Comms Supplement: Mobility - Moving forward into the mobile future

As the pace of modern life quickens the mobile phone has become an indispensable tool and many are now using it in their everyday working lives. Tony Dennis looks at how financial institutions are catering for and taking advantage of this increased mobility to try and gain staff efficiency benefits, while still protecting their networks. The best smartphones, operating systems and mobile devices are also examined.

The jury is divided over the use of smartphones and similar mobile devices, such as the iPad, in the workplace. One side views them as essential tools to enhance productivity, while the other side sees them as an unnecessary security risk, that also introduce extra expense and management headaches. Like it or not though, mobile devices are actively being used in wholesale banking by employees to cover their positions or do research outside office hours; by loss adjusters in the insurance space to help speed up claims handling; and by numerous other financial employees. With this being the case, there are two major challenges facing organisations. Firstly, how do you prevent such mobile devices punching huge holes in the corporate network defence shield, and secondly, how do you decide which smartphones or wireless enabled devices to support and should you standardise on one? I intend to address this latter point first with some real-world examples, and also consider the rival mobile operating systems that are out there.

In sharp contrast to traditional desktop computing, there is no one dominant operating system (OS) for mobile phones, with Google's Android, the Symbian system and Microsoft's Windows Mobile all battling for market share. Additionally, there are a variety of different browsers embedded within mobile handsets. To further complicate matters, mobile phones possess many different screen sizes, meaning that creating a single mobile website for employees - or indeed consumers for that matter - which can be accessed by all devices, is a major challenge.

This was the dilemma faced by David Child, managing director at 1st The Exchange, which provides processing services to independent financial advisors (IFAs) and claims to have one of the UK's leading intermediary trading platforms in the pensions field and wider financial advisory sector. "We realised that we needed a full mobile solution moving forward. We have our own original software product, Exweb, and this now has compatibility with Nokia handsets and BlackBerries after our development work, which should prove useful in future as mobility increases amongst the workforce." Child revealed that there was no firm reason for selecting just the Nokia and BlackBerry handsets beyond their obvious popularity amongst IFAs. The firm will probably support other smartphones if the demand is there.

Child now feels that 1st The Exchange now has greater reach since partnering with Bemoko to deliver mobile functionality. The objective was to roll out a fully featured mobile website that could be easily be accessed from virtually any mobile device to support participants in the annuities pension market. Bemoko's technology overcame the obstacles by recognising which handset is visiting the mobile website in order to deliver a fully optimised version of the standard Exweb site. If the handset supports specific display technologies [Adobe's Flash is a good example], then Bemoko's system will deliver that particular content. If the handset doesn't support Flash, the mobile web page will automatically be configured to suit the handset's screen size and operating system, plus the embedded mobile browser. Consequently, Bemoko claims that whatever handset is accessing the site, the mobile web page will fit the screen for the IFA. The Bemoko-based system has now been launched and is being used by IFAs across the UK, who are signed up to 1st The Exchange's services. At a client's home, this mobile capability can provide either an indicative or full pension quotation during a house visit, enabling the IFA to deliver a more effective level of service.

To standardise or not?
By complete contrast with the IFA model cited above, Carl Redman, head of IT development and business analysis at Volkswagen Financial Services (VWFS) UK, has decided to standardise on one particular brand of smartphone - namely, the BlackBerry from Research In Motion (RIM) to ease the management of their mobile offerings. VWFS offers finance and insurance services to over 700 car dealers across the UK. Crucially, the firm evaluated the available mobile solutions against four main criteria with the first two being security and reliability and it was this that made up their mind to standardise. "The BlackBerry infrastructure and security arrangements were the most reliable, and met all of our parent company's requirements without us having to build a whole new infrastructure," explains Redman.

In under five months, a joint VWFS-RIM team developed a SAP based application (called MSA) which contains information from VWFS's wholesale funding system. The bespoke BlackBerry Stock Audit application has now removed the need for a paper-based system. It puts a full historical record of a dealer at the auditor's fingertips. For example, after completing the audit on the BlackBerry, the auditor presses a button and the audit is uploaded wirelessly to MSA. Back in the office, the credit managers have instant access to a dealer's status on MSA. They also receive automatic email alerts when audit scores fall below certain thresholds, encouraging greater profitability and performance. As Redman asserts, "we are now able to manage financial risk much more effectively and proactively. From a business point of view, senior management is very much on board with what we've done and wants us to look at how the BlackBerry platform could further benefit our business in future."

Conversely, Standard Bank has gone down the route of supporting multiple smartphones, in partnership with the amusingly named vendor Good Technology, which is proudly device agnostic. It provides the 'Good for Enterprise' security and management system to the bank for internal use by staff looking to access work applications, and a modified version for a separate end user channel aimed at consumers who wish to transact financial services on a mobile phone, PDA, iPad, or the like.

Android vs BlackBerry vs iPhone vs Nokia
There's a continuing debate over which vendors, devices and technologies will come to dominate the smartphone space. Gartner's principal analyst in this area, Roberta Cozza, has observed that the success of the Apple iPhone has shown the viability of touchscreen technology in mobile phones, which enables more-natural, responsive and intuitive use and perhaps points the way to future developments. "As we saw at the recent Mobile World Congress show touch interface technology will continue to be one of the key areas of innovation during 2010," says Cozza.

His colleague, CK Lu, also a research analyst with Gartner, cautions though that touchscreen isn't some magic efficiency bullet or application magnet for consumers. "Touch technology is just an enabler," he says, while advising smartphone vendors to invest in expanding their user interface (UI) design capabilities to ensure touch-driven capabilities integrate closely with the underlying device software, allowing for an uninterrupted experience. Lu also suggests that vendors should consider integrating touch with other pertinent factors, such as numeric or Qwerty keypads, because a touch UI cannot fulfil every kind of operation. Staff working on long claims forms in the field, for instance, will want to ability to type up insurance claims forms.

While Nokia might appear to have been sidelined by other more 'hip' device vendors recently, Gartner's own smartphone OS shipment figures show that worldwide last year, Symbian was still popular with a 46.9 per cent share of the market, above the RIM BlackBerry and Apple's iPhone and this is the OS that Nokia's typically use. The open source format is open to other end users as well though. "Symbian had become uncompetitive in recent years, but its market share, particularly via Nokia devices, is still strong [mainly due to its established position]. If Symbian can use this incumbency advantage and the introduction of Symbian3 devices in Q3-Q4 2010], it could return to positive growth," thinks Cozza.

The mobile channel can cause chief information security officers (CISOs) and other professionals at banks, insurers, exchanges or other financial institutions to break out in a sweat when they think about how many end points, potentially linking back to the firm's main systems and applications, are out in the public domain. Protective measures can, however, be taken. Secure access is a prime concern for Phil Beville, for instance, IT director with St James's Place, which is one of the UK's leading wealth management companies for individuals and businesses alike, with £23.3 billion of funds under management. For smartphone users, Beville has deployed a product from VeriSign known as VIP (VeriSign Identity Protection) Access for Mobile. This product adds an extra level of authentication for those accessing VIP enabled networks.

At St James's Place, these users are the company's own partners who, amongst other things, can access clients' records from a smartphone, allowing them to answer queries no matter where they are. The implementation of VIP Mobile at St James's Place is still at its early stages. He estimates that at the moment out of the company's total of around 3,000 users, only approximately 100 users have actually downloaded the software to their mobile phones - mostly iPhones and Blackberries - but that figure is expected to rise sharply as an internal marketing drive gets underway.

Beville is very enthusiastic about how cost effective VIP Mobile is, describing the set-up costs for access to the company's Cloud-based web applications as "minimal". He also points out that VIP Mobile can be used to replace standard hardware-based systems where one-time passwords are generated on an RSA-style key fob. Such alternatives are not only expensive to send out and support when you have over 3,000 users like St James's Place, they also tend to get lost and are expensive to replace. By contrast, with VIP Mobile, all the internal user needs to do is download the actual software client to his or her smartphone. The download is free because the system only works with networks where the organisation has already purchased VIP protection from VeriSign. Up front costs may be more but ongoing costs should be less. After all, users don't tend to forget to bring or lose their mobile phones as readily as they do key fobs, says Beville.

Significant numbers of users are now accessing corporate networks via the iPhone and Android-based smartphones in the USA and this pattern is already being repeated in the UK with more people using these devices all the time. US mobile operators have heavily supported Android handsets and with a leading UK operator such as Vodafone now offering its own branded Android handset, such smartphones are bound to grow in popularity. Financial institutions will need to start supporting these, as well as more traditional Nokia or BlackBerry phones, if they haven't done so already.

More generally, as smartphone users among the general public become more and more accustomed to accessing the mobile web in a personal capacity, they will want this experience in the workplace too. A desire to access cloud-based applications is also inevitable as this technology becomes more prevalent in years to come. The world is moving forward and you'd better move with it.

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