The demand for mobility and the automation of those in the field shows no sign of slowing and, as a result, a vast array of solutions have been developed to cater for wide ranging scenarios.
There are said to be more than 250 million ‘line of business’ mobile workers in Europe and North America alone, with these figures being driven by the need to replace time consuming field-based paperwork with handheld devices and electronic forms, which bring huge efficiencies and cost savings into play. There’s also a real need for automation and the ability to communicate information effectively wirelessly in real-time and on rugged devices.
Steve Reynolds, MD at TBS Enterprise Mobility, says: ‘There is currently a big demand for enterprise mobility solutions, because they increase productivity and efficiencies, therefore it is seen as recession busting technology.’
According to Sean Ryan, senior research analyst at Mobile Enterprise, IDC, the demand for such devices has been driven by the standardisation towards Windows Mobile from previous customised WIN CE deployments, proprietary systems and terminal barcode scanners.
‘Among field force workers, new connectivity options for such devices supporting cellular have helped,’ he says. ‘In addition, smaller form factors at lower price points have also been a driver.’
The need for toughbook or handheld very much depends on the vertical and usage model though.
Ryan says an engineer in the field needing to do in-depth analysis would use a toughbook, while a postal service delivery person would use a handheld.
‘Police officers could go either way or use both,’ he adds. Robert Hurt, senior director, marketing, EMEA at Intermec, explains that businesses are looking for ways to conduct more tasks, quicker and at the point of activity: ‘We are enabling this by providing the widest range of communication options in devices that are optimised for mobile use.’
Hurt says his customers want lighter and more efficient devices while at
the same time wanting these solutions to be small enough to enable operators to be handsfree to carry out other work tasks.
‘However, they still want to be able to process mail, access back office systems and transmit images over a full eight hour shift, so battery life is critical,’ he adds.
‘Our latest products support long battery life and by providing HSDPA and HSUPA capability, users can transmit large documents or images quickly and efficiently. No mobile user wants to wait 10, 15 or 20 minutes just for a file to transmit,’ he says.
As far as pocketable PDA devices within the enterprise go, Hurt says Intermec is producing solutions that cater for Bluetooth, WLAN, 3.75 HSDPA wireless communications and GPS. At the same time, the devices are durable enough to withstand drops of 1.8m.
‘Another recent technology innovation in our mobile devices is electronic document imaging (eMDI), which uses smart error-correction algorithms to make it possible to transmit an image of a document that will be readable, or scannable if it contains barcodes, by the recipient,’ he adds.
Yet, Hurt says the biggest wireless problem he faces is the variability in level of network service in different places and countries. He adds: ‘When your employees are mobile, their computers need to overcome this and enable constantly-connected communication, by the most cost-effective means available.’
One industry that needs fail-safe comms and uses wireless technology in various forms – such as 3G, GPRS and TETRA – is the emergency services.
Steve Lewis, marketing manager at Microbus, says his company has supplied its M-PC range of computers to around 90% of this market for 10 years, which in addition to image processing provides access over any network including TETRA Airwave to the Command and Control.
‘This allows the effective deployment of officers to incidents, permits them to update incident details and access the Electoral Roll, Internal Telephone Directory and duty management functions, without having to go back to the station,’ he says.
In addition to this and thousands of computers operating in Black Cab taxis, buses and waste recycling lorries across the UK, the company also rolled out over 400 in-vehicle PC systems to the London Ambulance Service in 2002. Microbus PCs enable the ambulance crew to access crucial emergency call information and vital navigation instructions through on-board colour touch-screens.
‘Faster and more accurate data movements facilitate improved vehicle system monitoring, messaging, location co-ordinates transmission and management information reporting,’ adds Lewis. ‘An important feature of the in-vehicle computer is its ability to accept additional software as the system develops further.’
In addition to installing an integral Wireless LAN capability, Lewis says Microbus has engineered the London Ambulance Trust’s in-vehicle PCs to include the option of an internal dual GPRS capability.
‘Freed from the constraint of a single airtime supplier, the Trust is confident of superb wireless data coverage throughout the metropolis,’ he adds.
For the police patrol car market, Microbus has developed the LINX, a vehicle-demountable PC that is fully windows-based offering multi-bearer communications both inside and outside the vehicle as well as the option of an integral modem for all TETRA frequencies.
‘Unlike PDA devices the LINX features a large sunlight-viewable touch-screen for easy data input and information retrieval. The LINX also provides the connectivity for the future use of peripherals such as fingerprint scanners,’ adds Lewis.
The idea with all of these devices in the various theatres is to facilitate the flow of information in a timely fashion and efficiently so that workers can devote their efforts to the job in hand. With the nature of deployments constantly changing and the ability to react swiftly to market conditions in real-time, it looks as though those in the space have got their work cut out.
Rugged devices anywhere, any place
It’s not just network service that managers are worried about. Mobile devices are now being taken into ever more taxing scenarios, where physical demands placed upon them have seen a real trend towards tougher, more durable, ‘rugged’ devices.
For James Munger-Styles, head of marketing at Blazepoint, a company that supplies blue chip customers in both the military and civil sector, mobile computing means using devices that can run anywhere, any place.
To this effect, he says that the company has built a 13.3-inch convertible laptop that can go anywhere and solves this problem. This adds to the tactical devices that Blazepoint supplies for the army’s portable and vehicle mounted requirements. These are manufactured to withstand extremes of temperature, rough vibration, impact and pervasive dust.
Munger-Styles feels that the increasing sophistication and complexity of IT makes stringent demands on ruggedisation. This means advanced design techniques, innovation based on extensive experience, and rigorous testing is required if products are to be able to withstand not only physical abuse, but also temperature extremes.
‘The Computer must also give as many options as possible allowing 3G and other radio cards to be used, which we offer,’ he adds. ‘Technology will move as fast as ever and satellite communications are on the increase to prevent areas of no sign