For the president of one software company, the cutting edge of mobility isn't a teenager text-messaging friends and downloading MP3 files with a Motorola Razr -- it's an electrician using a handheld device in the field to document each bit of wiring, fixtures, screws and plates used in a just-completed lighting installation.
That's the user Gary Rawding, president of U.S. company myServiceForce, wants to reach with easy-to-use Web software that can automate and simplify many of the administrative tasks done by electricians; heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) technicians; construction workers; and a host of other field service workers.
To do it, Rawding's company built customizable service management and dispatch applications atop a mobile software infrastructure created by E-Tech Solutions, which specializes in building and deploying applications for business clients. E-Tech's E-Mobile Development Framework , is based on Microsoft platform components: Windows Mobile 5.0, Microsoft .Net and the .Net Compact Framework, Visual Studio.Net, and the SQL Server database. E-Tech's tools and business applications, both client- and Web-based, are layered on this foundation.
"The small-medium business is the great, untamed opportunity," Rawding says. "It has enormous potential in terms of revenue and it's terribly underserved by the software industry, especially with software at this level."
MyServiceForce was founded in 2000 as Arion Solutions and initially focused on the medium-sized market with a conventional software product that at US$50,000 proved to be too expensive for most users. In mid-2005, a new executive team took over Arion, renamed it, and refocused the company as a hosted, software-on-demand provider with a mobile application offering and a cost structure geared for small and midsize businesses.
"We're retraining the small business market," Rawding says. "They have to learn to buy [products and services] differently: the Web becomes a supermarket of services for small business."
The company focuses on software to automate many of the tasks that burden workers in the field, as well as the tasks that go along with managing mobile workers from a central office. With myServiceForce's on-demand service, field workers can transmit work orders, identify parts needed for each job, make use of portable barcode scanners to itemize inventory used, generate invoices at the job site, and even swipe a customer's credit card for immediate payment.
E-Tech developed the original software for Arion, which ran only on PCs and a proprietary, expensive handheld computer from Intermec. For Arion's overhaul, E-Tech rewrote and re-architected the Arion application to meet the new focus of myServiceForce.
One key change now lets the application run over cellular, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connections. Bluetooth lets the handheld user work with earbuds and a bundle of portable peripherals such as barcode scanners, magnetic strip readers, and printers. Still more new code lets the application display appropriately on the many different types of screens and resolutions found on handhelds.
Paul Elisii, E-Tech's CEO, says the Microsoft platform makes such adaptation and extension easy. "Within .Net, you can write code, such as a business object [a piece of reusable code] or a Web service, which can then run on a Web server for a browser application, or a desktop, or a tablet PC, or on a PDA/smartphone like a Treo," he says. "We write one set of business logic and leverage it in all these places."
Windows Mobile 5.0 was a major advance by Microsoft, Elisii says. "We'd done development on the 2003 platform," he says. "This [5.0] is a more robust platform. It has push [messaging] technology for the time, so it can compete with RIM's Blackberry, and Microsoft has made the security much more robust. And it's been embraced by [independent software developers]and [mobile] device makers."
E-Tech did its first major project for the 5.0 release for myServiceForce. "It was the newest operating system and we thought it would grow with us," Rawding says. In addition, myServiceForce found it was easy to partner with other software companies also using the 5.0 platform, such as a GPS vendor to integrate location data or with various accounting software companies. For example, one software application from myServiceForce, called Financial Client, runs on a PC at the customer site to integrate myServiceForce directly with QuickBooks, the popular small business financial software from Intuit.