FRAMINGHAM (04/10/2000) - At a construction site outside Chicago, a cement truck's diesel engine belches black smoke and whines high, sending the vehicle's sloping, red and white cylinder into a fast spin.
The driver stabs a dusty finger at the rugged Palm IIIx handheld mounted inside the truck's cab. The button he pushes sends, via a Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) link, a "starting to pour" message to a database at a third-party Web site.
When the pour is done, he'll push another button and the ready mix company he works for, Ozinga Chicago RMC, will be fed accurate data on how long the job took. That information will be combined with Global Positioning System (GPS) data on distance and time to the construction site for determining pricing and route planning.
Dispatchers can view this data for each truck, watch its route progress and schedule deliveries using a Web browser. Soon the drivers will be able to capture a construction foreman's signature on the Palm device and electronically trigger the billing process.
This all is, aptly enough, a concrete example of how companies are exploiting the "wireless Web" even as service providers flounder while trying to deliver more compelling wireless Internet services to consumers than last night's sports scores.
Corporations already have a lot of compelling information, much of it is now on the Web. A growing number of network executives are realizing that an array of existing wireless networks let them provide access to this data in new ways.
"Businesses are saying, 'We want to converse in real time with our business infrastructure,' " says David Oros, CEO of Aether Technologies, a wireless systems integrator. "With wireless technology, they can have real-time updates, not end-of-day or weekly updates, to corporate data."
Real-time data can be used to improve customer service, speed delivery times, cut billing cycles or trim inventories. "These are event-driven processes, and businesses need to react to these right away," Oros says.
Ozinga's dispatch application - dubbed RoadRunner and now offered to other delivery companies - was designed as a hosted Web service by TrackYourTruck.com, of Lemont, Ill. Why a hosted Web service? It's easy to roll out at customer sites and can save customers money, says TrackYourTruck.com President Robert Hall.
After a 90-minute demonstration, Ozinga's truck drivers, some of whom had never used a computer, were online.
The Palm device in each truck attaches to an Airlink Pinpoint CDPD radio modem, which transmits at 19.2K bit/sec via a cellular carrier such as Ameritech. The radio is, in effect, an IP device attached to the Internet. CDPD service is inexpensive and ideal for applications covering a relatively small area, Hall says.
Via message queuing middleware from Nettech Systems in Princeton, N.J., the Palm application accesses the TrackYourTruck Web site, where a Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 database stores the information. Dispatchers at Ozinga's main yard access the data and the GPS map from PC-based Web browsers.
Where TrackYourTruck uses a carrier service for wireless transport, Boeing is using a campus wireless LAN to connect handhelds with its pervasive internal Web (see graphic).
One example is a forms-based application running on PalmOS devices. Originally, the software was built to give PC support technicians a more accurate way to record the time they spent on each desktop visit, says Christopher Esposito, who was until recently associate technology fellow with Boeing's Advanced User Environments Group (since this interview, he has joined a new company).
"Then, there were all these other things we began to come up with," he says.
"We added diagrams of the network closet configurations, then contact information for instant messaging with the other technicians, and then access to the trouble tickets."
Making the most of content
"If you already have a big investment in your Web site and its content, then the question is: How do you take this content and repurpose it for wireless devices without having to create a whole separate infrastructure?" asks Andre Boysen, chief technology officer with 724 Solutions, a Toronto software and systems integrator.
The answer hinges on the purposes for which you want the information. In some cases, it's relatively simple to display subsets of database information on a handheld using simple forms, third-party middleware and low-bandwidth wireless connections.
But deployment can become complicated with complex applications, the need for higher bandwidth for more reliable connections and wide-area coverage. Securing data and access remain major issues, industry observers say.
For experts, installing internal wireless Web systems is getting easier, says Rick Burris, president of eSense, a Palm Desert, Calif., integrator that specializes in electronic purchasing systems. He devised an extranet-based purchasing system using application software from Varian to help Regent's Bank in Birmingham, Ala., centralize purchasing for 800 branches spread across seven states.
A teller or branch manager now uses a desktop browser to order deposit slips or ballpoint pens. The Varian software processes the order. Workers at Regent's sprawling new warehouse see the orders displayed on wireless Symbol handhelds fitted with barcode scanners. Shipments now take three days instead of five or more. Clerical errors have been almost eliminated, and Burris says the entire system cut $7 million per year from bank expenses.
"This was the fastest installation I've ever seen: 14 weeks from signing the contract to full operational status," Burris says. A traditional client/server deployment would have taken six to 18 months, he says.
"Your infrastructure is already in place if you've got a Web browser," he notes.
Development tools and system software for supporting complex wireless Web applications are only just now becoming available.
For example, 724 Solutions offers banks and financial services companies server programs and tools designed to let users of personal digital assistants and Web-enabled cell phones access a host of features, such as checking balances, transferring funds and paying bills.
The 724 Solutions software provides a secure interface, via the Web, between wireless handhelds and a bank or financial services firm's back-end systems.
Another company, start-up @hand, of Austin, Texas, released in March the @hand Mobile Application Environment. The products include an application-server program for hosting such services as data management, compression and links to back-end systems; a client for the mobile device; and a set of development tools, including a data modeler.
Even with such tools, designing corporate applications for display on very small, mainly text-oriented screens is an art, customers and developers say.
"Applications have to be rethought for the wireless space," 724 Solutions' Boysen says.
"Porting Windows' look and feel to a handheld device is generally a bad idea," Boeing's Esposito says.
So wireless programs put a premium on simplified lists and explanations, the ability to choose quickly between options and minimizing data entry by hand.
Increasingly, developers are trying to feed "personalized" information to given wireless users. Based on their authenticated logons, users get selections of data and applications that relate specifically to the task in front of them - whether checking airplane wing tolerances or updating the software inventory on a malfunctioning router.
"If you can get data and computation and measuring right to the very spot in the field where it's needed, you have an enormous gain in productivity," Esposito says. "You're bringing the power of the corporate net to the exact point where it's needed, at the exact time it's needed."
Eventually, wireless data services from the carriers will make this possible across long distances.
"Sprint and AT&T are at the stage of creating wide-area wireless access for enterprise customers, giving them access to corporate intranets," says Marty Kacin, vice president of professional services for AvantGo of San Mateo, Calif.
"A field worker will get secure access to a port in the corporate firewall.
Things are about to get very interesting."
Wireless connections to the corporate Web are transforming the role of handheld devices.
"They're not just a tool to offload my e-mail so I can check messages during off hours," Esposito says. "In the space of a year or so, these will be more or less fully functional participants on the corporate net."
Think about that the next time you see a cement truck.