In-Depth

Wireless Storm Brewing?

While television commercials for PDAs typically depict corporate executives using wireless devices to download speeches or hyper Wall Streeters buying and selling stocks in a flash, the reality is often more prosaic. In everyday applications, the Palm OS device is replacing construction superintendents' clipboards and inspectors' paper checklists, said Chris Maloney, president and CEO at Pencel Corp., Overland Park, Kan., which makes tools and platforms for handhelds.

The so-called "mobile workforce" that increasingly carries a Palm Pilot or Microsoft Windows CE-based device may include Wall Street brokers and CEOs, but it also includes field technicians, retail stock checkers and delivery drivers.

Joe McKendrick, an analyst at Evans Data Corp., Santa Cruz, Calif., calls the proliferation of wireless and mobile devices "the greatest integration challenge since the introduction of the PC." He reports that "the wireless revolution is coming from the bottom up—end users are bringing these devices into the organization to boost their own personal productivity."

And like the PC revolution, this one is rocking the IT world.

An Evans Data survey released at the end of 2001 indicates that "46.1% of development managers at large corporations plan to develop applications for wireless devices in the coming year, beating out other planned projects, such as security enhancements and business-to-business e-commerce." The survey is based on in-depth interviews with more than 400 development managers at companies with more than 2,000 employees.

In the general developer population, the survey found 38% of respondents were planning to work on wireless applications.

Visionaries in the wireless arena see these devices extending the PC revolution to workers on the road, who, because of the nature of their jobs, were left out of the first wave in the 1980s.

But Pencel's Maloney warns that unlike the PC revolutionaries of 1982, mobile and wireless users, who are often part-time and contract laborers, have a different view of personal computing and will require a different application model.

"Most of us who were part of the PC world are used to computers and understand their intricacies," he noted. "What these workers are experiencing is more the appliance model, where they're given a device and they don't really learn how to use a Palm with all [its] different features and how to load software on it and those kinds of things. They are given a device that has a special function that's customized just for them, kind of the invisible computer model of computing-ware. This isn't as much a computer as it is a device for recording time cards and replacing a certain clipboard in functionality."

The data game
Far from the elite corporate boardrooms, these workers use handheld appliance computers to complete mundane tasks, such as retail product display checklists.

Candidates for this form of "field-force" automation include industries as diverse as consumer goods, pharmaceuticals, agribusiness, chemicals, utilities, telecommunications, insurance, and commercial products and services. In all these businesses, however, inspectors, technicians, field sales and marketing personnel, and other workers in the field often still rely on paper-and-pencil-based systems.

Among the job categories targeted by software vendors marketing products for the mobile workforce are:

  • Field Q&A—for example, mystery shoppers, merchandisers, and industrial and construction inspectors gathering data on field operations.
  • Field asset-inventory control—for example, a utility inspector checking the levels of chemicals in a utility shed.
  • Field sales—for example, a representative collecting orders in the field.
  • Field service—for example, technicians providing service to business and industry, as well as to homeowners and consumers.
The difference, argues George Bayz, president and CEO at Universal City, Calif.-based Thinque Systems Corp., is that unlike a clipboard, the Palm or CE machine provides companies with more accurate and timely data. Thinque markets software for the mobile workforce.

The problem with a pen-on-paper system is getting the data into the enterprise system. Input is slow and error-prone, and scanning is less than perfect. The most timely and accurate way to get field data into the enterprise system is to establish a direct link via wireless, Internet connections or at least a modem and a phone line.

Working with Taco Bell, Thinque developed an application for the fast-food company's mystery shoppers who help ensure the quality of the chain's products. These mobile workers used to visit restaurants armed with paper forms and pencils, a process that was cumbersome, error-prone and time-consuming, said Bayz. The program was plagued with illegible and missed answers, as well as lost forms.

Today, with the introduction of handheld Windows CE-based devices, mystery shoppers are assisted in answering on-screen questions with prompting and help, which ensures that answers are complete and within a specified range. This system resulted in significant improvements in field productivity and accuracy, Bayz said.

Web-based data transfer has eliminated a time lag of up to four days before field information could be analyzed at the corporate level, he added. Like many industries today, fast-food businesses can lose their competitive advantage if current data is not available.

Thinque provides "anytime, anywhere" connectivity between mobile workers and corporate management. Designed for Windows CE handheld PCs and other portable computing devices, the app can run in either wireless or non-wireless mode, enabling information to be collected and transmitted in near real time.

Last year, Colgate-Palmolive used Thinque software to audit the work of brokers who cover their top retail accounts. Field employees tracked a variety of information about how retailers presented, stocked and sold the company's products. For example, the app recorded whether products were in stock, voids (that is, products that were never placed on shelves), how products were tagged for sale, and how and where products were displayed. When a sales representative recorded a void in a retail store, the entire audit was automatically sent as an e-mail to the broker responsible for that store.

It's all in the differences
A field-force app with automatic e-mail reports is what analysts find developers working on in 2002. The Evans Data survey finds e-mail and instant messaging to be the most popular wireless apps, even as 25% of "wireless-enabled companies" develop interfaces for CRM, sales-force automation and field-force automation.

But for such wireless applications to work, argues Pencel's Maloney, developers need to pay attention to the differences between mobile workers used to clipboards and their more PC-savvy co-workers in corporate offices and cubicles.

Turning the traditional training model on its head, Maloney stated that developers will have to learn to design the app by watching how field workers use it.

"You show them the device," he said, "you let them experience it and [then] watch what they do. Where they have problems, go back and fix it, because they're not going to take much time to learn it. You've got to make it intuitive and make it fit the model they already understand from the physical world."

Assuming little time will be spent on training, it is important for the form on the Palm Pilot to look as much like a printed checklist as possible, he added. The data entry may be as simple as "If this is working, put a check in this box."

Maloney advocates downloading a mini database to the Palm so a worker has most of the information they need to complete the data-entry task. A manager at company headquarters working from a PC would send key data to the wireless device in the field.

For example, said Maloney, "you send down to the crew chief a list of all the projects he's working on. Here's a list of the people in your crew, and here's a list of the materials we sent out. Give them all the data you know and all they have to do is pick an employee and associate them with the number of hours worked on a particular project, and that sort of thing. It simplifies the data entry if you can get a lot of data down to the device."

With the Palm emulator on a PC, Maloney said developers can check the look and feel of the interface to be sure it is virtually as simple and easy to use as a printed checklist.

However, the application design is also constrained by the limitations of the wireless devices themselves.

"These are constrained devices both in terms of screen size and the ability to scan information," explained Mark Zohar, an analyst at Forrester Research, Cambridge, Mass. "Constrained in terms of the ability to input text and data into the device. And constrained also in terms of navigating through the device."

Check boxes and brief pager-type messages would seem to be in order for applications developed for wireless devices.

"Information has to be timely, immediate, simple, text-based and actionable," noted Zohar. "All that leads to a world where we will have a lot of short type messages that will be actionable. There's not going to be huge amounts of data being downloaded to these devices."

Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn., has developed some guidelines for what he calls mobile commerce or m-commerce apps, primarily WAP on existing cell phones.

"M-commerce," he said, "is similar to the Internet in that it's not that we couldn't do these things before, it's just that things have become a little bit more connected. I don't see that all of a sudden today we're able to do some application we couldn't do three years ago. It's just that the technologies have evolved, and it's a little bit easier. M-commerce applications can be business-to-employee-type applications. We don't see a lot of business-to-business [apps] because that's typically done between big computers."

But, Dulaney warns, "mobile computing is a different medium." Developing apps for WAP and Palm OS devices requires changes in the fundamental model of what can and cannot be accomplished.

"It requires different thinking," noted Dulaney, "just as the Internet required different thinking when we moved to it. One of the key characteristics of a good m-commerce application is that it is timely, and people won't go through a miserable experience unless there's some time [saving] factor. The next is that it is an application that is very personalized. Rather than giving you all this random stuff you could potentially do, it knows about you and narrows the function down to precisely what you need at that particular point in time. A third characteristic of a good [mobile] application is that it is extremely simple—one or two screens."

Pencel's Maloney believes the model for building wireless apps is to not only keep the mobile device side simple, but to integrate it with the applications used by the sales, marketing and accounting staffs working on PCs at the office.

"Our take was let's build something that's as easy to build an application with as Access, Visual Basic or other database applications because what we're trying to do is to collect data, view it, manage it and share it with the rest of the enterprise," he said. "And let's make [the tools] easy to use for developers who understand the paradigms that Visual Basic and Access provide for painting forms, and hooking up business logic in terms of forms that display on the screen. And let's not just build the format page that resides on the Palm, let's also build the application that connects it to the corporate database."

Maloney's tools use an object model with business rule definitions to limit the amount of code beyond "snippets" needed for validations.

Another factor developers need to consider in their application model is that while wireless hype imagines workers with seamless, persistent connections, that is not a reality yet, Maloney said. He estimates that less than 10% of mobile workers use wireless connections to link to corporate headquarters; the majority still go back to a hotel room or field office at the end of the day and download their data over telephone lines.

Connectivity must be flexible because mobile workers are not online all the time. The state of the art in wireless communications, while it is advancing rapidly, has not reached the point where it is technologically or economically feasible to establish continuous Web connectivity for the mobile workforce, according to Thinque Systems' Bayz. In addition, mobile workers with assignments requiring time in elevators, basements, steel and concrete enclosures, and subterranean and remote environments will have difficulty getting a wireless connection.

For example, Bayz said, a field engineer inspecting remote facilities will not always be able to establish a wireless connection. They will download their report and other data collected at the end of the inspection or at the end of the day depending on a variety of circumstances. This means the inspector will not always have access to resources on the corporate Web site. Applications designed for use in the field must be self-sufficient off-line, providing the user with tools such as on-screen instructions, reference materials, validation checks for data, help and other support.

Apps also must be self-contained with help and the appropriate knowledge-based information available on-screen since the user may be cut off from contact with e-mail or Web sites, Bayz added.

He points out that an application on a Windows CE machine, designed for exterminators, for example, could contain procedures for eradicating specific types of infestations. With on-screen information at the worker's fingertips, productivity will not be lost on phone consultations, digging through printed reference materials, or waiting for faxes or e-mails.

At the enterprise end of the wireless transmission or phone link, data gathered in the field can be fed into and processed by ERP and OLAP systems. It also allows corporate managers and supervisors to send daily instructions to mobile workers, whose ranks often include part-time and contract workers with little or no personal connection to the company.

Thinque Systems has developed an application for the Maybelline retail cosmetics company that enables field merchandisers to gather and upload information about store conditions and retail displays in a matter of seconds. It also enables district sales managers to download daily schedules to each field merchandiser—this way, representatives know not only where they need to go on a daily basis, but precisely what information the corporation needs them to gather and send back.

While test cases for applications show wireless computing's promise, like any revolution, the wireless and mobile computing revolution is likely to breed chaos. While noting that IT executives have an opportunity to expand their technology reach to include mobile and wireless devices, Evans Data's McKendrick said: "Our survey shows this effort has begun in earnest at the enterprise level. But as was the case with PCs, it will be some time before there is an integrated strategy for acquiring and managing these assets."

As is often the case when you dial a wireless device, no one is sure exactly what will happen next.

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