Mobile Computing: Laptop luggables to palm top promise

When you’re selling a product on the road — even one that sells itself as easily as Coke — having the right information at your fingertips is a significant advantage. This premise has driven a flurry of investment in mobile computing over the past decade, as notebooks progressed from being an executive fad to a key productivity tool for knowledge workers of all types.

Genealogically speaking, mobile computing can trace its roots back to the very first ‘luggables’ — desktop computers, which appeared in the early 1980s but fizzled out a few years later, that were built to be easily picked up and moved. Their weight, around seven to 14kg, defied the very notion of a ‘laptop’, and rechargeable batteries of the era meant that power points were a mandatory extra.

By the early 1990s, improvements in miniaturisation, battery technologies and developments such as LCD displays had significantly changed the face of mobile computing. Since then, notebooks — once limited to executives because of their high cost and limited power — have become nearly ubiquitous because of their unique ability to bring relevant, useful information into the field. The business case is dead easy: less time spent looking for information means more time spent with customers in the field, or extra hours spent finishing work while at home.

Recognising the benefits of data mobility, Coca-Cola Amatil (CCA) began investing in notebooks nearly seven years ago. The company’s goal was to better equip its 600-strong nationwide sales force with the information it needed to better service customers in the field, where the sales people spend all their time.

CCA loaded the notebooks with a sales force automation application, which allowed salespeople to view a customer’s order history and enter customer orders into their notebooks from the customer’s site. Two or three times a day, they hooked the notebooks to their mobile phones and uploaded details of the orders to a central server.

Entering orders from the field was a vast improvement for CCA staff, who had previously had to write all orders by hand and manually enter them into the order management system upon returning to the office. Over time, CCA has made a series of improvements to the application, expanding its functionality and making the notebooks essential tools for the company’s salespeople.

“We can add value to our customers because we’re showing them real information,” says Richard Host, infrastructure services manager with CCA. “Over the years, we’ve been able to significantly leverage the system. We could not do without it now; it’s an integral part of what we do. In the future, we don’t see sales reps ever not having some sort of device that provides a connection back to the office.”

When recently choosing the specifications for its recent notebook upgrade — which introduced the company’s third generation of notebooks — CCA replaced physical mobile phone connection cables with a wireless Bluetooth connection that has eliminated the annoying problem of broken or lost cables.

CCA’s investment in mobile computing doesn’t stop there: some 30,000 vending machines use mobile phone or landline connections to automatically report their contents and status to an automated service system. Some 240 service technicians now use PDAs to receive details of — and confirm acceptance of — new jobs via SMS. Use of SMS lets the terminals work anywhere there’s mobile phone coverage, at low cost and with certainty that messages have been received. “It’s brilliant,” Host says.

It’s also complicated the client/server equation by forcing companies to manage endlessly mobile, occasionally-attached rich client computers where data is constantly changing and can easily be lost forever if the notebook is stolen or damaged. Complicated backup and replication strategies aside, this issue is gradually being alleviated as companies shift towards server-hosted, Web-based applications where the mobile computers become used as access terminals rather than being full-featured computers.

This trend, augmented by 802.11b-based wireless networks now providing wireless broadband connections in heavily trafficked areas, is kick-starting a new wave of mobile computing that looks far beyond the notebook PC. With Web interfaces freeing applications from the need to accommodate notebook PCs’ idiosyncrasies, applications can be easily delivered to PDAs, smart phones, 3G phones, flat tablet PCs or other access devices.

While incorporating these devices into business computing strategies hasn’t always been straightforward, the push towards standardisation is removing technological barriers that have presented problems in the past. At the same time, improving power management technologies such as Intel’s Centrino notebook chipset are squeezing more usable time out of ever more-pressured batteries. The Holy Grail of mobile computing — a full day’s working life between charges — is possible using PDAs and will be available on notebooks within a few years.

This has significant implications for the spread of mobile computing, particularly with the spread of wireless connectivity that allows field workers and travellers to stay in constant contact with office applications and data stored on company servers. Particularly with recent price drops, GPRS wireless connectivity is quickly becoming accepted as an effective (and cost-effective) way of maintaining permanent data connections.

While such devices significantly extend the mobile computing paradigm, there will always be a role for the humble notebook PC, says Gartner analyst Andy Woo. “Mobile technology will be seen as a key growth platform in the overall hardware space,” he explains. “Wireless and mobility will drive a lot of technologies, and we’re going to see more convergence. But we’re past the 80/20 rule — around 22 per cent of computers are notebooks in Australia — so there’s a clear indication that more and more end users are accepting the mobile PC as a viable platform.”

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