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Picking a featherweight champ

Picking a featherweight champ

Pervasive computing thrives on wireless communications and PDAs. Unfortunately, PDAs still have their limitations: trying to squeeze the complexity of a desktop GUI on a few square inches of display is a true challenge. Moreover, desktop applications’ logic often requires a persistent link between server and client which doesn’t work well on unreliable wireless connections.

With that in mind consider Airforce Wireless Edition, the latest offspring of the CRM family of hosted applications from Salesforce.com. Unlike other wireless SFA (sales force automation) solution providers, Salesforce.com chose not to emulate its sophisticated desktop GUIs on a wireless client’s limited display, opting instead to use a simplified screen layout for quickly retrieving or modifying customers’ data via the Web.

Simple and effective

Alternatively, on PDAs that don’t have Web-browsing capability, sales reps can type their requests in an e-mail message, using a friendly query language and receive the results via e-mail. Those e-mail requests can be sent and received from any e-mail client; this comes in handy if the wireless gizmo becomes unusable.

We found the Airforce approach simple and effective because it allows using different wireless devices for what they can do best: Web browsing or e-mail. Of course, leveraging e-mail as transport eliminates the need for a persistent connection to the SFA application.

Currently, Airforce allows access to accounts, contacts, events, opportunities, and tasks information, covering most sales reps needs. Unfortunately, it ignores the needs of roaming support reps. Adding access to cases and solutions information would be a boon for companies that offer on-site service. Most sales reps will probably frown at the idea of typing queries, but the Airforce query language is easy enough to use and should be accepted by most users. To simplify data entry, Airforce also includes a set of precoded queries. In fact, we had to punch only a few keys to choose and send a query via e-mail.

Moreover, we were able to easily create and save new queries for specific tasks, either modifying existing ones or starting from scratch.

Changing data involves more typing than needed to simply request information. To that end, Airforce has a list of predefined forms that guide users through updating single fields or even creating new records. However, adding tens of fields to create a new customer file, for example, can be awkward on those forms.

BlackBerry 957

For our tests, we used the tiny RIM BlackBerry 957, on which was installed the usual local software such as email and address book, plus the Airforce client.

To test its features, we took Airforce and our BlackBerry on the road, simulating a sales trip visiting customers. Our BlackBerry had no browsing capability, so we had to use the query by e-mail approach to stay in touch. One caveat: the e-mail approach demands no password, so a local password should be enforced, in case the gizmo is stolen or lost.

We started from a location without wireless coverage. Our objective: retrieve contact information about a specific customer before reaching its location. We clicked on the Airforce icon on our BlackBerry, then chose Favorites from the menu, which opened a list of canned queries.

One grabbed our attention: Contacts In City “New York”. We chose Edit Query and replaced New York with our customer’s location. The new query saved automatically. We could easily send it from the same menu. Because we had no wireless connection, the query stayed in our BlackBerry while we resumed our trip.

A few miles down the road, a beep alerted us that our BlackBerry was now connected. Seconds later, its chirping told us that we had new e-mail. In the e-mail we found the reply to our query, sent from the Salesforce.com database.

We enjoyed traveling with the Airforce/BlackBerry companion. Airforce’s loose-connection, email approach is more flexible than the interactive alternative. If you need a solution to keep your travelling personnel connected, Airforce Wireless Edition by Salesforce.com is worth a try. Who knows? Your sales reps may even like it and use it.


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