Cutting all ties

Key to the sucess of today's handhelds are the applications used - and application development in New Zealand is going through an enormous surge. Paul Brislen finds this could be the year the handheld device becomes an essential tool instead of a plaything.

Only a few years ago, handheld devices were derided as nothing more than executive toys — good only as electronic diaries. Today’s devices are smaller and more powerful and are finding their way into toolboxes, truck cabs and sales team briefcases. Key to their success are the applications used — and application development in New Zealand is going through an enormous surge. Paul Brislen finds this could be the year the handheld device becomes an essential tool instead of a plaything.

Peter Blake runs a team of 35 field engineers for Aristocrat Technologies, a game machine manufacturer, and he has a problem.

In the past his team would be dispatched to a job, typically an installation or service call, and he wouldn’t hear from them again until they arrived back at base with an order form for parts used, a rough estimate of how long the job took and half an hour’s worth of paperwork ahead of them.

Equipping them with a cellphone only partly solved the problem of keeping them out in the field where they belong — all the paperwork simply piled up waiting for them at the end of the day. Now, however, Blake’s team members are sent off on their first jobs then re-assigned all day long. Ordering parts is taken care of automatically, as is job assignment, and at the end of the day when they return to base there is no paperwork. Staff are happier, as is the accounts department and customers can ensure their machines are serviced as scheduled and so avoid unexpected outages.

Blake has managed to do the impossible — keep everyone happy while working harder — and he’s done it with a device that many IT managers consider a scourge on the IT department’s resources — the handheld. Mobile and wireless communication devices are coming of age and if Blake and his team are anything to go by, they are proving their worth many times over.

Toys no longer

It’s a familiar scenario — perhaps you run a team of sales reps out in the field, or engineers, or truck drivers. They make and earn their money out in the field — time spent at a desk writing up reports or ordering supplies is time they aren’t doing their job and it’s frustrating for all concerned — employee, employer and customer. Surely there’s a more efficient way? While radio telephones and cellphones have made huge in-roads into company efficiency in these areas, there are still problems associated with having a dispersed staff. Helping staff work more efficiently and helping managers keep track of their staff and assign them to new jobs more effectively, is the key.

IDC research figures on handhelds, like Palm, Handspring, Compaq’s iPaq and so on, make for impressive reading. Only a few years ago handheld devices were derided as nothing more than an executive toy — good only as an electronic diary or contact book. Today’s devices are more powerful, smaller, have better battery life and are finding their way into toolboxes, truck cabs and sales team portfolios, just as their once-removed cousin the cellphone has in the past 10 years.

Now they are often essential in day-to-day working life. Last year six million “personal companions” shipped worldwide, according to IDC. This year the number is estimated to be over eight million. The Boston-based research company believes that by 2004 that number will be closer to 18 million, and that doesn’t include the cellphones that are becoming smarter and moving into the handheld PC space.

The combined market will be weighing in at one billion devices by 2003, according to consultancy firm Accenture. That’s a lot of processing power and a lot of people who aren’t sitting at their desks.

Key to this move is the applications used on the handheld, and application development in New Zealand is going through an enormous surge. This could be the year the handheld device becomes essential, instead of a toy.

Applications: mundane to sublime

The mobile application development market can be separated in two — the business application moving down into the mobile space and the telemetry and check-the-box applications moving up. The first area is the sexy end of the market, and gets a lot of coverage for its seeming ability to move large data files around, allowing videoconferencing, online ordering and file sharing over a cellular connection.

The other end of the market is less dazzling but perhaps more important to the mobile data growth rate. Jobs are being dispatched, locations monitored, embedded systems maintained all over trunk radio and the like. The so-called “blue collar” mobile application is helping move goods around the world, ensure refrigeration levels are maintained and that nothing “falls off the back of a lorry”. It may not thrill the high-end mobile warrior, but these services are helping cut costs and increase profitability for a number of companies.

“In the real world nobody cares about videoconferencing and MP3s being downloaded to your cellphone. That’s not business,” says Boris Bruges, director of Wireless Data Systems, an Auckland company that specialises in mobile data communications, from building its own hardware to writing its own applications. WDS supplies wireless solutions for a range of customers, from city councils to trucking companies to Ports of Tauranga, which puts barcodes on goods being shipped through the port, like logs bound for south east Asia, and scans them with handheld Symbol devices to track them. Data is usually transmitted on trunk radio because it is robust, widely available and most trucking companies are familiar with the concept. Cellphones are also used, and WDS is currently developing applications to work on Vodafone’s GPRS network. Bruges isn’t worried about the potential slow speed of early handsets on GPRS — for him, anything over 1000 characters per second is warp speed.

“We’re sending out packets of data for things like job assignment. Out goes a packet saying ‘do you want this job?’, typically only 500 bytes. Back comes a yes or a no. Then it’s down to ‘I’ve finished the job, these are the parts I used, this is how long it took’. That’s it — and it doesn’t take 144kbit/s to do that.”

Building intelligence

The trucking industry is another key area for WDS and one that poses an interesting challenge.

“In the US they do not trust the drivers at all. They want to know where the trucks are, what speed they’re travelling, whether the doors are open or closed, what temperature the refrigeration unit is, that sort of thing.” Rather than sending packets of data back and forth saying, ‘here I am’ every 10km or so, which would cripple the network, Bruges says he has built more intelligence into the truck’s unit.

“It could be a handheld in the cab or a device fixed to the truck itself — doesn’t matter. If it’s a mobile device then that’s good, because it goes with the driver, so you do assignments based on drivers rather than vehicles.” The units can be interrogated at set intervals, or programmed to only report back when something falls outside its usual parameters.

“You might have a truck travelling from Wellington to Auckland. You’d tell it to contact you at Taupo and again at Hamilton and then, once it enters the city, every five minutes until it reaches the depot, because this is a 40-tonne truck and you need to have guys standing by to unload it.”

If the truck stops or the doors open outside its expected stops, then there may be a problem and the driver can be contacted. Not only is this more efficient from a personnel point of view, it also helps reduce “shrinkage”. Bruges is looking forward to devices that include Bluetooth, the short-range radio link, because he says the cradles are the weak point and can be easily damaged, especially in a trucking environment. GPRS or CDMA 1x, Telecom’s high-speed cellular network, will also help reduce the cost of the system.

“The entry level will come down to $7000 per truck, or perhaps $5000 instead of $30,000. The handheld devices will be offered as part of the network’s package and that means the costs to us are less.” Bruges maintains a “device-neutral” stance, able to work with any operating system at the device end, any network from GPRS or GSM to radio to CDPD from Telecom, and any back end system. That way if the customer gets a better offer from another carrier, or changes to a new type of handheld device, the solution itself soldiers on.

Road warriors, not worriers

But what about more data-intensive workers? Sales reps and merchandise agents are on the road and may have to send back extensive order forms or updated contract details. They will require a much higher bandwidth solution.

Kapiti Cheese is one company working with a wireless solution from the Holliday Group (recently bought by UK-based iTouch) in Christchurch. The company works to a 24-hour turnaround time from order to delivery so speed of data entry is vitally important.

“Our sales team goes out with a Palm device and a modem and after sorting out the order with the supermarket or deli, they will then beam the information back to us at base,” says Alan Bird, financial controller at Kapiti. The Palms have a history of orders, so customers can see what they had last time and compare it to an actual sales history, as well as the ability to create an average order based on the last few orders.

“It’s more accurate because there’s no re-keying of data back at base. It’s cheaper because we don’t have the sales reps making cellphone calls back to us here and talking someone through the order and it’s more efficient because the sales team can stay out in the field selling.” For Bird it doesn’t matter that the data connection over the cellphone link is slow at the moment as data packets sent are quite small, but he will be paying attention to developments in the high-speed cellular field.

“To be honest it doesn’t matter what network it travels over. Currently we use CDPD from Telecom because that’s what Holliday recommended but it won’t stay on top for ever.” Bird really doesn’t care what technology produces the end product, just so long as his sales team can do their job efficiently.

“For mission-critical applications it’s important to offer a fat client — simply because you have to be able to work even when you’re out of the coverage area,” says Phil Holliday, director of the Holliday Group. He says there is no point replacing a paper-based system with an electronic one if it doesn’t work all the time.

“You don’t want to duplicate the whole thing for the times you’re out of range.” Holliday Group’s new owner iTouch sees a huge future in mobile application development as more mobile devices connect to the net. Holliday Group is one of the first developers off the starting block in the new world of GPRS — the successor to the GSM cellular network. New Zealand is among the first countries in the world with a nationwide GPRS network in place and once the handsets become available towards the middle of the year, the business community only needs applications to take advantage of the network.

On the other side of the fence, Telecom’s CDMA network also launches this year — CDMA will, like GPRS, only offer a relatively slow 14.4kbit/s connection speed but early indications are that Telecom will be able to ramp up to a consistently higher speed with CDMA 1x, a network upgrade that will be commercially available towards the end of the year. CDMA 1x should offer connection speeds of up to 156kbit/s. Once these speeds become commonplace, the demand for applications will increase rapidly, both in the business space and at the consumer level — traditionally the driver behind data services on cellular networks.

New Zealand developers appear to be well placed to take advantage of the mobile era and this year seems to be the year wireless services will take off.

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