By Galen Gruman, editorial director, IT Wireless
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Beverage Distributor Regains Connections over Wireless
Fewer and fewer pay phones made it increasingly hard for Alaska Distributors' mobile sales force to call in orders, making the company's expensive Telzon devices — portable order-entry that connected to analog landline phones using acoustic couplers — increasingly useless. With orders due in by 4:30 p.m., salespeople came under increasing pressure to get their orders in on time to meet their customers' deadlines. (The analog device does not work over PBXs, so salespeople for the Seattle-based beverage distributor couldn't usually use customers' phone systems either.) Plus salespeople had to carry a bulk binder with pricing and SKU numbers for the 5,000 products distributed by the company, which serves customers throughout Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska, although 75% are in the Seattle-Tacoma area.
The answer, says IS manager Bob Chester, was to replace the salespeople's Telzons, bar-code scanners, cell phones, and pagers with two devices: an NEC 790 Pocket PC-based PDA and a Handspring Treo. The sales force uses the NEC 790 for order entry and transmission. "It has six hours of battery life, and battery life is very important to us, which is why we didn't go with a laptop. Plus they needed a keyboard," Chester says. Alaska Distributors was hoping for a device that could also double as a cell phone, but PDAs that could handle the data input and display needs were too cumbersome for use as a phone, he says. "It's too ungainly," he says.
That's why the sales force also uses Treo, which serve as standard voice phones and as pocket organizers — plus as an email device. "The Treo works better for email, at least for a non-tech-savvy staff," Chester says, noting that "a lot of people don't have PCs at home." But the Treo's screen is simply too small to use it as the order-entry device, so Alaska could not use it to replace the NEC 790, he says.
To connect the salespeople's devices to Alaska's systems, the company uses Sprint PCS's CDMA2000 network, which provides data coverage in most of the company's service territories outside of Alaska. Although the data service costs more than the company's previous cell-phone service, Chester says the new approach is still cheaper overall, since the company no longer pays for pager service, which had totaled about $5,000 per month. Chester estimates his monthly costs are now 25% lower than before. Plus, his staff can now submit orders easily and on time.
To implement the new system, Chester decided to treat the devices as standard Web-based connections. That means no virtual private networks (VPNs) or other special technologies. Instead, Chester relies on the devices' IP addresses and standard login security, just as if the user were connecting from a PC at home via the Internet. "I wanted to leverage the Internet for everything," he says. Chester was also concerned that if he made the technology too complicated, the salespeople wouldn't be able to use it. "These people can't handle any sort of difficulty." To ensure the system worked for the sales force, Chester and his staff did extensive testing in the field. "You've really got walk a mile in their shoes and see how it really works out."
For email, Chester is using Sprint PCS's email service, which routes email through a Sprint server before connecting to Alaska's Microsoft Exchange server. "We were skeptical about using Sprint's email services," since tests with other carriers revealed significant delays in message delivery as the email went through multiple networks and gateways within the carriers' system. But with Sprint, "we haven't seen any latency issues."
Chester has also seen an unexpected bonus using Pam-based devices for email: "It cut my virus problem by a huge amount." That's because most viruses are written for Windows systems because they are so widely deployed. The viruses can't interact with the Palm, so they can't infect the Treos, Chester notes.
Got deployment experience and lessons to share? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WIRELESS PRODUCT AND SERVICE GUIDE!
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WIRELESS PRODUCT AND SERVICE GUIDE!
In one of the most intriguing announcements I've seen so far this year, In Motion Technology has developed an in-vehicle hot-spot system that links to new-generation cellular data services. The OnBoard Mobile Gateway creates an 802.11-based hot spot within a vehicle, such as bus or train, and links it to the Internet via one or more cellular connections. Carey International, which provides ground transportation services from airports in various cities, expects to deploy the technology so its riders have Internet access during transit. The system can also be used for employee-only systems, such as on trains for use by the crew or by public safety vehicles to create ad-hoc hot spots at the sites of fires, crimes, accidents, and disasters.
In other product and technology developments:
Got a great product or technology tip? Send it to email@example.com.
A recent survey of its wireless-user panel by In-Stat MDR shows that wireless remote access is a steadily growing — but still quite small — method of accessing corporate systems. The primary access routes are, not surprisingly, over cellular and 802.11 networks. Although In-Stat acknowledges the small use makes it hard to discern any real trends, its survey did find the following usage patterns, at least among its set of users:
In other market news, Cable & Wireless's Caribbean subsidiaries have begun deploying GPRS-based wireless data services for business and individual customers, with launches planned this year for Jamaica, Barbados, Cayman Islands, and nine other island locations.
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