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Are We There Yet?

Anytime, anywhere computing is progressing in the insurance industry, but for most applications there still are strings attached.

One would think that once insurance companies have tackled the monumental task of integrating customer information and transforming batch-based legacy systems into real-time, e-commerce-ready systems, anytime, anywhere computing for employees and customers is just around the corner. One might have to think again.

Before the insurance industry arrives at the anytime, anywhere utopia, it has to overcome some fairly daunting obstacles. Wireless bandwidth and geographic coverage are limited, and insurers will need to force wireless operators to provide guaranteed business-ready services. The industry will also need to develop applications that will support the information that needs to be exchanged, and be able to reach all customers on their terms—and through their own devices.

In the meantime, caution is the byword, and assumptions should be guided more by Murphy's Law than Moore's. Nothing too exciting is going to happen soon, but insurers will start by taking advantage of their large, geographically dispersed workforces to test the waters with lower-risk applications.

The Potential Is Clear

There is no doubting the potential utility of anytime, anywhere computing powered by wireless, both on the internal business side and for consumer applications, according to Vincent Oliva, research director, Gartner Financial Services (Stamford, CT). In addition to the convenience of being able to do standard rate and quote querying any time, for example, "it would be good for a customer at a car dealer to be able to tap into their insurer to see what the rate or quote would be for one of three or four cars, with a variety of options, and to add the car to the policy right from the dealer's chair," he says. On the service side, tremendous value stands to be realized by claims adjusters in the field. However, when it comes to wireless applications, Oliva warns, "We find that the typical property-and-casualty insurers are nowhere—they have very little actual wireless capability."

Most insurers are still "all over the lot" with regard to getting sales and services Web-enabled, Oliva says. By his calculations, routine anytime, anywhere services may be up to five years away. "Real aggressors might arrive closer to three years," he speculates.

Certainly, the groundwork for ubiquitous computing is being laid at some carriers. "We've seen the most progress in the last couple of years to be able to work just about anywhere," says David Annis, chief information officer, The Hartford (Hartford, $167 billion in assets). "Locations that weren't very practical when our only solution was a dedicated network, now become possible with VPN technology and other forms of Web-based or dial connections wherever you happen to be." The obvious extension of that is wireless, Annis adds. But real wireless and fantasy wireless are two different things.

When any new technology emerges, Annis argues, the hype inflates expectations, leading to disappointment when reality sets in. When you realize that the technology's real applications are simple and trivial, he adds, "You typically go through that reality check that we commonly call the trough of disillusionment. Wireless is likely to follow that curve."

The Hartford is no slacker when it comes to moving to ubiquitous computing. In addition to VPN connections allowing employees to work remotely, the insurer also is experimenting with wireless LAN applications that would enable working in locations at home, says Ken Barger, The Hartford's chief technology officer. For employees working internationally, he adds, "we've even done some personal satellite communications testing."

When it comes to true remote wireless, The Hartford's applications include PDA-based remote e-mail and calendar synchronization applications, plus working on attachments for wireless Web access for basic types of functionality for things like news, stocks, weather and travel, according to Annis.

Not Ready for Enterprise

Although wireless access to e-mail and calendars may seem trivial to some, that's not to say it isn't a meaningful technology on its way to bringing serious value, Annis insists. "But you don't put an enterprise-critical application on a wireless platform yet," he says. "That scenario is clearly emerging, but we haven't bet the ranch on that yet."

That caution is shared across the industry, according to Andy Cash, IBM (Armonk, NY) Global Solutions executive, mobile Internet financial services. "People are slightly nervous about wireless, and particularly with respect to investing large amounts of time, effort and money at this stage," he says. Cash sees employee productivity measures, such as access to e-mail, as laying the groundwork for business applications on the move. "Once you've done that internally, it's not too much of a step to actually jumping out to a customer."

For the time being, however, insurers' moves are typically limited to "a few organizations using their employee areas as a test bed" before considering going out into the market with wireless, Cash says.

AXA Financial (New York, $483.7 billion in assets) unit AXA Client Solutions may serve as a case in point. According to Don Buskard, chief technology officer, "Where we have small audiences of people we might be able to pull off some kind of anytime, anywhere computing. But if you have a large array of people spread across the country, even if it's a small application, it may not do very well." AXA is working on a pilot with Microsoft (Redmond, WA) and QUALCOMM (San Diego) spin-off Wireless Knowledge (San Diego) to wirelessly enable a home-grown calendaring application for employees, using a Compaq (Houston) iPac device.

Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio

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