Homing in on the mobile

In the era of ‘mobile communications’, offices may become a thing of the past with users able to access databases, read e-mail and send or receive information at the touch of a PC button.

Ten years ago the buzz-phrase in information technology circles was “the paperless office”. Now, it’s the “officeless office”.

The marketers of hi-tech electronic equipment are trying to convince us that soon we will be able to do away with four walls, a desk, a secretary, a dying pot plant and a coffee machine, and carry everything we need with us – just sling the computer with fax modem, cellular phone and slimline printer into the boot of the car and, hey presto, a portable office.

A BT survey published earlier this year concluded there are some 7.5 million “mobile people” in the UK. Of these, BT estimates that 2 million are teleworkers who have an office but work from home at least part of the time; 600,000 are one-man bands, or small office home office (Soho) users; 1.7 million are “managers on the move”; and 3.3 million are field workers. It is these last two sectors that are the prime targets for the “mobile communications” marketers.

It is already possible to buy miniaturised versions of just about every piece of office equipment. The stumbling block, as ever, is price. The smaller and easier to carry a PC is, the heavier the price tag. But for most mobile communications applications, you don’t need all the equipment you would expect to find in an average office. Often, all you want is a notebook computer.

A large number of companies have already equipped their mobile salesforces with notebook PCs that can be used to collect data. Insurance salesmen, for example, often carry PCs with them: some go so far as to have special carrying cases with a small portable printer, since it is better to leave a prospect with printed policy details rather than posting them to arrive a few days later – the more time targets are given to change their minds, the more likely they will.

Portable PCs are also useful for salesforces dealing with large ranges of stock items. The company’s product catalogue can easily be loaded on to the computer so that individual items can be found quickly.

Another advantage of using portable PCs, of course, is that the information collected by the salesforce can be quickly and efficiently downloaded to the company’s mainframe or minicomputer, without the time-consuming and error-creating business of having often illegible notes transcribed.

Nor is it necessary to wait until the end of the day, or the end of the week, to collate the salesforce’s data: if the computers are linked together, the information can be transmitted to “base” using a mobile phone and GSM technology while the salesperson is still in the field.

Of course, it has been possible to transmit information over conventional phone lines for many years, and doing so is still cheaper than using a cellular phone, although less convenient. At least, nowadays, most phones use a simple jack connection which the computer can be plugged into: downloading data over the phone ten years ago required an acoustic coupler, a large and somewhat clumsy device that fits over the handset of a phone.

One of the biggest users of port-able PCs is BT. In March, its National Business Communications division signed up to buy 1,000 Apple PowerBooks for its Business Intelligence Toolkit for Sales project.

The BITS project relates to the increased need of the division’s sales force to remotely access up-to-date corporate sales and account information and to provide a two-way communications link between head office and the mobile salesforce, BT says.

Frazer Hamilton, head of operations at National Business Communications, says: “Our main objective for the project is to keep the salesforce fully informed, remotely, with up-to-date critical information. It is of great benefit in terms of client service to BT’s customers.

“The business justification for BITS was a direct payback through the improved efficiency and use of sales time, and the consequent increase in sales and reduction in costs. However, early analysis has revealed the intangible benefits of easier working methods and sales staff performing better in front of customers.”

Sales information is downloaded from a relational database on the corporate VAX minicomputer to the sales staff’s PowerBooks. The portable computers can be used to manage everything from billing and quote generation to sales forecasting. The information the salesforce collects is fed back to and reconciled with BT’s corporate database automatically, whenever the user links up, even if it is only to check e-mail messages.

At the moment, the system uses modems and the public telephone network, but Apple has recently launched a GSM Connection Kit for the PowerBook, so it could just as easily be used over a cellular network.

Kevin Chapman, mobile solutions marketing manager for Apple UK, says the company sees the “professional manager on the move” as a major market for PowerBooks. “It’s great to be able to go out on the road and show clients what you can do.”

In fact, Apple and BT have formed a partnership to sell mobile data systems to customers. The BITS project, while obviously of benefit to BT itself, is also a demonstration to potential users of what the system can offer.

BT is not solely linked into Apple, however. Indeed, in August it placed what is believed to be the largest single order for IBM-compatible PCs, when it awarded Toshiba a 30m contract to supply an estimated 22,000 notebook computers -70 per cent of BT’s total notebook PC requirement – over the next three years.

According to Murray McKerlie, product marketing manager for notebook PCs at Toshiba, the BT order is intended mostly for the telecoms giant’s engineers, who need to have constant access to the company’s technical database.

McKerlie says Toshiba practises what it is trying to sell to its customers: “Our sales guys all run around with portable PCs. When they are out of the office, they can just set themselves up at home, or at a desk in a dealership. They can read their e-mail, or find out stock availability. Some of them don’t even have to use phone lines, because they have built-in GSM adapters.

The Toshiba order from BT highlights the increasing blurring of the lines between “mobile communications” and plain computing. Most portable computers on the market offer users a certain level of communications ability, whether they will be using it or not.

The reason for this is simple – it’s good marketing.

Basic desktop computers have become almost a commodity item so to preserve margins, computer manufacturers have to add features that customers will be prepared to pay more for. Portability is just such a feature.

To an extent, however, portability itself has become an expected part of many PCs. While some BT staff will undoubtedly be using the communications ability of the Toshiba notebooks, many will not. Rather, as with so many large organisations, it has become the norm for mid and senior-level management to be issued with notebook PCs (and in some cases PowerBooks) for general office tasks.

Indeed, some computer companies have recognised the dual roles their products are often being asked to fill, and have created “docking systems” which allow notebooks to slot into larger desktop systems. In the office during the day, these systems look and perform just like desktop PCs with standard screens and links to printers, local area networks and so on. Come knocking off time, all the user has to do is pull the keyboard out of the system and it is transformed into a notebook PC.

While notebooks and laptops are being used to keep in contact with field salesforces, the vast majority of portable computers are being used for fairly basic office paperwork functions. Surveys show that portable computers are used at least half the time to perform general office administration tasks.

If notebooks are in danger of becoming as much commodity items as the desktop PC, the manufacturers have to come up with something else to preserve their margins. Hence the launch of the PDA – the Personal Digital Assistant – or handheld computer spurred on, in part, by the success of the Psion Organiser.

The Psion Organiser is itself used for many mobile salesforce tasks, with a variety of organisations loading catalogues and stock lists onto the system’s cartridges.

But while the computing power of the Psion is not to be sniffed at, the size of its keyboard and screen somewhat limit its uses. Hence the launch of PDA systems such as the Apple Newton or, more recently, the Sharp Zaurus, which feature interfaces based on writing by hand on their screens, as well as the more traditional keyboard commands.

The Zaurus ZR-5000, launched in September, fits into a jacket pocket, Sharp claims, and yet still allows users to send and receive e-mail, send faxes using cellular or regular phones, access on-line bulletin boards and exchange information with local and remote PCs.

Rosemary Eccles, Soho marketing controller at Sharp, says: “With the increase in the number of mobile professionals, ease of communications and productivity out of the office are both very important.”

Over the next few years, we are likely to see a number of smaller systems from competing computer manufacturers: the real limits on the size of computers, after all, depend on the uses to which they will be put, and tend to revolve around the size of the keyboard and screen. If these are not important, there is no reason why a computer the size of a calculator could not be developed.

Notebook computers, however, will continue to be made because there will still be the need for them, just as desktop PCs have not – yet – been superseded by notebooks.

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