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Keeping the cost of mobility under control

Mobile devices aren't cheap, and some firms are learning to save cash by limiting deployments.

When a Baltimore-based law firm first began deploying laptops and smart phones, it took a cautious approach, giving them to only a handful of attorneys. The slow and steady strategy proved smart, because thanks to that gradual rollout, the firm has been able to experiment, learn and ultimately keep the cost of mobility under control.

Jeffery Hackett, executive director of Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hoffberger LLC, said that laptops are an increasing staple of corporate culture, but are surprisingly expensive to manage. That's one reason why he distributes them very carefully, and only to those who really need them.

"We simply have more problems with laptops," Hackett said. "They are more expensive to fix, they can be lost or stolen." He said as many as 30% of the firm's laptops can be out of service at any given time.

Since Hackett has only handed laptops out to a few of the firm's 80 attorneys, he has learned something important: many of his lawyers don't really need laptops. What they need is e-mail access on the road, which a smart phone can provide for much less hassle and expense.

"We got more bang for our buck because we didn't go whole hog on notebooks," Hackett said.

Such planning is one key to a successful mobile deployment, said David Friedlander, a senior analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. Too many businesses lack clear guidelines when determining which users need mobile devices and why, and those that do often fail to enforce those rules.

"Too many businesses don't make a business case for mobile devices and consequently don't examine the costs," Friedlander said.

Friedlander recently authored a brief titled, "Mobile User Support Costs," which lays some ground rules for businesses to consider when they deploy mobile devices. He has developed a cost model that he associates with each type of employee.

For instance, a casual teleworker will cost 1.5 times what a full-time, in-office employee costs to support. A permanent teleworker costs double what it costs to support an in-office worker.

The highly mobile employee is the most expensive, at three times that of a regular worker. The least expensive to support is the task-oriented mobile worker at just 1.25 times that of an in-office employee.

The Bearing Belt Chain Company has had that same experience. Based in Las Vegas, the supplier of ball bearings and transmission parts has deployed PDAs to its mobile sales force. The company's salespeople synch their PDAs with PCs to update inventory and other data. They can then access that information in the field when they are with customers.

"We expected an additional cost to be associated with this," said Stephen Philpott, president of Bearing Belt.

But that cost has also not been extravagant. Philpott said that there was a $750 one-time training fee for the devices, and he pays a $50 a month maintenance fee for support on the devices.

For both the law firm and Bearing Belt, the handheld devices have proven simple to support. Hackett said they generate fewer support calls and are reliable.

In addition, Hackett said that non-tech savvy employees have been more willing to pick up a smart phone rather than a laptop. The devices are just easier to work with, he said.

By developing a policy for which workers get mobile devices and sticking to it, Friedlander said companies can ensure that they are spending their resources well.

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