Moving with the times

Technological advances mean the portable office is now a reality. Martin Croft considers the benefits.

In the early Eighties, the apparently inexorable advance of information technology led trend gurus confidently to predict the imminent arrival of the “paperless office”. Anyone sitting in an office in 1996 knows no such thing has happened. If anything, the last decade’s advances in computing and information processing have increased the amount of paper which flows across the average desk in a day.

So when those same gurus tell us with equal confidence that the latest developments in portable computing signify the end of the office itself, it is no wonder that their claims are treated with some suspicion.

Yet this time around they may be closer to the truth than they were on the paper issue. The factor behind the changes taking place in the office now is the same factor which wrong-footed them on the paperless office: convenience.

Paper never went away because it is still by far the easiest, cheapest and most convenient method for recording, storing and transmitting data.

On the other hand, portable computers – and a whole host of peripheral items such as mobile phones and portable printers – mean that marketers can work in a variety of different places without having to be in an office.

Andy Bass, marketing manager for Toshiba’s PC Division, provides an example: Bass recently spent a week in Cornwall on holiday, then immediately flew to Japan. On his return from Japan, he promptly flew off to Guernsey. He says: “I was completely in touch with the office at all times. Coming out of eight hour meetings in Tokyo, I was getting responses to questions I had e-mailed to the UK while the office there was asleep.”

Some might see this as a nightmare scenario. A 24-hour working day, seven days a week. But Bass doesn’t see it that way; “I think you have the perfect choice. I’m sitting here doing budgets at the moment. It’s a job that used to take four or five days, but now it’s finished in one day.”

Bass claims the reason complex tasks such as budgets can be done more quickly now is that there is no longer a need to shunt paper back and forth between different people to get approval – drafts and comments can be sent by e-mail.

“The world doesn’t have to stop because we all have to assemble for a meeting,” says Bass. “There’s nothing more stressful than not being able to move on something because people can’t get together.”

Of course some marketers may argue that there is still no substitute for a face-to-face meeting. But even here high technology has transformed business practices as Phil Redding, deputy managing director of conference production firm The Presentation Company, explains.

TPC regularly organises international conferences and investor relations roadshows for its clients which often use multimedia technology. While such presentations are designed on desktop computers in TPC’s London office, they are then copied onto Panasonic or IBM laptops with built in CD-ROM drives and high quality displays. This means they can be “tweaked” by the TPC project manager en route to a conference.

Furthermore, the latest LCD projectors are now rugged enough to be taken on board aeroplanes as hand luggage. This enables the whole presentation to be carried around by just one person.

This is a far cry from the situation less than two years ago, Redding says. “In November 1994 I did a presentation to a large group of investment bankers. We needed two technicians, a large van, a Barco projector and a screen to hide all the equipment behind. In June 1995, we sent a client off on his own with a presentation to float an Italian company based around a portable PC and projection system. It went off without a hitch and the quality of the presentation was far better than the one I’d given in 1994.

“Furthermore, the 1994 presentation, excluding the hire of the van, cost 40,000, while the 1995 one cost 10,000 plus one hour to train the banker on how to use the system”.

However, there is a drawback about allowing clients to get their hands on portable systems. Craig Robertson, sales and marketing co-ordinator of Portable Software Solutions which specialises in providing software packages for use in the field, warns that “the typical laptop or notebook is not always practical as it can lack durability”.

When Robertson talks about durability, he doesn’t mean “Does the unit work if I spill coffee on it?” He’s talking about more extreme treatment. “We’ve had a couple of units come back which have obviously been used to hammer nails into walls. Others have come back with tooth marks on them – dog’s teeth, that is. One came back with tyre treads on it.”

Hanson subsidiary Imperial Tobacco, which has over 35 per cent of the UK’s 9bn cigarette and tobacco market, recently spent 2.3m to equip its salesforce with handheld units. Because these units were to be used in the field by sales people visiting individual retail outlets, they had to be rugged. PSS recommended Husky Hunter 16/80s – handheld terminals about the size of a Filofax.

Robertson says: “We use Husky hardware quite a lot. It developed from products made for military use. That’s why it can stand up to rough treatment.”

Imperial Tobacco’s 270 field sales representatives were all equipped with handheld terminals, integrated printers and modems. Each calls on between 300 to 500 sales outlets. Another 40 or so field based managerial and supervisory staff were equipped with portable 486 Compaqs.

At the end of the working day this field staff sends its data back to the marketing department for overnight processing. In the morning supervisors and managers can look over the previous day’s results using the e-mail on their PCs.

Not everyone has the backing of specialist firms or computing departments when they have to pick their portable systems, however. If you work for a small firm or for yourself then you have to rely on magazines, what retail outlets can tell you and word of mouth.

Paul Walton, chairman of new product development consultancy The Value Engineers, has been a dedicated palmtop user since 1987. A fan of the Sharp IQ personal organiser, he was eventually seduced by Psion a month ago.

He says: “I’d used four or five Sharp models over the years. The main advantages of a palmtop are the contact lists, the diary function, the timesheet and expenses facility.”

Walton does a lot of word processing on his desktop in the office and at home, but uses a palmtop to amend or adapt documents, and to transfer information from work to home or to a client’s office.

It was this need to transfer to and from a PC which made Walton switch from Sharp to Psion. He says: “Sharp seemed to have become interested in Apple and handwriting recognition. I’m not into that.”

Apple has developed a range of Personal Digital Assistants which use handwriting recognition software.

Some years ago Sharp used the Apple Newton software for its PI 7000 Expert Pad. Since then it has not been using handwriting recognition but a “pen” as a substitute for a mouse. However, the fact that it is no longer using handwriting recognition appears not to have got through to everybody.

Psion has recently introduced a package, PsiWin, which makes the transfer of Windows 95 documents much easier.

Walton denies suggestions that it was simply a matter of Psion being better branded. “It wasn’t a case of being seduced by branding, in fact it was the reverse. Psion wasn’t black, it wasn’t sleek and it was the sort of thing used by Sainsbury’s for stock checking.” He admits: “I was very sad that my relationship with Sharp came to an end, but the company seemed to be going down a route I wasn’t interested in.”

The fact that a marketer like Walton thinks Sharp has gone too far down the Apple route suggests that it needs to address its communications with some of its target market.

Those marketers who use portable computer systems are adamant that they make their lives better. They also believe the unconverted will see the light and start making full use of the mobile office. As TPC’s Redding says: “There will be a huge growth in the use of these systems, because of the quality and convenience they offer. We do come across people who still stonewall the idea, but in a year’s time I believe we will have seen the extinction of the techno Luddites.”

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