Mobile has been a significant growth area in communications for a long while, and the rapid shift towards mobility can be seen globally. According to Canalys, just under 300 million smartphones were sold worldwide in 2010, which is 80% more than in 2009. As the way we use our devices evolves, the importance of application mobility expands and now permeates a much broader range of industries.
By DAVE EVANS
Mobile phones have become ‘smart’ – they have morphed gradually into the ultimate digital toolkit and personal assistant with an ever more extensive array of functions. From a device designed purely for taking calls, we now rely on smartphones as our primary communication tool, for everything from business communications on the go, through mobile banking, to social networking. This opens doors for different types of businesses to take advantage of the mobility phenomenon. Mobile capture is one of the technologies widening our horizons, delivering tangible benefits to businesses. It unlocks innovative new functions for devices, connecting them with enterprise data management systems for advanced document management.
Optical Character Recognition: the key to unlocking data
The concept is relatively straightforward – mobile capture refers to the process of using a camera to capture an image on a mobile device and transform the raw data, to provide it in a useful form. To manipulate the textual information contained within the image, it must be converted to a recognisable digital format. The key component of this process is Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology. OCR is digital analysis of a photo or scanned image – the process of reading and converting it to text in an editable and searchable electronic file format. Once OCR is performed on an image, a wealth of possibilities opens up. OCR technology is now so highly sophisticated, that mobile software is able to capture various types of data with an increasingly superior degree of accuracy, paving the way for ever more clever mobile services.
The endless possibilities of data capture
To mirror the staggering growth of smartphone usage, there are now numerous mobile capture projects making use of OCR technology, and many more in the pipeline. Technological advances mean that all smartphones now have a camera with an auto-focus lens, and growing numbers of pixels, with some already offering HD video. This extends OCR’s capability of capturing additional information from a shot. For example, a mobile phone application can ‘read’ business cards, extracting a person’s details and saving it straight to your address book.
The possibilities for deploying mobile capture in business environments are extensive and several businesses are actively deploying it. For instance, mobile capture is being used to aid insurance and tax claims. People can photograph or even record a car accident on site, then fill in a digital form using insurance company software installed on the device and send a claim immediately, via mobile Internet. Similarly, taxpayers can file their tax returns using their mobile phone. They can take a photo of their filled-in form and an OCR app makes sense of the image and automatically populates the digital tax form with the data, which can then be sent directly to the tax offices. People can reap the advantages of a simpler and quicker settlement of their claim, while insurance companies and tax authorities are afforded significant time and money savings. This currently works for the less complicated tax claims and as technology drives forward it will be used for more complex scenarios in the future.
Mobile capture enhances data management and customer service
The rise of mobile capture is expected to continue throughout 2011, with businesses realising the benefits and taking advantage of the technology at their fingertips. Mobile capture will particularly be welcomed by industries which rely on the fast processing of documents to boost quality of service. Mobile capture automates the data entry process, reducing manual workload and freeing up resources. It saves time and money and enables companies to optimise their workforce more effectively, especially when it comes to field sales forces. When visiting customers, sales representatives can scan, digitise and return contracts on the spot to the document management system, which then processes the forms. This means instant feedback can be obtained if the information is incomplete, saving the sales representative a trip back to the customer at a later date to collect missing information.
A key advantage of mobile capture is it enables immediate exchange of data between the supplier and end user as well as instant feeding of data into an enterprise data management system, in turn streamlining and enhancing document management. This will be a business driver in the coming months and numerous scenarios could come into play. For example, employees can photograph a receipt whilst travelling on business and enter it directly into the expenses handling system. One German train operator already uses mobile capture for maintenance work on wagons, reporting problems immediately via images. Thanks to OCR, traffic wardens can report parking offences and file them on the spot with the improved reliability offered by photographic proof.
Mobile capture also empowers people. It gives them better access to information, increasing their satisfaction as well as improving the credibility of service suppliers. People benefit from simpler, more direct processes, such as the ability to submit electricity meter readings simply by taking a photo.
The future: Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) data capture and the Cloud
Mobile services have the power to integrate categories that were previously siloed, such as social media, business networking and Cloud Computing. For example, by sending business card data instantly to different accounts, like Salesforce and LinkedIn, users can thread together previously disparate connections. As Cloud services mature, mobile capture offers opportunities for businesses to host SaaS applications. We can expect more and more Cloud-based mobile data capture, where images will be processed, stored and accessed from anywhere. Cloud mobile capture could also prove to be a business model modifier, catalysing the development of software packages that are sold via subscriptions or on a pay-as-you-go basis as opposed to individual licence charges. It’s certainly a ‘watch this space’ area for the future.
As technology advances and people live and work increasingly on the hop, their social and business interactions will continue converging, and the colourful wealth of possibilities offered by mobile devices will keep on expanding. Mobile capture is a key instigator in opening doors to businesses wishing to streamline data management processes or offer innovative customer services. It also enables businesses to become more responsive and agile in the world of ‘people on the move’.
Dave Evans, ABBYY UK Ltd