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 CD Home < Web Techniques < 2000 < August  

Mobilize Your Data

By Cheryl Currid

Your employees are increasingly mobile—working on PDAs while they commute or checking email messages with their cell phones. Knowing this, it's in your best interest to design corporate data for easy access.

Salespeople have always been on the road, but today they aren't the only ones who work away from the office. A tight job market has nudged employers to offer telecommuting privileges to staffers who would rather spend Mondays working from their living rooms, or their backyards. These people need the same access to office files as employees who are tucked neatly in their cubes. Keeping informed about mobile-device technology—Pocket PCs, PDAs, and cell phones—will make you better aware of your workers' needs and how to meet them. (For a debriefing on tools for mobile workers, check out the URLs in " Online.")

While road warriors get airtime from frequent flyer organizations, few get mind-share from their own companies. It's time to look at mobility as a key component to business.

Obstacle Course

Mobile workers are already beset with technology-induced problems. Pocket PCs, PDAs, and cell phones need better batteries, settled hardware platforms, and more bandwidth. Frequent travelers are often annoyed by the need to stock or recharge batteries. Consider the person who carries a notebook computer, cellular phone, digital camera, electronic book, and PDA. The sheer size and weight of docking equipment and power adapters and cables necessary for this digital arsenal could fill half a briefcase.

Most hardware manufacturers agree that mobile workers need lightweight devices, but that's about all they agree on. With the size options ranging from the credit-card sized Rex to the eight-pound notebook computer—hardware vendors are far from homing in on a standard device.

Variety may be the spice of life, but picking among the mobile peripherals can lead to indigestion. There's too large an assortment, and no single form-factor or device seems to be winning. While we wait for the perfect hardware platform to emerge, we'll have to deal with many different approaches.

Similarly, the final word on keyboards and alternative input devices has yet to be written. Products that support speech or handwriting recognition are gradually improving. For example, several Samsung telephones let users train the phone to recognize up to 20 spoken names. Just say the name and the phone connects you.

Strategic Information Design

Troublesome as they are, don't let the litany of mobile device issues stop your Web development teams from making information available anytime, anywhere, from any device. (For more information on alternative-device design, see the "Integrated Design" column by Molly Holzschlag in the July 2000 issue of Web Techniques.)

As I mentioned before, there are benefits to giving employees easy access to data. In our info-based business society, workers need to access information from a variety of sources, such as corporate files or databases. If mobile workers make decisions on the road (and they do), then they need the same access to information as people in the office. As businesses continue to become info-competitive and applications are increasingly "Webified," the call for anytime, anywhere access grows louder.

Consider the way people work these days. Almost everyone is a mobile worker. While the notion of mobility was once confined to occupations like sales and service reps, there are now many jobs that could be reclassified. In fact, according to the Yankee Group, there are over 45 million mobile workers, including telecommuters.

Professionals, like accountants who audit remote locations, or managers who must take to the field to visit branch offices need access to specific company data that may not always fit in the limited memory and storage of a notebook computer or PDA. Because the tools of these trades frequently involve little more than numbers, an alternative text-oriented page on your intranet might serve information needs well.

Consider the airline mechanic who must service a plane. It's important to get the most recent information and techniques about the specific service to be performed. A quick download of updated information from a Web page into an e-book is a far better choice than depending on the old method of distributing information in three-ring binders. Using an e-book saves time, printing costs, and the inevitable human error that comes when somebody forgets to update the service manual with the latest revised chapters. Similarly, wearable computing devices could take the training manual right to the work site.

Corporate workers from marketing, manufacturing, finance, and communications also take to the highways and skyways as they visit customers and suppliers. When they go, they usually bring loads of information with them. A remotely accessible Web site could lighten their suitcases significantly.

Bandwidth Battles

Bandwidth for the traveler, wired or wireless, is a continuing challenge. Most hotels offer the same data-port-style telephones they've offered for the last 15 years, slowing users down to an analog signal well under 28.8 Kbps.

This could change with technology like MobileStar, which is a wireless local network connected to the Internet. For example, a hotel equipped with MobileStar gives users a wireless card and a logon ID. The network operates at 40 times the speed of a standard modem and doesn't tie up any of the hotel's phone lines. Generally the lobby, common areas, meeting rooms, and some guest rooms are covered. Users pay by the day, not the minute. MobileStar is available in 100 markets and has systems set up in selected Westin, Hilton, Sheraton, and FourPoints Hotels, as well as Crown Plaza Hotels and Resorts.

Other wireless services aren't so quick. Whether it's packet radio or a cellular-based service, the speed limit is stalled at about 19.2 Kbps. There's hope for faster speeds to surface this year, but widespread deployment could take years.

Even with emerging standards like the wireless access protocol (WAP), there's a problem. WAP is the cell phone's answer to Web access, but so far there have been incompatibilities among WAP browsers and gateways. Companies like IBM, Hewlett Packard, Bell Atlantic, and Cisco Systems are bringing out WAP-based products, but there have been compatibility problems when users access different browsers and gateways. A company must standardize on the same phone and gateway to ensure that configurations work and data is readable.

Beyond protocol standardization efforts, vendors are also developing proprietary solutions for the bandwidth problem. Xerox MobileDoc, for example, brings wireless access to corporate libraries by indexing documents for retrieval. MobileDoc tokens appear as icons on the wireless device screen. These tokens can then be used to fax or email the finished document, which is stored entirely on the corporate network.

Because the token is much smaller than an entire document, recipients who use PDAs, two-way pagers, and cell phones are left with more of their precious bandwidth. In this way, MobileDoc enables mobile workers to share corporate documents that are normally available only to an office worker.

An industry forum called Symbian, founded by Ericsson, Matsushita, Motorola, Nokia, and Psion, is promoting an applications suite called EPOC for the interoperability of wireless devices. EPOC is an operating system, application framework, and application suite that was designed from the ground up for wireless information devices. EPOC also includes connectivity utilities that let devices synchronize with data on PCs and servers.

Intuwave, a developer of EPOC applications and services, is taking an important step toward adding graphical support to wireless devices. The company is porting Macromedia's Flash player to the Symbian platform. Soon, even devices like cell phones will have the ability to display graphically enhanced data.

Short-range wireless technology, like the emerging Bluetooth standard, will let multiple devices—such as clock radios, headphones, refrigerators—communicate on networks. Bluetooth is a wireless protocol that uses a radio transceiver built in to each device. It's designed to connect spontaneously with other devices, creating an ad-hoc network. Bluetooth operates using very low power at a 2.4GHz rate and transmits data at 1 Mbps. While its range is confined to about 10 meters, this tool presents enormous potential for devices to send information back and forth, and that can be a boon to corporate travelers who juggle a number of devices.

Cell Phone Intelligence

If many of your employees are getting cell phones, you may want to look into offering them a standard, company-issued phone. Although the going is slow, cell phone manufacturers are trying to find a place in cyberspace. From the brick-sized Nokia 9000 to the diminutive StarTAC with PDA add-on, cell phones are looking more like PDAs.

Motorola's StarTAC clipOn organizer synchronizes calendars, phone books, notes, to-do lists, and contacts with a PC. It uses the TrueSync technology platform, which Motorola bought when it acquired Starfish Software in 1998.

Similarly, the Qualcomm pdQ phone comes with a PalmPilot built in. The phone/PDA can store information such as names, addresses, calendars, and other facts. Like the StarTAC, data transfers in or out of the pdQ contact manager require a HotSync connection. Users can use infrared (IR) communications to exchange information between units.

The Nokia 7110 comes with a browser, calendar, and phonebook. From the phone, you can send a Web page to a printer through an IR interface. It works on a GSM network and communicates data at 14.4 Kbps.

PDA Forces

If you're considering issuing full-fledged PDAs, look at the available Palm devices and PocketPCs. The Secure Sockets layer (SSL) and Private Communications Technology protocols available in the PocketPC make the item attractive for stockbrokers. In fact, TD Waterhouse uses it for wireless trading. Because the PocketPC's Internet Explorer uses 128-bit SSL encryption, a new generation of financial software should appear this year. These units use CDPD modems, infrared modems, and CompactFlash modems.

The PalmPC also uses cryptography from Certicom Corporation called Elliptic Curve Cryptography. This gives high levels of security with a small key size. The Palm VII uses Data Encryption Standard Extended and SSL encryption. Additionally, this unit claims to prevent eavesdropping with its message integrity check.

Developers are churning out innovative PDA add-ons like portable cameras and large storage capacity. Casio released the first camera attachment last year and now Handspring's Visor offers an eyemodule single or multiple image camera. PDA storage is growing rapidly thanks to products like IBM's Microdrive, which comes in an industry standard CompactFlash+ Type II one-inch card. Sizes of 170MB to 340MB are available, which lets PDAs carry more information than just a few names and addresses.

Forward, March!

Bottom line: The demand for mobile devices by the travelers within your company will soon require your attention.

Over the next few years, companies will see a huge increase in the need for mobile Web-based data. Experts say that by 2004 one in five of us will be cellularly connected. There's no doubt that the data will follow.

Philosophically, information access must be within an arm's reach. Companies that allow for mobile data access will go far in tomorrow's business world.

Cheryl is president of the consulting company Currid & Co. She lectures internationally and is the author of over a dozen books, including Strategies for Reengineering Your Organization.

Copyright © 2003 CMP Media LLC