enterprise solutions, technologies

Changing gear with smart technology

Technology and vehicles: not blue sky thinking. Simple black and white.

Reselling cars might not be the most obvious place to find innovative new uses of mobile technology, but together with a free lunch and a trip to Microsoft’s shiny London HQ (strong on Windows) it was a topic which attracted some of the UK’s major car buyers and sellers.

The British Car Auctions (BCA) event set out to examine the intersection of mobile technology with selling vehicles, the wider economic importance of which cannot be understated.

Indeed, Christopher MacGowan OBE introduced the event with the arresting fact that today’s market generates £8.5 billion for the British economy.  There are seven volume factories in operation in the UK and eight Formula One teams are based in the country.

MacGowan also stressed that the UK shouldn’t be isolated from the global marketplace.  In 2010 the Chinese new car market was larger than the United States and its new car market value is expected to exceed America’s by 2014, propelled by higher profit margins.  Up to seven times as much profit can be earned by top brand cars in China than in the UK, which can put the UK market in a tricky position.

However, with so much cash swilling around a global marketplace, perpetual market fluctuation and consolidation will be a given, with even the comparatively small opportunities being significant, not least for technology providers.

Environmentally friendly electric cars will have an impact on the market; the scale and precise nature of which largely remains to be seen, according to MacGowan.  But how the market prepares for the influx of second hand electric vehicles, and how electric vehicles stand the test of time and miles, will have a growing impact on used vehicle profits.  Connected technologies will be key to this.

Mobilising BCA

Jonathan Higham of British Car Auctions (BCA) kicked off the presentations with an overview of BCA’s place in the market.

BCA now boasts 46 auction centres across 11 countries and will sell over 600,000 cars in 2011.  Of these sales 20% are now sold online, giving more eyeballs on vehicles and greater reach.  Electronic online bidding hasn’t slowed down the auction process but instead gives considerably more detailed information, enabling 750,000 monthly viewers of BCA’s online Auction View to make better informed decisions.

Added to this is a greater stream of data accessible on the go.  Mobile data means notifications can be delivered when bids are offered and accepted, while buyers can send a text message containing a vehicle’s registration number to a short code, and receive information back about that vehicle.

There have been operational benefits too.  Channel remarketing requires knowledge of where any vehicle is at a given time, both physically and virtually.  That is, where it is parked and where it is positioned in the supply chain.  This information can be passed to users thanks to TBS Enterprise Mobility’s TaskMaster software, running on Windows Mobile operating systems inside Motorola devices.  As well as delivering information into the field, the software can dynamically formulate essential workflow statistics and monitor where field staff are throughout their working day.

Technology and the used car market

Richard Richmond of Lombard was then welcomed for an interview with Christopher MacGowan.  Questioned on today’s market, Richard explained that the market is in a transient state of consolidation with mergers and acquisitions, and such changes will always occur.

But it was agreed that technology adoption has been rapid and significant.  Only five years ago operations were being conducted almost exclusively using spreadsheets alone, and such rigid dependencies forced the market to embrace new technologies.

Tellingly, one of the day’s largest audience reactions came from Richard’s response about customers selling vehicles:  “Sometimes they lie, don’t they?”  A pithy inconvenient truth, combatting the ability to conceal information is a primary objective for new technologies deployed, with functions such as image capture and GPS tracking helping to prevent any falsification.

Richard went on to discuss the impact of hybrid vehicles on the market.  The unknowns of a 4 year-old hybrid vehicle’s performance or battery life will be hugely important to any resale price and the market will have to adapt to these unknown values, with a consequence that some will inevitably get burnt.

Responding to a popular question about the shortage of used cars in the retail end of the market, Richard offered an optimistic, alternative view based on perceived over-supply to the market.  Any under supply will be balanced out by earlier over supply and a correct level will be found.  External factors were also flagged as influential to the shrinking retail market.  With potential interest rate rises, mortgages will rise too, leaving less disposable household income for cars.

The technologists’ take

Microsoft’s Developer Evangelist Paul Foster then took the stage.  Paul explained how mobile devices have effectively consumerised IT, giving everybody the power to harness technology for their own needs, through a wide range of devices and applications, inside the home, the office and the car.  It served to underline how all industries can prepare for consumer use of smartphone technology to translate to any sector by considering how best to touch customers, and make everyone’s lives easier.

Steve Reynolds, CEO of TBS Enterprise Mobility – the technology delivery partner for BCA – focussed on the aspects of everyday life which are converging with mobile technology and how these are multiplying.  He explained how the benefits of mobile telemetry and data transfer technology will grow clearer, increasingly helping to avoid traffic congestion, improve fuel efficiency and give new safety features.

With reduced traffic congestion comes reduced Carbon Dioxide emissions.  It has been calculated that a free-flowing road produces 20% less Carbon Dioxide than a congested road, hence the commitment towards reducing traffic congestion by almost any means.

Why wouldn’t you?

A closing Q&A session yielded several reasons for scepticism around adopting mobile.  Are buyers more savvy than sellers, with portable smartphones listing up-to-the-minute retail prices?  Can anything sellers do compete with them?

When will mobile coverage be better everywhere?  My signal is still poor in certain places.

Arguably most interesting was the question around the reliance on paper forms in the buying, insuring and taxing processes.  Why does there remain such dependence and can’t an implanted NFC chip contain all this data?  Here lies a common inertia which technology providers struggle against, day-to-day.  Implicit trust will come eventually, with time and secure, unimpeachable solutions.

A snapshot of the industry revealed a cross-section of successful businesspeople who knew their complicated supply chain industry intimately well, and were open to learning more.  Interesting to observe will be how broadly mobile is adopted, how attitudes towards technology do change, and how far engagement effectively percolates down the chain.

enterprise solutions, mobile applications, technologies

Picking a platform for enterprise mobility

The right platform: key in getting you where you want to go.

This year’s mobile news has at times seemed dominated by smartphone Operating Systems: which has the most users, which is the most advanced, which is the most flexible and developer-friendly.  But outside of consumer bells and whistles, how many platforms are ready for the serious test of enterprise deployment?  We spoke to TBS Enterprise Mobility’s Managing Director, Steve Reynolds…

Q: We’re hearing more and more about smartphone operating systems and particularly the rise of the Google Android OS. How much impact is this having on enterprise solutions?

SR. What we’re seeing in the marketplace is a lot of focus on innovation in consumer smartphone operating systems. There’s a lot of noise out there which, as always, can make it tough to gauge what’s significant and what isn’t. What isn’t in dispute is that the smartphone market growth is phenomenal. It’s quite possible that we’ll see another 1000% growth on top of what we have now.

Q. What does this mean for device manufacturers?

SR. Manufacturers are at the point where they need to differentiate through genuine innovation. LG is launching its 3D phone, and there’s been considerable attention on the birth of smartphones with integrated Near Field Communications (NFC) functionality this year.

Manufacturers need to also be aware of form factors creeping up on the smartphone. At executive level in the enterprise space many devices like tablets are used covertly, or ‘unofficially.’ It’s only a matter of time before enterprise demands more from manufacturers’ technology stack, and consumer functions formally and securely percolate through to enterprise class devices.

Q: Why has Android become the consumer OS of choice?

SR. It’s the consumer OS of choice for many reasons. Android is an open source platform that’s been adopted across device manufacturers who are each seeking to differentiate and the open nature of the system gives greater opportunity to do this. High end, sophisticated devices are being produced alongside entry level, affordable smartphones like those from Samsung. This has defined the consumer difference.

Q. Is Android ready for use in the enterprise?

SR. There are considerable challenges for the Android OS before it is fit for enterprise purpose. With open source systems come legitimate concerns over lack of control. The current Android marketplace for distributing applications has a minimal form of quality testing, with reports suggesting that as many as 4 in 6 applications risk breaching data confidentiality regulations. Added to this are challenges around security, remote device management and whether Android devices are more vulnerable to being hacked. We don’t want to see another Sony PlayStation scenario with mobile data.

But there is promise. Developers can program enterprise applications to protect businesses from these threats. The next 12 months will see enterprise-focussed organisations like TBS develop applications which are sensitive to OS weaknesses.

Q: With the breadth of choice, what should I consider in selecting an OS for an enterprise solution?

SR. We should be careful to distinguish between enterprise solutions and field mobility here.

For many in the corporate space, enterprise solutions can mean email and messaging systems alone. These requirements can be adequately accommodated in iPhone and Android systems – provided there is an appropriate level of security installed on devices. Perimeter passwords offer protection, while technical policies can control the types of applications which can be downloaded.

However, field mobility organisations demand the flexibility to grow and adapt their solutions according to tight specifications and specific business needs. Rather than purchasing applications from a marketplace, many organisations select developers who can provide bespoke applications which future-proof investment through innovation roadmaps.

Remote device management and perimeter security has been a key requirement for enterprise based solutions over the last decade. For those managing large fleets of vehicles or construction teams in remote environments, this is critical. Windows Mobile 6.X has largely stood alone in supporting these requirements up until now.

Q. Are businesses limited by the availability of operating systems and devices, or is there enough choice?

SR. If anything there is too much choice at the moment. Everything from Android’s rise, to Palm’s Mobile OS, to Nokia’s disposal of Symbian hints at an overarching consolidation which could ultimately converge to just 3 or 4 systems.

Multiple OSs with multiple Software Development Kits makes for a frustrating and confusing development experience, but the advent of HTML 5 heralds a real cross-platform development leap forward. Notwithstanding current limitations in its low level control of devices and an absence of rich control, in time it will lead to more fluent programming.

Q. What is the TBS development strategy for accommodating the OS market evolution?

SR. It’s imperative for TBS that we support as many smartphone operating systems as possible to give our customers the chance to innovate. To this end we have an intensive programme underway to provide solutions on all of the major smartphone systems, in addition to tablet devices. With device boundaries set to blur in the future, our goal is to ensure TBS customers can use multiple form factors and are given the ultimate flexibility to adapt solutions in line with their businesses.