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IT managers: Mobile work-force apps entering 2nd generation

Wireless mobility is entering a new generation made more powerful with richer middleware and synchronization software.
  • Matt Hamblen (Computerworld (US))
  • 29 September, 2008 10:06

For years, businesses have been deploying mobile software to help workers communicate wirelessly with back-office applications to make field service calls or sales visits.

Now, wireless mobility is entering a new generation, with more capabilities such as GPS that is enabled on new devices, and made more powerful with richer middleware and synchronization software.

At air-conditioning giant Carrier, about 1,600 service technicians throughout North America have been equipped with wireless handhelds for several years. The functions they receive on the devices so far are limited to receiving dispatch data for service calls, and the technicians can also notify a dispatcher that they have finished a job.

"Now we want to move to the second generation," Michael Hawman, CIO of building systems and services for Carrier told Computerworld. Hawman wants to capture data from newer devices on what work a technician has done, including the model and serial number of a new part installed, and even readings from an air conditioning or heating unit. He'd also like to have a customer's signature captured electronically and transmitted to a back-office application.

Those are only a few of the various tasks that could be used in the second generation, using new devices for the field workers such as an UMPC (ultra-mobile PC) or a rugged handheld device. Carrier is now testing Panasonic Toughbook U1 UMPCs. It has tried and rejected the iPhone, simply because it is not rugged enough for Carrier's service technicians, Hawman said.

With the GPS capabilities being added in more devices, Carrier will also have the ability to track technicians from the handhelds they carry -- not on a separate device on a truck, Hawman said.

He said that all of these second-generation capabilities were helped with newer hardware, of course, but also because of more sophisticated software. At Carrier, linking back-office applications for accounting and inventory as well as GPS will be handled by Antenna Software under a software-as-a-service contract, Hawman said.

Antenna is especially valuable to Carrier because it has tools to link to a number of Carrier's legacy applications and more standard Web applications, Carrier said. While Carrier won't say exactly how much it spends with Antenna or on hardware, Hawman said the company has invested millions of dollars over the years in hardware and software in its mobility strategy and has seen a large increase in productivity as a result. "Our mobility strategy is key strategy for us as we improve the customer experience," he said.

Antenna recently announced several improvements to its Antenna Mobility Platform with the release of AMP 2.0, which should help Carrier, Hawman said. They include capabilities to quickly configure mobile connections to back-office applications and GPS, as well as a new mobile IM (Instant Messaging) application, according to Antenna. Other improvements include AMP Studio 4.0 for building applications with components, an AMP Component Library, AMP DocShare and support for the iPhone, said Antenna CEO Jim Hemmer said. In all, Antenna can connect mobile workers to about 50 back-end systems, including Oracle databases and SAP.

Hemmer said about 80 percent of Antenna's 125 customers were SaaS customers, while the remainder have used Antenna tools themselves. The company is 10 years old. He would not release pricing for the product or services.

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Erik Walters, program manager for business solutions at DirecTV in Los Angeles said Antenna is used to supporting more than 700 sales and support workers. He said the new 2.0 release would help DirecTV expand the number of applications that it can connect to sales personnel carrying BlackBerry devices from Research in Motion.

In recent years, Walters said that mobile connections to internal accounting systems have meant that sales reps could spend less time in the office and visit as many DirecTV dealers that they support, up to seven a day, an increase from three a day. Over three years, he said DirecTV had invested about US$1 million with Antenna but had seen a large return on investment, perhaps even 400 percent or more.

There are many companies that offer various products and services to connect field workers to the central office wirelessly, including the major wireless carriers, analysts said. Many companies have won awards for productivity with wireless field force applications because the benefits are real. But Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney said in a March research note that large companies still needed to apply more strategic planning to giving mobility attention.

In addition to Antenna's announcement on Sept. 16, TeleNav, which provides a number of GPS navigation services for individuals' mobile phones, announced a GPS-enabled mobile resource management service to provide real-time information for managing field operations and remote communications. It allows a team of workers managed by a field manager to clock in and out as a workgroup over wireless BlackBerry smartphones or other devices, the company said. Signature capture, image capture and other functions have been added. Pricing was not announced.