Hotel Chain Has No Reservations About Mobile Content

Although the market for content for cell phones and PDAs is still in its infancy, the two applications that are expected to seize major market-share the fastest are reservations for airplane seats and hotel rooms.

Given that generally accepted fact, the people at the world's largest hotel company, the $14 billion Intercontinental Hotels Group, were understandably concerned that it took almost half a year every time the chain needed to code and implement the mobile phone reservation system.

Intercontinental operates in about 100 countries/territories around the world using seven hotel chain brands: InterContinental, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo, Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Staybridge Suites and Candlewood Suites.

All told, the chain controls about 3,600 hotels with about 538,000 rooms, which puts it far ahead of the Hilton chains worldwide.

The problem had been that the application had to be written and designed from start to finish twice: once for desktops and then again for smart phones, said Del Ross, who runs the mobile applications group as the company's vice president of distribution marketing/the Americas.

"That project may have taken eight to 12 weeks to code and implement. And we'd then have to do it all over again for the wireless version," he said.

That all changed this month, when Ross's group made the cutover from a proprietary platform to a Sun Unix-based XML-compliant gateway.

"It's now a lot more efficient because it still uses the same plumbing," Ross said.

The 24 weeks that it used to take his group was slashed.

"Today, it only takes six to eight weeks and we only have to do it once. This eliminates the need to have to redo it," Ross said. "The wireless application had been a completely separate application. It had its own programming and its own code and it had its own infrastructure. Now it's one application that you can access through the regular Web or through a wireless device."

At the simplest level, Intercontinental merely stopped reinventing the guts of the application twice for each rollout, opting to instead merely craft two separate GUIs and basic data entry changes, which both sat atop the same programming core.

"Programming an interface is relatively lightweight work compared with having to write the guts of the application, including business logic, the data transformation process and legacy system integration," Ross said.

"It's far more complex and time-consuming to develop [those elements] rather than the interface that accesses all of those things."

Why didn't the company do that years ago, when they started offering this service on mobile phones? Ross said that two recent advancements have made the change possible.

The first changes are the improvements that cell phone manufacturers and cellular carriers have made on today's phone hybrids, including superior bandwidth, more RAM and faster CPUs.

The second change is with Intercontinental's internal software improvements that allow the company to more quickly and precisely identify what device the customer is using.

"The phones themselves have evolved and our ability to detect what type of device is much more sophisticated. That combination alone helps quite a bit," Ross said. "Today we can serve a very specific version of the application."

Even with those improvements and with additional improvements expected in the near future, the interfaces for desktop and handheld are still light years apart.

"The screens on wireless devices are very, very small and the functionality that these devices support is still very, very limited," Ross said. "It's not like you're serving up this application on a regular Web browser."

Gerry Purdy, principal wireless analyst at MobileTrax, said Intercontinental is on the cutting edge of smart phone content development but that most companies will soon have to experience the same thought transition.

"The enterprise today is just starting to realize that the mobile devices are an asset to put into play," Purdy said. "Intercontinental has already found out the problems with driving an app the old way."

The problem is that some execs think of a smart mobile device as a little computer, with its miniature screen and miniature keyboard. In reality, its size and capabilities prompt users to deal with the device much differently, forcing developers to write for the devices much differently.

"It's not so much whether the GUI changes, but 'How do I do it cost effectively for the organization?'" he said. "It's not like we're going to update that SAP app or that data warehouse project. 'I don't have any history so how am I going to do it effectively?'" Purdy said, quoting a hypothetical IT exec.

"There simply aren't a lot of vertical market applications" for cell phones today, outside of field sales.

Purdy agrees with Ross that this year is when mobile technology, and its users, have grown enough to make the transition practical.

"You've really got a sort of lining up of the stars of corporate" for the next-generation of mobile applications, Purdy said. "The improved CPU processing, larger screen sizes, the social mentality in the form of better consumer acceptance and better toolkits, in the form of middleware and application development resources, application sets and defined segments, such as reservation systems."

The last hurdle is getting corporate IT and marketing execs to start thinking of the mobile device as its own media.

"For years, the mentality has been, 'How do we extend these desktop apps to mobile? We're going to mobile the desktop app,' they'd say," Purdy said.

"They were trying to extend something that had been built for a very different environment. Mobile users expect a different kind of experience in mobile than when they sit down in front of a desktop.

You don't think in terms of complete forms. You fill out a field and then interact with the system. Some of the database structures may not change on the backend, but how the information is handled must. We're now going through a discovery timeframe."

Intercontinental's Ross won't specify the amount of development dollars the company is saving, other than to say "we have experienced a very nice cost savings" because he argues that "this really is about savings" as much as it's about efficiencies.

"The flexibility to modify and extend the application has been expanded significantly today," he said. "We probably did this latest retooling?literally this entire migration project?with about a tenth of the effort."

Mobile applications aren't that difficult to do properly, assuming there's a focus on the user and the device they are likely on.

"This all works provided you have your backend, your core application built right," he said, adding that his team figured out the magic way to make that happen: "This time, we did it in-house."