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The next killer app: mobility?

At the risk of dating myself, behind-the-scenes talk at utility conferences reminds me a lot of lyrics from a popular musical from the early 1970s: "What's the buzz? Tell me what's a-happening..."

This was certainly the case at CS Week last week.

The customer is front-and-center in the next-generation utility. This is not a new revelation. But the ways in which this is playing out in terms of customer-facing technology and services is moving rapidly forward, and this was evident in the numerous sessions, the exhibit hall floor, and in the "buzz" of discussions throughout, both with utility and vendor-partner attendees.

From outage communications management (and the new utility apps being launched to keep in touch with an increasing number of 24/7, "always on" mobile customers) and convenient prepay electricity options to creating value in utility customer service through the use of analytics, there truly is a lot that is quickly changing -- and becoming responsive rather than reactive -- in the customer-facing side of today's electric utility.

One panel that particularly caught my interest, a part of the CS Week Executive Summit, was "The Next Killer App: Mobility."

Moderated by Vic Hatridge, Nashville Electric Service's vice president and CIO, the panel included Lisa Dalesandro DiChristofer of SAP America, Inc.; David Green, Elster Solutions' executive vice president; Mark Griffin, Tata Consulting Group's national practice leader of energy, natural resources and utilities; Linda Jackman, global vice president of Oracle Utilities; Ogi Kavazovic, Opower's vice president of marketing and strategy; and Eran Ofir, general manager of global solutions for Convergys.

"Mobility is not really an application, but it's a platform for applications," Hatridge told attendees. "Whether we call it mobility or portability, there are 332 million cellular devices in the United States, with subscribers equalling 105 percent of the population. Fifty percent of those subscribers have smart devices."

Not only that, but the average number of applications, or "apps," on those smart devices average 37 per iPhone, and 22 per Android device. "Fourteen percent of mobile subscribers have downloaded an app in the past 30 days," Hatridge added.

Convergys's Ofir put the panel's title to the test. "So is it the next killer app? I don't think so. It's just another tool. It's a convenient tool, used mainly by the younger, more tech savvy customer," he said. We see the return on investment for utilities in launching mobile applications by directing actions away from the expensive call center."

He added: "It is not the killer app. It's just a must-have which every utility will have to have in the next few years."

Opower recently expanded its Home Manager Report platform online, with a social media app (through Facebook) just launched in April. "Mobility and the mobile application is the next killer app," Kavazovic argued. "More people have a mobile phone than have access to clean water and electricity ... And more people use Facebook today through its mobile app than through the web browser."

Opower's research unearthed 40 utilities in the U.S. that have launched mobile apps. "It's skewed to larger IOUs," he said, adding that 78 percent of those apps are outage reporting features, 33 percent are bill pay features, and only 11 percent of all the current utility mobile apps had what he described as "rich functionality."

"We see the mobile future as, really, 'the utility in your pocket,'" Kavazovic said.

"At SAP we look at it as a truly social enterprise," SAP America's DiChristofer said. "All of these new capabilities are like shiny pennies to the utility industry." Both DiChristofer and Elster Solutions' Green talked about the mobile technology not being the barrier. "It's the business process and designs - how to cross that barrier," Green said. DiChristofer agreed: "It's not about the app, it's about the enterprise mobility solution," she said.

"It's understanding the implication of business process and security." Tata Consulting's Griffin reminded utility attendees that "the expectation of customers is continuing to explode." In the meantime, electric utilities are trying to integrate legacy apps within the new environment of what he describes as the "engaged application."

"The mobility technology that's now out there has the potential to provide solutions that (engage) the customer," he said.

Oracle Utilities' Jackman had another take on the question. "We believe that mobile is the strategy, it's not just the end result," she said. "The expectations your customers want are the ones they get from other industries. (The utility) needs to move forward with a strategy rather than just applications.

"You don't have to design it to cure all ills immediately," she added. "We've all been beta testers for Apple. Just start somewhere. This is not just about billing, it's not just about outage management. It's about demand response, it's about energy efficiency, it's about prepay. The mobile strategy has to reach across the utility."

Does your utility have a mobile app? What kind of customer response are you seeing? If you, as a utility, could only focus your mobile app on one function, what would it be? Direct information on service or outage information and/or reporting? Pricing information?

Let's continue the discussion here. Is mobility the next killer app?



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