Visions MDI

The Mobile Data Initiative - more digital innovation

Digital telephony sounds like a direct cousin of the digital world of computing. What could be easier than using a digital telephone to send a computer's digital data? Yet the vast majority of data transfers today take place over analogue lines. This is because the digitalisation of telephony is still in early stages in many countries. ISDN is far from widespread. The plain old telephone system (POTS) is still the ubiquitous form of transmission. Only in one area is digital technology taking the lead: GSM mobile telephony in Europe. The Mobile Data Initiative (MDI) was formed by a cross-industry group of companies to promote this advantage.

In terms of technology, the GSM telephone system is a world leader. Designed specifically for Europe, it is now in use in over 50 countries world-wide. Within Europe it provides a multi-country, compatible system with a fast, reliable service over large areas of northern, western and central Europe. It makes roaming totally transparent with calls handed from one national system to another. A wide range of telephones for the GSM system is now available and almost all companies also produce digital conversion cards in PC Card format for notebook PCs.

Digital statistics
According to Dataquest, Europe leads the world in mobile (wireless) digital voice transmissions with a subscriber base of 19 million in 1996, growing to 66 million by the year 2000. The US had just three million in 1996. Instead, the US has a large number of analogue systems. Americans, however, are much more likely to attach their notebooks to these mobile phones. One in three PCs sold in the USA is a mobile. In Europe it is one in five. As e-mail is one of the first uses of mobile connectivity, looking at license numbers is also informative. In 1995 7.5 million e-mail licenses were shipped in the USA. In Europe it was just 2.5 million. Despite this, workforce surveys show that Europe has 1.1 million more mobile professionals that the USA! Plainly European professionals are not exploiting mobile connectivity.

GSM figures back this up. In Europe, currently only one in 50 GSM phone users also has a GSM data card. This means that data transfers over the GSM network only make up 0.5% of traffic compared to 46.3% of business traffic over European land lines. Such statistics beg the question "Why?". What stops Europe's businessmen from exploiting mobile connectivity advantages?

MDI - making data itinerant
The companies that formed the MDI were each asking similar questions. As players in the relevant fields, they aim to help Europe's business exploit their native GSM advantage (and no-one is denying that they each hope to sell more of their own product in the process). These are legitimate business objectives. There are many benefits to be gained for European business in digital GSM services and contrary to perceptions the costs are not high.

MDI was launched in Berlin on 1st October 1996. It is working in public and within the core computing and telecommunications industries to make mobile GSM data as easy and attractive to business as possible. To measure its success, MDI set two objectives: by 2000, 70% of mobile PC users should also have a GSM data card, and in terms of turnover on the European GSM network, 30% of calls should be carrying data.

To reach these goals, the MDI group has set up a range of activities, including public information programs, user demonstrations, easier retailer purchasing, compatibility testing and technical standardisation procedures. In addition, each of the member companies is looking at new products and new services to further the goals of the initiative.

MDI - more dynamic information
A major argument against mobile phones and data transfers is the cost. Yet it is often one of the most ill-informed criticisms. For staff staying overnight, GSM calls can be cheaper than hotel telephones. Ensuring that the number called from a GSM phone is also a GSM connection saves even more. In Germany the price can be as little as half the cost of calling a land-based number. Having more staff use GSM can under circumstances therefore be cheaper than fewer. For data connectivity, it is important to exploit the benefits of Internet providers who also have GSM connections. Alternatively providing a GSM connection for your company PC network can make considerable savings.

But none of these calculations takes into account the dynamics of having staff fully informed, updated and included. If e-mail has become your major company method of distributing data and keeping in personal contact, is it right to keep sales staff (the people who, after all, create the business) off the system? At your desk you read mails when they come, or when you want. Should sales staff be updated only once a day at home?

Sales staff who quickly log in via GSM from the car before entering a client's building are better informed and more confident about the sales discussions. They know if there's been a last minute change in price, availability or if a competing company has also just decided for the same product.

The costs to business of badly-informed staff are difficult to compute. Just as many companies were not sure why they needed notebooks, and could only see the benefits once these had been implemented, so the case for GSM connectivity is partly based on experience. Alternatively if you use GSM phones but not notebooks, look at what phone connectivity has brought you. You can interrupt somebody's work to ask for information, but you can't analyse what they tell you, or work it into your (pre-printed) presentation. GSM data connectivity is one more step in the direction of complete information at your fingertips, anywhere. It exploits the business cost savings of dynamic information flows.

MDI - making distance invisible
However, the MDI also realises that there are technical improvements to be made to GSM connectivity. All companies in the group have acknowledged this and it is for this reason that companies like Intel and Microsoft are involved. Their expertise in the implementation of technical solutions is vital to the success of GSM data connectivity. They are also able to act as honest brokers between the competing companies in the PC, phone-manufacturer and telecoms services sectors.

To help make both GSM connectivity as well as distance invisible, the member companies have instituted "plug fests" where all the hardware is brought together and tested for full compatibility. Testing procedures are open to all member companies and the results are shared within the group. The level of trust this shows between member companies is indicative of the seriousness with which they take the MDI programme.

Together with Microsoft, member companies are aiming to implement GSM connectivity as part of the future unimodem feature set for perfect plug and play functionality under Windows operating systems. GSM connectivity should be transparent within applications. The MDI group is also looking into GSM software solutions and collecting all information onto one central GSM website where customers and member companies alike can inform themselves of developments. If you are interested in what GSM data connectivity can offer your company visit and see for yourself what is on offer.

MDI - membership dramatically increasing
During 1997 expect to hear a lot more about MDI and GSM connectivity. New hardware is on its way, and both phone and PC manufacturers are looking into the various options for building more GSM data connectivity directly into their devices. But perhaps the major reason why you'll hear more about this topic is the popularity of the initiative.

At its launch MDI was made up of 12 core members: for notebook PCs, Toshiba, Compaq, IBM; for GSM equipment, Ericsson and Nokia; for network operators, Cellnet, DeTe-Mobil, Mannesmann, Telia and Vodafone; and for operating systems, Microsoft and Intel. In the meantime membership has more than doubled. With 27 members (March 1997), the group can look back on its first six months with a measure of pleasure. MDI is making waves in the business world, as well as making digital innovations.