As wireless capabilities surge forward, companies like Royal LePage and Bank of Montreal are catching the wave. Here’s a look at how both firms are moving to a wireless future.
By Grace Casselman
For real estate giant Royal LePage, the Internet has already proven itself invaluable. The company Web site not only attracts and services customers, it also makes the job easier for realtors.
Of note, the company’s Web site – www.royallepage.ca – already boasts an impressive 140 million hits per month. By visiting the Web site, an agent or a potential customer can pinpoint specific homes on a map along with surrounding amenities, such as schools or parks. In some cases, there’s also the option to view photos and even take a virtual video tour of the premises.
While company executives have already seen that consumers truly want to go online to look up home listings, the important question for a forward-looking corporation is: What’s next? The answer, it appears, is wireless.
“Wireless is the evolution of where we’ve come with the Internet and where we’re going,” says Paul Vendittelli, CIO and vice-president at Royal LePage. Indeed, the wireless site – www.royal lepage.ca/mobile – was first launched in mid-2000 and is now attracting 20,000 visits per month, accessed by users of digital cell phones, Palm or RIM BlackBerry devices. And Royal LePage predicts usage of both the standard and wireless Web site will double annually. (To support that, 23 people reportedly work on the Internet and wireless initiatives at the company.)
The People Factor: Leverging Advantage
While consumers may access the wireless site, Royal LePage has concentrated its wireless efforts on its agents, explains Sherry Chris, vice-president of network services for Royal LePage in Toronto. “One of our goals was to set our sales people up first until wireless really takes off,” says Chris. This will require the introduction of devices that incorporate telephones as well as e-mail, daytimer and Web browsing capability. She fully expects such devices on the market by year-end.
Vendittelli suggests agents will be increasingly attracted to technology for reasons of productivity. He cites statistics from the National Association of Realtors in the U.S.: among top producers, 87 per cent use e-mail, 70 per cent use the Internet for business, 51 per cent have a Web site and 20 per cent use a Palm or PDA.
Chris estimates that 20 per cent of the sales force operates wirelessly “in some fashion.” And that, she says, brings use of the technology beyond the early adopter stage.
The way realtors handle administrative work has changed dramatically. “It’s light years of difference,” says Brad Hawker, broker/realtor at Royal LePage Rocky Mountain Realty in Canmore, Alberta. Two years ago, finding information on listings meant digging through paper records. But today, if someone spots a new `For Sale’ sign on a lawn, they can dial up the wireless site and immediately get data on the new listing. “Everything is so much easier.”
Hawker generally uploads data on pertinent local sites each morning when he synchronizes his Palm unit with his desktop computer (also updating his schedule and capturing e-mail to read later). But he also can tap into the database from the road, by hooking the Palm up to his digital cell phone.
The company has hired five “virtual service specialists” that traverse the country full-time to train 8,200 sales people in 550 offices about technology “in a non-threatening way,” Chris says. That includes instruction in smaller groups, or one-on-one instruction. In some cases, it could even be teaching something as basic as how to use a mouse. “We don’t want agents to be afraid to ask.”
Regardless, not all agents are going high-tech. Chris admits there are still many agents who work mainly with paper. Documents are typed by the office secretary, and then they consult paper versions of listings.
Vendittelli expects agents who shun technology will eventually be few and far between. That’s mainly because of the increasing expectations of consumers, he says. “The consumer is to a large extent dictating the market. They want virtual tours, they want listings on the Web, they want to be able to correspond by e-mail.”
“More and more agents are embracing this,” says Hawker. “They can see the value.” Regarding the use of Internet and wireless, he says, “It’s got to a point where there’s a critical mass, a momentum.”
Hawker’s own business Web site (www.bradhawker.com) has been up for almost a year. “Most certainly it’s been fabulous for me,” he says. “This allows people to take the first step without requiring a commitment.” According to the U.S. National Association of Realtors, those realtors with personal Web pages achieve a median gross income that’s 70 per cent higher than those without Web pages.
Of interest, Hawker is also testing unified messaging software that would ring up his digital phone whenever his Web site receives an inquiry. With that technology (he wouldn’t identify the developer), he can pick up the phone and listen to the text message, and speak a response, which is then converted back to text and e-mailed to the customer.
Because Royal LePage agents are independent contractors, they’re responsible for purchasing their own technology, says Chris. However, the company has worked out arrangements with the wireless vendors for access to new limited-supply products.
Intranet Goes Wireless
At press time, agents could sign up a client and produce a listing on Friday, but it might be Monday before the new information appeared on the Web site. But by the end of Q2, the company will extend the corporate intranet wirelessly. Agents at clients’ premises will be able to enter new listings into wireless devices making that data immediately accessible to other agents, and at the public Web site. Agents with digital cameras can also wirelessly upload photos of the homes.
“I see that as being an ideal tool, especially as the market picks up,” says Bernard Lefebvre, an agent with Northern Lights Realty in Cold Lake, Alberta, a Royal LePage office. He regularly downloads listings from the Royal LePage Web site to his computer, and then to his Palm handheld. “Having new listings come up is key,” he adds.
Integration is Key
The entire management team at Royal LePage is now using BlackBerry devices, “to communicate instantly with one another and with brokers and agents,” says Vendittelli. “We’ve found it a huge benefit for us.”
“More and more, e-mail is the first means of communication – more than voice mail,” says Chris.
And yet, there are still limitations, says Vendittelli. “It’s not perfect yet.” For instance, because receiving e-mail wirelessly generally requires a certain amount of forwarding, “the return e-mail address can be lost in the process of being forwarded and forwarded. It often appears to come from yourself.”
It’s important to integrate wireless projects with existing systems and avoid duplication, says Vendittelli. “Wireless becomes an extension of our Internet strategy, with the same back-end and the same data source. That becomes key to managing different infrastructures.”
Also, the company relies on open standards, mainly using basic HTML on the wireless site, as well as the Wireless Markup Language (WML) and Handheld Device Markup Language (HDML).
Extending the Electronic Embrace
“We are most definitely seeing a trend towards mobilizing Internet content to handheld devices,” says Jan Gillespie, director of marketing for Palm Canada Inc. “This enables organizations to extend their value-added services and solutions – electronic embrace – to customers, partners, and constituencies.”
The benefits of such an effort include improved customer service and retention, she says. “We are seeing this in financial services, real estate, and news outlets.” According to Gillespie, there are now more than 700,000 Palm handhelds in Canada alone. “With the phenomenal growth of the handheld market, organizations are seeing that they can extend their Web presence to these types of devices to give consumers any time, anywhere access to important information,” Gillespie says.
A wireless strategy particularly makes sense for a real estate organization, Royal LePage’s Chris emphasizes: “Wireless and the real estate industry seem to be a natural combination. Our agents are out on the road all day. Consumers are using the technology to search for a home. Agents can look for new listings, and consumers can do the same.”
It goes without saying, Royal LePage is definitely sold on wireless.
BMO Takes Wireless Access ‘Any Time, Any Place, Anywhere’
At Bank of Montreal, the corporate wireless strategy is focused under one label: Veev.
Although Veev is an important new brand for the bank, it’s not an acronym, and the word has no particular meaning.
“It’s an exciting and fun name for a new fun service,” explains Mark Dickelman, vice-president for m-commerce and wireless at the Bank of Montreal. He also has responsibility for Veev, developed as part of a strategic study into the future of access to banking services.
Veev is the “ability to access any time, any place, anywhere,” adds Mark Saunders, senior vice-president and CIO for BMO Nesbitt Burns Inc.
Veev is a platform to deliver financial services technology across a variety of devices. That includes support for Palm devices, RIM’s BlackBerry and about 50 varieties of digital cell phones.
When the service was first launched in mid-1999, it provided wireless access to basic Web-type banking services, such as confirming balances, transferring money between accounts, and paying bills. Subsequently that was expanded to include wireless trading and investing with the BMO InvestorLine service. Customers can now also purchase books from Indigo.ca, and can request alerts containing best sellers lists. As well, the Veev service has now been expanded into the U.S. for customers of the Harris Bank in Chicago, a member of the Bank of Montreal Group of Companies.
The technology behind Veev was developed by Toronto’s 724 Solutions Inc., and includes end-to-end encryption of information from the handheld device back to the bank.
“Veev is what the bank is doing to make a consumer-friendly offering,” says Andr‚ Boysen, chief of strategic initiatives at 724 Solutions.
The Bank of Montreal was 724 Solution’s first customer for the Financial Services Platform technology. However, 724 Solutions has since sold the technology to other financial institutions, including the Bank of American and Wells Fargo, and the New Zealand Stock Exchange. Meanwhile, the Bank of Montreal is specifically re-marketing its Veev service to smaller financial institutions in North America that might be interested in launching innovative wireless offerings.
Because a wireless transaction is inherently of the “card not present” variety, both merchants and consumers tend to express security concerns about entering credit-card numbers to pay for purchases. Instead, with the Veev solution, pertinent data (including credit card numbers and shipping information) is stored at the bank. Purchases are authorized when the system recognizes the calling phone number and the user enters a unique PIN, explains Boysen.
However, he says 724 Solutions and the Bank of Montreal are currently running trials on a public key infrastructure (PKI) technology that will support digital signatures on the wireless devices.
Dickelman stresses the importance of a “standards-based” approach in a wireless strategy. Specifically, he cites the bank’s use of the Open Financial Exchange (OFX) standard “coupled with XML,” as the standard interface that allows for communication with banking systems in Canada and the U.S. (Of note, OFX – www.ofx.net – is a specification for electronic exchange of financial data created by CheckFree, Intuit and Microsoft in early 1997.)
While the company has been conducting business wirelessly for the last two years, Dickelman says it’s still “early days” for the technology, declining to share what percentage of customers choose to conduct transactions wirelessly. But he adds: “We’re at the forefront of technology in this industry.”
Wireless technology is also used extensively by bank employees, says Saunders, particularly RIM BlackBerry devices – for productivity, e-mail and trading. Indeed, last fall the company rolled the products out to about 200 staff members, ranging from the bank president to tech-nical support staff, investment bank people and research analysts.
Saunders believes e-mail connectivity is the biggest issue for banking staff. These days, even in a cab in Chicago, he can be in touch with electronic commun-ications. “I’m connected wherever I go in North America, for the most part.”
Previously, many users had adopted the RIM technology in an ad hoc manner, purchasing the wireless service directly from Rogers Communications Inc., for instance. However, that approach was not without problems, because e-mail forwarding happened at the desktop level. “They’d set their desktop to forward e-mails, but someone would turn the PC off, or the forwarding connection would get lost,” says Saunders.
Today, such e-mail forwarding happens at the server level, using the RIM BlackBerry Enterprise Server technology tightly coupled with Microsoft Exchange Server. Filters can be set up on the server to prioritize certain e-mail, from a certain person, or containing certain words, for instance. Messages may have different levels of notification, or only certain mail will be forwarded on to a mobile user. “It’s versatile and flexible,” says Saunders. “At the server level, you don’t have to worry about the desktop, and filters get maintained.”
Saunders is a fan of the quick response time provided by wireless. “I can send a message to direct reports at 9 p.m. at night and get a response right back. Because people have [the devices] on their body all the time, I get responses very fast.”
The technology can be a little addictive, he adds. “I use this as a personal productivity device. Other people might get obsessed with it. You’ve got to know when to put it down.”
Saunders recognizes the ongoing debate about the types of wireless devices business people will ultimately carry. “My preference is to carry one device,” he says, adding it should have organizer, e-mail and telephone features. “I think we’re heading towards one-device capability.”
Saunders says that there’s no data available regarding return on investment for the wireless devices. “This is one of the few instances when we haven’t focused on that piece of it in the organization,” he says. “It’s not a huge number, but the productivity gains for individuals and for the organization have been tremendous.”
For BMO, wireless technology is like money in the bank.
Barriers to Business Wireless
“A couple of things are holding wireless back,” says Lawrence Surtees, telecommunications analyst for IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto. That’s particularly true in the business world, he says, pointing to four major obstacles:
§ User inhibitions, particularly around security issues;
§ An absence of proper handset devices;
§ Inadequate data capacity due to the slow speeds of networks;
§ A perceived lack of compelling applications.
However, things are looking up, he notes. For instance, all major mobile phone manufacturers are now supporting the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) standard for content delivery. That means the new cell phones offer improved platforms for viewing data applications.
Moreover, faster networks are also on their way, with the so-called 2.5G networks scheduled for rollout this fall, promising speeds of 144Kbps, compared to a typical call today of 14.4Kbps. “By next year, 2.5G services will be available in most urban areas,” says Surtees.
1G (first generation) – (1985)
Cellular service commercially became available in Canada
2G – (1995)
Digital PCS service became available in Canada, offering lighter phones with longer battery life. Current speed is typically 14.4 Kbps.
2.5G, first phase – (September 2001)
Network speeds and new phones will offer transmission rates of 144Kbps.
2.5G, second phase – (2002)
Network speeds will offer transmission rates of 384Kbps in stationary mode, 144Kbps when moving (in a vehicle, for instance).
3G – (2003-2004)
Network speeds will achieve 2Mbps.
Source: IDC Canada.
Grace Casselman is a freelance writer specializing in information technology. She is based in Calgary