Going Mobile

Dec. 21, 2004
The fourth wave of computing is changing the dynamics for interaction, transactions, and business processes.

Lars Abrahamsson has seen the future, and it doesn't involve cords, wires, and plug-in connections. As managing director for Dalkia Facilities Management AB, a Stockholm, Sweden, energy-management firm that operates in 22 countries, Abrahamsson is now redesigning business practices around handheld wireless devices. Using an enterprise-resource-planning (ERP) package from IFS Inc. along with digital handsets, technicians traveling throughout Sweden can view work orders, dispatch information, reports, technical instructions, and more. They can send data about material costs and time spent on a project back to headquarters. Abrahamsson says the capability eliminates the need for technicians to drive 100 km or more back to the office in Stockholm before being dispatched to another job. It also allows the company to respond more quickly to a breakdown or crisis situation. "It eliminates wasted time and improves the level of service the company can provide," he says. In fact, he estimates that the system will allow Dalkia to reduce the number of administrators supervising technicians by 50%, while providing a higher level of service. In the end, it should save about US$1 million in Sweden alone. The shift to handheld and wireless computing is sweeping the business world. More than 1 billion people worldwide will use mobile devices by 2003, predicts International Data Corp. (IDC), which also foresees some 400 million mobile Internet users by 2004. Market-research firm Dataquest predicts that the U.S. wireless data market will increase from 3 million subscribers in 1999 to 36 million by 2003. "Mobile technology will redefine many corporations," predicts Jack Gold, senior program director at META Group Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based research and consulting firm. Just as the PC put information at the desks of employees whenever they needed it, mobile and wireless devices -- interactive pagers, personal digital assistants (PDAs), digital phones, pen-input tablets, laptops equipped with wireless modems, and more -- are giving them information wherever they need it. It means information can be carried with workers, rather than them having to go to the office or to a location with a box wired to a server. "Wireless devices are another window into the Internet and corporate data," says Bill Joy, cofounder and chief scientist at Sun Microsystems Inc., Palo Alto, Calif. "Organizations are learning that mobile and wireless technologies can provide a huge competitive advantage," says Kevin Mann, a marketing strategist at IBM Corp.'s Pervasive Computing Div., San Francisco. He says this new paradigm is creating new channels for customer interaction, compressing order cycles and processing times from days to minutes, and altering pricing. "It's forcing organizations to reexamine communication and business processes." It's also tilting the balance of power in the PC industry. Whereas the beige box has long been the only way to create, access, and manage data, handhelds and information appliances are suddenly nudging their large cousins aside. IDC estimates that 18.5 million information-appliance units will be shipped in the U.S. in 2001, while PC unit sales will stall at 15.7 million. Of course, many of these handheld devices are less expensive to operate. IT consulting firm GartnerGroup Inc. reports that a handheld device costs approximately $2,700 per year in support costs, compared with about $10,000 for a desktop or notebook PC. Step inside manufacturing facilities at Nortel Networks in Research Triangle Park, N.C., and you can see that handheld computing is already changing the workplace. Inside the 200-yard-long factory, technicians carry digital phones. When a component fails on the assembly line -- or when a sophisticated predictive-analysis system senses imminent failure -- a server automatically checks a complex set of business rules and then sends an instant message to a technician with the relevant expertise. It also checks to see if the needed parts are in inventory and flashes a text message to the worker. In the past a Nortel operator typically dispatched a message to all technicians. That meant that as many as a dozen individuals would trudge across the facility, show up at the trouble spot, and discuss who would handle the problem before the group would settle on a person to handle the task. "It wasn't the most efficient system," admits Rodney Dixon, a senior systems-software engineer in the firm's Factory Network Group. Now, using instant-messaging software from Raleigh, N.C.-based Hidden Mind Technology Inc., Nortel has 64 technicians handling the same level of work that required 121 a few years ago. If a technician doesn't answer a call, the software automatically finds another specialist who is available or notifies a supervisor. A growing number of companies are discovering that handheld computers, PDAs, digital phones, and pagers open up entirely new possibilities. Like Nortel, they're finding ways to slice through myriad inefficiencies. Jon Covington, president of World Market Strategies Ltd., a San Francisco consulting firm, believes that the mobile revolution represents the fourth wave of computing. As information systems have evolved from mainframes to PCs to laptops and now handheld devices, the portability of data has become paramount. Manufacturing companies have discovered that handheld PCs are ideal for assembly lines, inspection areas, and more. The devices can streamline processes and also aid in data collection. In fact, while older devices required batch uploads (the machines had to be physically connected to a computer in order to transfer the data), newer devices offer real-time data transfer. Even supermarket chains are adopting handheld devices and installing wireless networks from companies such as NCR Corp. and Telepanel Systems. "At most stores, it's a tool that impacts the entire supply chain," explains Dwight Ogletree, director of food and drug sales at Symbol Technologies Inc., a Holtsville, N.Y.-based firm that manufactures and sells handheld devices and PDAs for industry. One company sold on the concept is Smith's Food & Drug Centers Inc., Salt Lake City, which operates 114 stores in eight western states. Department managers and stock clerks are equipped with Symbol handheld devices that provide real-time access to inventory, pricing, and delivery information stored on an IBM RS/6000 server located within the store. When a stock clerk notices a price discrepancy, he or she can update the cash registers immediately. When a delivery arrives from a soft drink or snack supplier, a clerk can quickly scan items and determine that quantities and pricing match agreed-upon levels. "In the past, it was an enormous task to accurately track inventory and pricing," says Robert Murphy, former vice president of store systems at Smith's. "The handheld devices are part of a solution that has drastically improved the way we do business." To be sure, mobile and wireless capabilities have exploded during the last decade. When Apple Computer Inc. introduced the first PDA, the Newton MessagePad, in August 1993, it was little more than a novelty. It wasn't until 1996, when U.S. Robotics (now part of 3Com Corp.) introduced the PalmPilot, that the viability of PDAs became clear. IDC says Palm users now number more than 3 million -- a figure that has doubled in the last year alone. Step into a business meeting, a conference, or an airport waiting area, and you're likely to see today's digital workers tapping away on their miniaturized screens -- to check appointments, contact information, even e-mail. In fact, Palm's most recent entry pushes the boundary of handheld computing to the next frontier. In October it rolled out the Palm VII, which provides wireless access to e-mail and specially adapted Web pages. It's possible to view flight schedules, weather, news, and more. Running on a corporate intranet, it's also possible to transmit data to sales reps, technicians, and other road warriors. At the same time, digital mobile phones and interactive pagers are becoming an important link in the corporate information chain. In some cases, these devices connect to ERP systems and can provide sophisticated alerts and data. For example, last May SAP AG announced a partnership with Motorola Inc. that enables the PageWriter 2000 interactive pager to cull information from ERP software. At ON Semiconductor, a Phoenix producer of analog and digital chips, about half of the firm's 2,000 employees use interactive paging to communicate in meetings or while traveling. If a sales rep needs information to close a deal, he can use the keyboard on the Motorola pager to obtain facts, figures, and financial information within seconds by contacting a colleague at the office. A manager who needs information while in a meeting can send a quick message without disrupting the conversation and have the needed material in hand seconds later. The system also provides access to e-mail. "Two-way paging has become a critical element in the way people work," says Pamela Cox, director of internal communication for ON Semiconductor. "It's essential to operate at the speed of business. You cannot communicate and expedite decision-making relying strictly on the telephone and e-mail. If you need to ensure that you can reach a person and you have a need to send and receive data, interactive paging can become a business critical tool." Aiding the acceptance of wireless computing is a new communications standard called wireless application protocol (WAP), created by Phone.com Inc. "Everyone has a voice and an ear -- which is the software needed for mobile voice communication," says Alain Rossmann, Phone.com chairman, CEO, and founder. "But in order to transmit data, there must be an entire layer of software." Essentially, WAP transforms wireless devices into minicomputers able to handle e-mail, customer care, call management, unified messaging, news alerts, information services, electronic-commerce transactions, directory services, and corporate intranet applications. Software companies also are helping fuel the drive to wireless. Last October Siebel Systems began offering Siebel Sales Handheld, a Microsoft Windows CE-based application that allows an enterprise to run sales-force-automation software on a mobile handheld device. Database producer Oracle Corp., meanwhile, has released Oracle8i Lite, an XML version of its relational database optimized for information exchange between various devices. This year Bluetooth -- an initiative backed by an array of industry players -- will take hold. It will allow short-distance (10-meter) wireless connections between portable devices such as cellular phones, PDAs, and laptop computers. In many instances, devices will be able to exchange and synchronize data automatically. And today's anemic 14.4 Kbps or 19.6 Kbps transfer rates will soon be eclipsed by wireless speeds exceeding 384 Kbps. That will enable entirely new generations of applications to take hold, analysts agree. The PC may not be dead, but its role is being eclipsed by mobile devices that promise to redefine how and where work takes place. "Mobile computing will serve as the foundation for the future economy and will eclipse all former types of computing," says Covington. "Organizations are only beginning to recognize the value of developing a mobile workforce, and they are only beginning to arm people with the digital tools they need."

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