A generation ago, the technology industry introduced the personal computer to our desktops, forever changing the way we did business. Now, new wireless technologies are cutting the tether to the desktop and giving new meaning to the term “road warrior.”

According to Gartner Group, a market research firm, almost 13 million Internet-capable cell phones were sold in the United States in 2000, up from around 3 million in 1999. Gartner Group predicts that a billion people worldwide will be using Internet-enabled cell phones by 2004.

3Com and Motorola are in the process of developing a cell phone based on 3Com’s Palm Pilot software. This so-called “smart phone” is being designed with integrated personal digital assistant (PDA) software, wireless Internet access, and technology to synchronize data with a PC. The phone is expected to be released in 2002. Redmond, Wash.-based software giant Microsoft is also developing its own version of a “smart phone,” which is expected to be on the market this year.

Getting unplugged

“Interest in the ‘smart-phone’ as a means to access the Internet and keep track of email and contacts is steadily increasing,” said Claus E. Schmidt, senior partner at Alpine Data Systems, a Newark, Del.-based IT company that develops customized software for wireless devices.

“By allowing mobile workers to access mission-critical data and applications with cell phones becomes a compelling weapon in the information technology arsenal,” Schmidt said. The wireless application protocol (WAP) technology behind these smart phones is a set of standards that make it possible to display Web sites on the screens of tiny cell phones.

According to Schmidt, any Web site built with WAP technology can be viewed on any WAP-enabled cell phone, regardless of the phone’s manufacturer or the service carrier. The number of WAP-enabled Web sites is growing from 2,500 at the
end of 1999 to more than 40,000 today, according to research by a wireless search engine provider Pinpoint.com and the WAP forum, an industry consortium. Unfortunately, there are also a few “issues” with WAP technology.

Disadvantages of WAP

According to Schmidt, in the United States there are very few WAP phones on the market, a few carriers only offer WAP services and the network is a bit on the slow side. But even though the future of WAP may seem dismal, the world of wireless technology is looking to Japan for the answer.

NTT DoCoMo, the mobile division of Japanese telecommunications company Nippon Telephone & Telegraph (NTT), managed to take the mobile world by storm in 1999 with its iMode mobile data services—all while ignoring WAP technology. Since its launch, NTT’s iMode subscriptions have climbed to more than 10 million (that’s one out of every 15 Japanese, or twice as many users as WAP worldwide). The good news is NTT is looking for U.S. partners to market the technology here in the United States, which may mean the demise of WAP technology.

Smart phones are capable of managing personal information, such as agenda and address books, and providing data communications capabilities such as e-mail, messaging, and Web access. Smart phones run at least a 16-bit operating system with Internet access and can download applications and data from a network or a host machine. Smart phones are the same size as regular cell phones (weighing less than 16 ounces) and come equipped with a keyboard. Some of the smart phones on the market include Nokia’s 9000i, Qualcomm’s pdQ, and Ericsson’s R380.

Web appliances: the technology of the future

Back in 1997, personal digital assistants (PDAs) were considered expensive toys for high-tech boys. However, as the technology revolution continues to explode, so have the uses of PDAs. These little, but powerful devices have become sophisticated tools and are making it possible for companies to conduct critical business functions away from the office without the use of a laptop computer.

A study conducted by eTForecasts, a market research company, predicted that by 2005 an astonishing 55 percent of U.S. Internet users will also be using Web appliances such as cellular phones, car computers, and PDAs as part of their online activity.

“Most people today are using handheld computers as personal organizers,” said Dave Subers, vice president of Alpine Data Systems. “What you will see in the future is more customizable applications being used for more sophisticated tasks. For example, we use these applications internally to track project expenses, employee hours, and make job specific information available to our field technicians.”

Delivering solutions without boundaries

Alpine Data Systems recently developed customized inventory control software for General Motors designed specifically for a PDA. “Our goal was to develop an application for a PDA that could do anything that desktop software could do,” Subers said. The software enables GM employees to scan equipment using the PDA as a scanner and information device.

The scanned data, which includes item name, serial number, purchase date, purchase price, location, emergency maintenance contract, etc. is stored on the PDA in a specially designed application. Once the inventory tracking process is completed on the PDA, the device can be placed back in its docking cradle and synchronized with a desktop PC where the data is then transferred to a central inventory database.

“After synchronization with the desktop PC,” said Schmidt, the updated database is also available on all the other PDAs integrated with this software. “This allows technicians to access important information anywhere, anytime.

“Programs like this have many applications and can be easily customized for time keeping, service calls, inventory control, completing work orders, and other types of job-related information.”

Keeping connected with wireless technologies

Capital Electric Construction Company, Leavenworth, Kan., set up service call tickets via the Internet last year so service trucks could get their tickets and fill in their time and send it back. “We are also supplying laptop computers and PDAs for most general foremen on job sites for time keeping, benchmarking, and other job information,” said Bob Doran, president of Capital Electrical Construction.

The company is also implementing a process for employees to access work orders via the Internet. “We are virtually trying to eliminate all the paperwork with this process,” Doran said.

GE Supply, Shelton, Conn., will soon be introducing handheld technology for entering orders into gesupply.com. The company is using a PDA with Palm technology to allow customers to remotely scan products from the job site or stock room.

According to Robert Barton, GE’s director of e-commerce, the beta version of the new wireless technology will be up and running by the fourth quarter of 2000. “Deployment of the handheld bar code technology is the first step in a comprehensive order management strategy,” said Barton.

The second step is creating a purchasing list so customers can order products. “Implementation of handheld technology with the new gesupply.com,” said Barton, “allows us to integrate with our customers, providing additional productivity gains by streamlining the ordering process.”

Dexter + Chaney, a Seattle, Wash.-based software development firm specializing in accounting and project management applications for electrical contractors, has put its Forefront technology literally into the palm of contractor’s hands. According to Brad Matthews, vice president of sales, Dexter + Chaney is creating applications so that if a user does not have a laptop while he or she is in the field, they can still gather information and get information back on how a job is progressing.

Initially Forefront processing for the Palm will consist of one application—Payroll—with three components: payroll pre-time card entry, entry of equipment time on the job, and the collection of production quantities. Matthews said that the Payroll employee time entry creates a way to collect employee time on the job site each day by job and phase.

“It’s a very simple, fast, and easy collection screen,” said Matthews. “For clients who have equipment that gets charged to jobs, they will now have an easy method of collecting equipment time by job and phase.” The third component of this application allows users to enter in these production quantities for the job and phase each day.

WESCO Distribution Inc. also offers a solution for contractors. WESLink, a wireless on-site ordering system, works with a hand-held device to enable wireless ordering through WESCO.

Wireless-to-go technology

If you’re not interested in gadgets, but still want to stay ahead of the competitive curve, you might want to consider using unified messaging. Unified messaging allows users to get easy access to all forms of communication in one place. Blue Silicon TM (www.blue-silicon.com), a leading provider in extended enterprise messaging, has a service that allows users to gather their messages (voice mail, fax, e-mail, and paging) under one umbrella.

Users can access their messages over the telephone via interactive voice response and text-to-speech, through a Web browser or with a standard e-mail client. The company also provides local number access to the service from 30 locations worldwide. Pricing starts at around $20 per month.

Another wireless-to-go technology that will help road warriors keep in touch with the home office is a software application called Workstyle Server developed by Wireless Knowledge (www.wirelessknowledge.com). The application is an add-on to existing intranet servers and allows employees to go to a special URL using a standard desktop computer, or another Net-connected device like a PDA, a Windows CE handheld, a WAP-enabled cell phone, etc.

After entering a password, a user has full access to his or her e-mail, address books, and calendar. Workstyle Server detects what kind of device is being used and formats the display appropriately. For example: removing graphics and file attachments when displaying e-mail messages on cell phones and providing a “call back” button so users can return e-mail with a phone call instead of spending time typing in a response. The cost is about $10 per user per month.

Depending on the nature of a company’s business, there is a long laundry list of reasons why end-users will demand wireless capabilities. How fast users adopt this wireless technology will depend not only on what they require from a wireless device, but also on whether they want to stay ahead of the competitive curve or fall behind.

WOOD is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia, Pa. She can be reached at (215) 563-3071 or by e-mail at lcw@writer4u.com.