mobile phones much easier. Wireless LAN capabilities are absolutely essential, both for in-office connectivity and for connecting to wireless hotspots when on the road. A flash memory reader can be very handy for transferring large amounts of data, and a docking bay makes moving in and out of the office without changing PCs or fiddling with cables much easier.
So you want a bigger screen and more processing oomph. Screen size, processing power and battery life might be the obvious specifications to pay attention to when purchasing a business notebook, but there’s much more to it. What differentiates a business notebook from a consumer notebook are its integrated security features – key components that are often overlooked by buyers.
As with ultraportables, a notebook with a TPM will enable you to encrypt hard drives to prevent unauthorised access should the computer (or its hard drive) ever be lost or stolen. Business notebooks also often come with additional user authentication mechanisms, particularly smart card readers, fingerprint scanners and soft authentication keys.
A flash card reader and support for Bluetooth makes connecting to other mobility appliances – like phones and cameras – a lot easier, and a docking bay makes the transition from office to the road more bearable. A camera and microphone also makes VoIP calls and video conferencing possible from wherever the user may be.
Good business notebooks, especially those from the major vendors, also tend to come with a suite of security tools to manage drive encryption, smart card authentication, the creation of software security keys, password management, device lockdown and other features.
Mobile broadband plans
There are three broad options for on-the-road connectivity: Wi-Fi hot spots; wireless broadband from the likes of Unwired and iBurst (and their resellers); and mobile services such as GPRS and 3G.
Wi-Fi hotspots can offer ADSL and faster speeds, but tend to only be available in very specific locations like McDonalds restaurants or airports. Most notebooks and some handhelds and smart phones have wireless LAN capabilities built in, and can consequently use Wi-Fi hotspots without any extra hardware. You will need an account with a hotspot provider – although often you can sign up on the spot with a credit card.
The biggest provider of hotspots in Australia is Telstra’s Wireless Hotspot service, which has hotspots in McDonalds, Starbucks, Qantas Club lounges and various hotels and outdoor areas across Australia (though most are concentrated in the CBDs of Melbourne and Sydney). It costs 20c per minute to use the Telstra hotspots, with a possible connection fee of 25c, depending on your plan.
Wireless broadband offers near-ADSL speeds at roughly ADSL prices. At the moment you will need to purchase a wireless broadband modem from your provider, since no devices (yet) have independent access capabilities built in. In the future, as service providers move to WiMAX (a.k.a. IEEE802.16), an open standard for long range wireless broadband, we’re likely to see access capabilities built right into notebooks and even handhelds and smart phones.
Modems can be either external boxes or PC Cards and wireless broadband is accessible wherever your service providers have coverage – which for the moment mostly means heavily populated areas of major cities. Wireless broadband is cheaper and usually faster than mobile network services and you should be able to get 10GB+ of downloads per month at 512 kilobits per second for roughly $80-$90.
For the best coverage, however, you can’t beat 3G. Now you can get 3G Internet access at up to a theoretical 1.5Mb/s just about anywhere you can get a mobile phone signal. Even where you can’t get those speeds, you can usually drop back to the older GPRS data services, which offer roughly dial-up modem speeds.
In addition to near-blanket coverage, you can get global roaming on most 3G and GPRS accounts, providing Internet access through your mobile even when overseas. Remember that 3G speeds can be deceptive – you never get anywhere near the theoretical maximum – but they do compare fairly well to low-end ADSL.
A 3G-capable smart phone or handheld will be able to get 3G Internet access natively, while notebook computers can get Internet access over 3G with the addition of a PC Card or USB-based modem. Internet access over 3G tends to be a little more expensive than wireless broadband, especially for high-volume users. Telstra BigPond, for example, charges $85 for 1GB of monthly data at 256 kilobits. That said, prices for 3G data are dropping rapidly, with new cutthroat deals appearing on an almost monthly basis.
So which to get? If you only casually need Internet access for short periods of time, and are happy to sit in a McDonalds or Starbucks to get it, then hotspots are a pretty good deal. If you need always-on Internet access, but mainly use it for emails, the occasional VoIP call, instant messaging and casual Web browsing, 3G or GPRS may be the way to go. If you have heavy data needs – remote desktop connections, VPNs and video conferencing fall into this category – then a wireless broadband service is for you.
Companies that are serious about mobility often blend these services, using the cheaper wireless broadband or hotspots where they’re available and 3G or GPRS where they’re not.Just like being there
So how does a mobile user communicate with the office securely? Email is the most common method, but sometimes users need direct access to office services. A database query to check product stock levels, for example, cannot be easily or quickly performed via email. In this instance, you could email somebody at work and ask them to make the query, but a better way is to hook into the corporate network and access it yourself.
The most secure method of connecting to office networks from the road is the virtual private network (VPN). A virtual private network is a secure ‘tunnel’ for data from the mobile user to the business’s head office. For the mobile user, it’s as if their notebook or handheld were connected to the local area network, capable of accessing all the servers and data they can when they’re at the office. Data transfers to and from the user are encrypted and therefore secure.
To get a VPN up and running, software agents usually need to be installed on the mobile devices used to access the VPN -- although we’re seeing increased use of the common browser as the software agent in SSL VPNs (more on that in a moment). These software agents talk to a hardware VPN router at the head office, which manages the VPN tunnels.
VPN technology has been standardised, which means that software agents from one vendor should talk to a hardware VPN router from a different vendor as long as they’re using the same encryption protocols.
The best, most secure protocol right now is IPSec, which uses practically uncrackable encryption on data transferred to and from the mobile device. Some newer systems are using secure sockets layer (SSL) encryption – the same encryption used in online shopping – allowing users to get VPN access through a common Web browser, sparing the need for a software client.
It sounds complicated, but VPNs are rather easier and cheaper to set up than you’d expect. You can get a low-end VPN-capable Internet router/modem for less than $1000, and once you get it up and running, you’ll wonder how you managed without one.
Business Startup Guide continues: IT Security