OPINION

CRM’s Wireless Frontier

Last week I discussed one of the emerging hot spots in front office software, partner relationship management or PRM. This week I thought it would be interesting to take a look at another perennially emerging area — wireless.

I got the idea sitting next to a wireless expert on a flight to Atlanta a couple of weeks ago. He told me that more than 58 percent of people don’t even know the brand of cell phone they use, and it made me wonder what else we don’t know about wireless. More important, is that a good or a bad thing? I usually loath splitting the difference, but the answer turns out to be a little of both.

The Basics

According to this expert, who works for one of the biggies hence his request to remain nameless, most users just know the basics about how to make a call. When asked about the top things we should all learn about our phones, his immediate answer was “Learn how to text,” as in send a text message.

This expert’s suggestion is a good one because, as he points out, in an emergency when the voice spectrum may be saturated, another portion of the spectrum reserved for text messaging may be your only alternative. The obvious and painful example was September 11, when voice circuits were jammed and those with agile thumbs were in the best position to communicate that they were safe.

Nevertheless, as things relate to CRM, wireless is not close to the state of the art. CRM vendors and device suppliers are trying their best to convince us all that handheld devices, and the applications that run on them — most still waiting to be developed — represent the next big growth opportunity in CRM. But even a cursory survey of use shows that the “killer app” is still e-mail.

Slow Adoption

In a world where it sometimes takes years for a technology to reach its full potential, wireless has followed a reasonably consistent trajectory. Ever since 2000, we have been hearing about wireless CRM applications, but adoption still looks rather spotty, though with some bright spots. Some of the reasons for slow adoption include coverage — the ability to link to the mother ship and stay linked no matter what — robustness of devices, and a withering array of different operating systems and standards for application providers.

Coverage, especially in metropolitan areas, has improved quite a bit in recent years to the point that you can usually get service for your phone and even a high speed Internet connection for your laptop on the interstate. Devices have also picked up steam, and robust handheld devices with large screens are available to anyone with a little cash and the inclination. The big issue now may well be compatibility.

According to my new friend, there are no less than five operating system standards currently competing for the hearts and minds of wireless warriors. Each commands a portion of the market, and that makes it difficult for developers, who have limited resources, to design and develop solutions that will address more than a portion of the available market. It reminds me of the 1980s when you were either an IBM shop or a DEC shop or, to a lesser degree, Wang or DG. If you were a department in a larger organization, there were big walls between you and the rest of the enterprise, and often it was a double wall built by both sides.

There were converters, translators, and various workarounds if you wanted to integrate or share data, but they were expensive and slow. I think the term “sneaker net” has its origins in that murky past. As we know, computing really took off when standards gradually edged out proprietary operating systems ushering in an age of interoperability.

Ignorance Is Bliss

Thinking back to the expert’s observation that most people don’t know the brand of their cell phones, it might be a good thing to be that ignorant. What it signifies is that cell phones have become so standardized that it doesn’t matter. A product category reaches Main Street when users can be that blissfully ignorant and standardization equates with ubiquity.

A half-step between having competing standards and maintaining this kind of bliss would probably be the write-once and generate-to-multiple-standards practice that we see many vendors employing today. One of the reasons I think Salesforce.com bought Sendia earlier this year was Sendia’s multi-generation capability. Other vendors are also offering their own versions of multi-generation capability, and that will probably do for now. But the real prize, and I don’t see it on the horizon, may well be a standard operating system for handheld wireless devices.

No doubt, proprietary vendors like Microsoft, Palm, RIM, and others all hope that their products will become defacto standards in the industry, and I am sure one of them will for a time, but the end game has to be some kind of Unix or Linux for the small screen. As we have seen over the last twenty or so years though, that kind of commoditization and standardization only comes about after many generations and many dollars have been thrown at solving the problem. In a free market, there is simply too much money to be made, even for the eventual losers, for any vendor at this point to suggest collaboration on a true standard.

So, for now, here’s to wireless standards, all of them.


Denis Pombriant runs the Beagle Research Group, LLC, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing, and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at denis.pombriant@beagleresearch.com


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