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Enterprise Data Needs an Advocate

As 2004 begins, a series of troubling and very significant question marks hang ominously over the future of wireless messaging and data services in the United States.

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Who’s really carrying the torch for these services in the U.S. market? What’s the key to unlocking the rapid development of enterprise text messaging applications and, eventually, broadband wireless data? When will carriers learn that applications, not speed or features, convey tangible value? Where’s the wireless sector’s much-needed demand stimulation game plan? Why is SMS the Rodney Dangerfield of wireless communications and still gets no respect in America? And lastly, how come we’re still asking these fundamental questions today?

According to the CTIA’s current estimates, the U.S. market was responsible for generating less than 1% of the global SMS text message traffic in 2003, so there’s clearly an incredible upside potential. However, the looming question on many industry analysts’ minds is how U.S. carriers can stimulate SMS usage to mirror the rapid growth of text messaging in both the Asian and European markets. Also, why aren’t we hearing more about enterprise applications?

Is there a link between consumer and enterprise usage growth, and is it possible that the way to stimulate mainstream demand for enterprise wireless data applications is to create more market buzz around consumer applications? It seems plausible, when you consider what happened with instant messaging services like AIM that started in the consumer space and eventually migrated to the enterprise. But is it wise for wireless network operators to rely upon teenage girls to be their grassroots word-of-mouth evangelists for SMS? Meaning, even if these pioneering early-adopters do show their parents and all their friends and family members the virtues of text messaging, is this really a viable market development strategy?

I think not, and there are valid reasons to question this rationale. Imagine that you're a wireless carrier that’s making a significant investment in infrastructure to support 1xRTT or GPRS network connectivity (not to mention EVDO, etc.). Is it a concern that your enterprise customers by and large a). Don't view you as a messaging or data service provider b). Don't know that you already provide basic data services. c). Don't know just how easy it is to use the SMS service, and discover useful applications. d). Don't realize they can start using it today? No, it’s not rocket science, but I must say, “Houston, we have a problem.”

Ironically, if carriers had invested just a small fraction of the energy that they put into fighting wireless local number portability and instead channeled that passion into articulating enterprise messaging and data applications, then they’d already be ahead of the game. That said, the threat of customer defections as a result of WLNP should be prompting carriers to invent creative retention strategies. Instead, if they’re not careful, they might ignite “the mother of all price wars” that will fatally wound any hope of future carrier profits.

So, what should a wireless network operator do to limit the damage from the impending WLNP-induced subscriber churn-a-thon? Well, an application-centric marketing plan would certainly be a worthwhile point of differentiation. Why? Put simply, most mainstream U.S. subscribers (consumer and business) are still uniformed about the value in learning to fully use even the basic features on their existing mobile phones and associated wireless services. Yes, they need help.

But don’t assume that what’s good for a consumer’s needs is good enough for business user’s needs. Let me clarify this point. We know from empirical research that mobile-originated SMS message composition may be tolerable to teenage girls, but it’s not viable to most mainstream business subscribers (because they resist composing messages on their phone’s tiny keypad). In contrast, mobile-terminated SMS messages that are composed and sent by a PC user, or automatically generated by a software application, are more likely to be embraced. Therefore, wireless network operators need to acknowledge the differences in user value orientations, and thereby market and promote SMS usage accordingly.

Here’s a case in point: We still find most people don't know that every U.S. wireless subscriber has a unique e-mail address that corresponds to their mobile phone number. Therefore, they're unaware of basic SMS business applications such as the potential for creating individual short e-mail notes sent to employees, customers and business partners mobile phones (directly from MS Outlook, as an example). As a result, most businesses aren’t thinking about the incremental potential to utilize a productivity tool already at their disposal--wireless e-mail distribution lists.

What’s inhibiting simple one-to-many SMS distribution list applications? Wireless network operators don’t provide any information on the e-mail addressing format of their competitor’s SMS gateway (and because there’s no standard, they’re all different). In fact, it’s odd that even the CTIA doesn’t provide this pivotal information. Therefore, the burden is currently on the wireless subscriber to know his or her addressing format, or the sender must quiz the message recipient about their mobile service provider and then make a determination of the appropriate addressing format (again, assuming that they know that particular carrier’s format).

Why all the fuss about basic text messaging? Just as the desktop personal computer and an e-mail account are ubiquitous tools in every office environment today, mobile phones enabled with SMS are the de facto common denominator for mobile text communications. Why is this profound? After approximately two decades of commercial applications development on the Internet, e-mail is still by far the most valued application. Moreover, SMS-enabled mobile phones have already reached market saturation in the U.S. market, whereas most other technologies are still in the early-adopter (wireless gadget geeks, etc.) stage of market development.

So, armed with this information, what are some compelling business applications for SMS? Well, consider these three simple SMS scenarios for time-sensitive information alerts. You’ll see, with a little imagination, you too can create your own benefit-oriented text messaging applications:

Executive Office Administrator sends a broadcast message to 10 traveling board members: “Today’s 10:00am board meeting has moved to 12:00 noon due to an unanticipated inquiry from the SEC fraud investigation unit.”

Medical Facility Management sends a broadcast message to eight remote surgery team members: “Due to a schedule conflict, Mr. Jones gall bladder surgery has moved from OR#2 to OR#4. Please callback the scheduling center to confirm message receipt.”

International Airline Customer Service sends a broadcast message to 15 stranded Business Class passengers: “We regret to inform you that flight #227 to Toronto has been delayed until 6:30pm, please accept a complementary admission to the Admirals Club in Term #3 (your personal access code=3127).”

Bottom line, wireless operators must articulate specific examples of how wireless data capabilities can positively improve routine business processes in meaningful ways. They must envision mobile data usage possibilities from their customer’s perspective, not a technology or a service perspective. Frankly, this isn’t just about marketing communications, since all customer-facing employees should have this informed perspective.

However, we know that most U.S. network operators haven’t developed internal business applications that utilize their own SMS offerings. This is absolutely the first place to start the process of rebirth, as a world-class wireless data applications integrator. The big rewards will eventually go to those fearless innovators who apply SMS in the most intuitive, engaging and imaginative ways.

David H. Deans is the Senior Partner of Deans & Associates, based in Austin, Tex.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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