During his son's Little League All-Star game this summer, Eddie Elizando realized he had forgotten to process the payroll for the employees at his small CPA firm. If he didn't complete the task, he'd have to deal with a handful of angry staff members, including his wife. The game was taking place in a remote area of south Texas, at least a 15-minute drive in each direction from his hotel. So instead of making the trek, he snuck out to the parking lot and processed his payroll from AT&T's Edge Network on the iPhone he had just bought for his wife and was still learning how to use.
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"I thought that was pretty cool," says Elizando, who used PayCycle to score points with his staff during the game. "I was just clicking through the program and they received an email that a check had been deposited into their accounts. The neat thing is, I would have had the same experience with 50 employees."
Realistically, most small accounting firm owners aren't going to be first in line to purchase iPhones on the day they're released, let alone conduct business on them. And at this time, some industry analysts suggest waiting for Apple to release a business-class iPhone similar to Nokia's E-series before using it in the enterprise, particularly because of security issues (See "Iphone in the Enterprise" in the box to the right.) But practitioners like Elizando are starting to take their jobs on the road, and software vendors are starting to provide the tools to enable them to do so.
"Accountants traditionally have shied away from payroll because they worried they couldn't have a life, but the Internet and wireless technology is really changing that," says Julie Lubetkin, marketing director for PayCycle. The ability to process payroll online serves as an enabler because it allows accountants to be on vacation and still make sure their customers get paid, Lubetkin says, noting that some PayCycle customers have processed their clients' payrolls from as far off as Africa and Korea.
Of course, once having realized that wireless wizardry is available, there's still the question of what functions to perform on mobile devices.
The Function Question
A recent survey by Intuit showed that 96 percent of U.S. small businesses have broadband access and 70 percent have mobile employees, with the mobile device becoming the "new PC."
When PDAs and other handheld devices first hit the market in the late '90s, businesspeople were utilizing them for basic commodities-email, contacts and calendaring of straight-forward information, says Chris Silva, Forrester Research analyst covering enterprise mobility.
But increasingly, users are asking to do more job-specific functions on the go, like processing sales orders, typing in meeting notes, and entering time and billing information.
Vendors including Microsoft, NetSuite and Sage Software provide different sets of CRM, ERP and sales force automation functions to the mobile workforce and Intuit is catching on, beta testing bringing the "Company Directory" function for QuickBooks Enterprise Solutions customers on the BlackBerry and other devices. Companies like PayCycle make payroll processing possible from the road and businesses like Xora let field workers clock time from their job sites via a GPS-tracking service on their Sprint-Nextel phones.
It all depends on what each company and individual wants to do while away from the office.
"For a salesman, it's really clear, process an order. Within the accounting marketplace, I don't know anyone who wants to add debits and credits with a cell phone," says Jim Foster, chief technology officer of Sage Software. "But we're looking at how to do workflow processes, for example, if an accounts payable invoice requires my signature, and I need to be able to push that to the BlackBerry."
Sage began offering mobile CRM to SalesLogix customers in September 2006 when it acquired the Corum Mobile Division of Corum Corp., a privately held Canada-based company that specializes in mobile customer relationship management technology. Corum formed a partnership with Sage more than a decade ago, developing add-on products for SalesLogix since the product first launched in April 1997.
Because of that, SalesLogix customers almost immediately were able to gain access to their CRM systems on their BlackBerrys and Pocket PCs, allowing them to view and update contact, account, service ticket and opportunity information as well as related notes and history in real time.
Mobile access eventually will be made available for all of Sage's customer relationship management products, including Sage CRM, SageCRM.com and Act by Sage (Act for Palm OS already is available), according to the company.
Now, Sage is concentrating on making some back-office functions of its other applications, such as Accpac, available remotely through smart client technology.
The term "smart client" refers to an environment that has the look and feel of desktop applications but delivers them over an HTTP connection, does not require installation and automatically updates without the user having to take any action, which is helpful to employees who are away from the office and therefore unable to connect to the server for those technology updates.
But it will be up to companies to determine what type of information they want to expose to the Web, Foster notes.
The Squint Factor
Companies also must decide how much information they really want to see on a screen that fits in the palm of their hands.
For example, when it comes to business intelligence and analyzing the state of a company's finances, executives might not want to generate pie charts on their PDAs, but want to view a weekly sales reports.
"You can load up a lot of data on a BlackBerry, but you have to be able to use it," Foster says.
Microsoft also recognizes the need to tailor the user experience based on the medium.
"One of the challenges is always the different form factor-how much can you put on versus what the user can actually consume," says Christian Pedersen, senior director for Microsoft Dynamics CRM-the first application in Microsoft's Dynamics line to be brought to the mobile workforce in 2004.
Microsoft acknowledges customers want to have choices about their CRM deployment-on premise or hosted- and the entire user experience, including which devices to use (even if they aren't made by Microsoft), he says.
"[Because] we deliberately designed CRM on a service-oriented architecture, the result is we have a portable application platform that enables us to send out CRM functionality to different user experiences," he says. "Do you want CRM integrated in Outlook, on a browser or in a mobile fashion on a Windows mobile device, iPhone or on a portable PlayStation 2 from Sony?"
This summer, Microsoft introduced Dynamics AX (formerly Axapta) to the handheld world, releasing the Mobile Sales module for field sales people to place and track orders, look up sales history and find out other information to help them do a better job while on the road visiting customers. It also released Microsoft Dynamics Mobile Development Tools, a scalable platform for channel partners to develop and customize the Dynamics AX product line.
Dynamics AX Mobile Sales is role-tailored so employees at different levels throughout the organization can see the information that's most relevant to them, and consists of small task components, called tasklets, which can be combined in the way each individual user prefers to more efficiently manage daily responsibilities.
"What we have built is designed for the small phone. We have to be very focused and clear on what needs to be on the mobile device," says Bjarne Schon, product unit manager for the Dynamics AX part of Microsoft's mobile applications group.
"We tried to put the most important elements on the screen and not to clutter up the phone," he says. "We don't want to cram too much information into this tiny device because it would go slower and be difficult to get an overview of the information."
Mobile Sales is a generic application, that Schon calls a "one size fits nobody."
"That shouldn't be taken the wrong way," Schon says. "It can be used out of the box, but companies are different from each other and need some small switches to the application for it to be perfect for their business."
Eighty to 90 percent of the generic tools nearly every organization needs are included, such as customer contact information, order tracking, campaign tracking, sales history, tasks and activities and a route plan of which customer to visit when.