IT and Business Insights for SMB Solution Providers

Vertical Markets Primed for Mobility

The business use of mobile apps is taking off, and with it the vertical markets embracing them. Here’s a look at the most promising industry segments. By Lauren Gibbons Paul

As with so many of today's hot computing trends, mobility was driven by consumers who flocked to smartphones en masse with the introduction of the iPhone. Now, however, mobility is being driven and shaped by businesses in need of workplace productivity gains, and mobile applications and devices are a perfect way to achieve just that.

It's not just large enterprises that are leveraging mobility. According to a March 2013 SMB Group Inc. survey of business decision makers from 701 U.S.-based small to midsize businesses, 91 percent of participants are currently using some type of mobile solution (including functions as basic as email and calendar) for work.

That doesn't seem surprising given the ubiquity of smartphones, but nearly 70 percent of survey respondents say mobile technology is now critical to their business, says Laurie McCabe, partner at SMB Group. That is impressive, considering the iPhone came on the market just six years ago. Not only are companies using mobility internally, giving employees mobile-enabled core business apps with which to do their jobs anytime, anywhere, but they are also giving customers and partners access to mobile apps that allow outsiders to do everything from viewing order status and making reservations to paying for a purchase and checking inventory.

A January 2013 global survey of business decision makers by market research firm Vanson Bourne pointed to the same conclusion: 92 percent of 600 participants believe that adopting mobile apps will give them a competitive edge. Businesses understand the possibilities inherent in mobility, says McCabe. “I can't think of any technology that has taken off as quickly.”

But that doesn't mean businesses know how to manage mobility. According to the Vanson Bourne survey, most businesses don't feel able to cope with the range of issues that arise from mobility, such as how to develop and maintain mobile apps, support mobile users, or confront the vagaries of BYOD.

It's time for companies in the channel to come up with the mobility strategies that will best serve their customers, says Anurag Agrawal, CEO of Techaisle LLC, an SMB market research firm.

Thrown back on their heels by the cloud onslaught, channel partners have grown too complacent in their willingness to sell and support mobile solutions fed to them by the major OEMs, which do not always include mobile apps, notes Agrawal. When it comes to mobility, he says, “The savvy vendors have found ways to approach the SMBs directly and cut out the channel altogether.” SMB demand for mobility services and products has outpaced what the channel has to offer.

All of this activity with mobility adds up to numerous opportunities for the channel - to create mobile-optimized versions of core business applications, support mobile users, help manage mobile data and devices - you name it. But where do the best opportunities lie?

As with most service offerings, it is best to stick with what you know. Getting up to speed on a new vertical takes a lot of work, so if you currently serve a few market segments, offer those customers mobility help, says McCabe. “You need to go with your strength,” she says. “If you already have a lot of customers in manufacturing, stick to that. The mobile opportunities will be great regardless of industry and will go across industries. There will be opportunities in every vertical.”

The best near-term opportunities lie where there has been the fastest uptake of mobile devices, says Agrawal, whose research points to healthcare; agriculture, mining, and construction; and information/media as leading verticals. Here is a look at some of those key verticals embracing mobility:

At the enterprise level, the financial services sector was one of the earliest adopters of mobility. Now, smaller banks and financial institutions are getting in on the action, offering their business customers such services as payment functions and real-time credit decisions for consumers on the go. Since financial institutions handle their customers' money, they must comply with Payment Card Industry (PCI) regulations, for example, among many others. Mobile apps must provide secure information transfer and the ability to selectively wipe financial data off lost or stolen mobile devices.

According to Techaisle's survey, SMBs in financial services currently need mobile-enabled payment processing, sales force automation, CRM, social media marketing, business analytics, and business productivity software applications.

Given the complexity of the regulatory picture in this industry, channel pros might want to pursue financial services clients if they already have knowledge and experience in this space. Starting from scratch might be an uphill climb.

Mobile Health (or mHealth) is undeniably one of the hottest growth areas for mobility in the SMB space today. In a recent study, Juniper Research predicts that mHealth apps will reach 142 million downloads by 2016. Healthcare organizations both large and small are snapping up tablets to use in mobile patient care, including everything from in-office care to remote patient health monitoring. There are also opportunities for providers to develop health information and monitoring applications for their patient populations.

The larger healthcare organizations such as hospitals have been on the mobility bandwagon for several years already; now the smaller offices are jumping aboard, driven in part by the move to electronic medical records (EMRs) as well as the need for greater productivity.

Often, the large entities are driving their smaller partners to adopt mobile applications, says Ilene Rosoff, CEO of The Launch Pad, a provider of managed IT services for SMBs, in Tampa, Fla. The Launch Pad supports healthcare clients using cloud-based apps. “Healthcare tends to be arcane in the way it does things. You have to be tapped into that vertical; you have to be attuned to the drivers,” says Rosoff. As a mobility leader like financial services, healthcare is probably not a good place to start your company's mobility journey, unless you already understand the space well.

Professional services and manufacturing are both up-and-coming areas for mobility. Neither is viewed as an early adopter of technology in general or mobility in particular. But like everyone else, these companies are coming around to the idea of how mobile solutions can help contribute to their bottom lines.

The Launch Pad Online targets professional services for mobility as well as other services. “We focus on professional services organizations, including construction and legal, with between 40 and 80 users,” says Rosoff.

While her company was already providing services to these firms, Rosoff says the professional services verticals are easier to get into than healthcare. “You have to understand what they're using for their core business applications. If you become familiar with the software they're using, you're in good shape.”

According to Agrawal, retail is another area seeing explosive mobility growth. The large retail chains have already created mobile shopping applications (often called mCommerce). Retailers of all sizes are revolutionizing their in-store shopping experiences by allowing kiosk payment or roving store check-out personnel. Store clerks are also using tablets to quickly check inventory, thereby improving customer service. Consumers are on the brink of mass adoption of mobile wallets (mWallets), which will store payment methods and purchase receipts.

“We're seeing workers that are employed within retail stores moving around, using handheld devices for a variety of things,” says Agrawal. “That is an important vertical that is picking up its use of mobility.” These businesses are moving away from PCs altogether, with tablets able to handle most of the needed functions. The mobility opportunities in restaurants/hospitality are closely related to retail, since tablets are a good fit for workers in these crowded environments.

About the Author

ChannelPro SMB Magazine

Get an edge on the competition

With each issue packed full of powerful news, reviews, analysis, and advice targeting IT channel professionals, ChannelPro-SMB will help you cultivate your SMB customers and run your business more profitably.