By Brad Howarth
The evolution of mobile data
communications as a business tool has been retarded by the
over-hyping of new technology and a lack of sensible reasons
for business to adopt it. But by focusing on existing
technology and responding to the needs of individual
customers, the Sydney developer Retriever Communications is
finding success in Australia and Europe.
MARY BRITTAIN-WHITE: The focus is on Europe
Image: Louise Kennerley
Retriever was established in late 1996 by its chief
executive officer, Mary Brittain-White. The private company
develops applications for workers in the field, such as repair
crews and sales staff, that enable them to exchange
information with head office.
The Retriever system uses a small hand-held computer with
Microsoft's PocketPC operating system, and transmits data over
the global system for mobile (GSM) digital network. Although
the service has been adapted for transmission on new general
packet radio-switched (GPRS) networks, or for display on
wireless application protocol-enabled telephone handsets,
Brittain-White says using hand-held computers and GSM provides
the most robust and reliable service.
To develop an application, Retriever examines the client's
business processes, then copies them, right down to the format
of existing paper forms.
Brittain-White says: "That means the guy in the field can
see the relationship between what he used to do and what he is
going to do now. We have some intellectual property that
allows us to create that application in about a
The application is then linked to the client's existing
business software. Retriever charges a minimum of $30,000 for
consulting, development and training. Once the system is live,
it is billed as a service. Clients are charged a monthly fee
that starts at $140 for each user in the field.
With the Retriever approach, every application is
customised for the client. Retriever has signed access
agreements with Telstra, Vodafone and Optus.
Brittain-White says an important development for Retriever
came in 1997 when it acquired the Centre of Excellence in
Mobile Information Systems from Apple Computer for an
undisclosed sum. The acquisition gave Retriever the software
it needed to connect its applications to telecommunications
Retriever has received $12 million in venture capital,
including seed funding of $400,000 in 1997, from the Danish
venture-capital fund 2M Invest. It has also received $2
million in two rounds from the Melbourne venture-capital
company Momentum Ventures. Momentum's principal, Ergad Gold,
says that when the company made its first investment of $1.5
million in 1999, today's hype about wireless data
communications did not exist.
- Retriever Communications
develops services that enable companies to quickly
exchange information with staff in the field, using
hand-held computers and the global system for mobile
(GSM) digital networks.
- All services are
custom-developed for the client for an upfront fee,
then charged on a per person, per month basis.
- Although the technology
was developed in Australia, the company says Europe
provides the best potential for growth.
"At the time, people were not really familiar with
hand-held devices," Gold says. "We looked at (Retriever) and
very quickly formed a view that it was of terrific interest.
We knew from experience that the field-automation area was
crying out for a good, tidy IT solution. Where back-office
systems in enterprises had been through a very substantial IT
revolution, field staff were completely untouched by that. It
looked like there was an enormous need for the right sort of
Retriever's Australian clients include the Perth-based
air-conditioner service company BurkeAir, BOC Gases and
Imperial Tobacco Australia. But Brittain-White says its main
focus is Europe. "Our average customer here can range from 15
or 20 guys in a field; 150 is large," she says. "In Europe, it
is more likely to be 1500 users or 6000 users."
Brittain-White says Retriever will seek to raise more
capital this year to fund further expansion in Europe and to
expand its United States operation (it set up an office in New
York in August last year). But she says current funding will
enable the company to reach break-even point in the second
half of this year.
Retriever opened an office in Paris in November 2000 to
develop a strategic partnership that it began with the French
IT services company Groupe Bull in October of that year.
Groupe Bull created a subsidiary company to distribute the
Retriever products but, in December 2001, that arrangement was
restructured, and control of the subsidiary was handed to
Retriever. Bull also acquired an undisclosed percentage of
Retriever at that time.
The company signed its first European account in November
2001, a 350-user contract with an Italian maintenance company
that covered its activities in Spain, Italy and Belgium.
Brittain-White says two further contracts are awaiting final
As a private company, Retriever does not release revenue
and profit figures.