Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Going Mobile Global

In the past few hours I have either spoken or emailed with partners or project teams in the following locations:

  1. Germany
  2. Australia
  3. Hong Kong
  4. Dublin, Ireland
  5. Belfast, Ireland
  6. UK
  7. The Netherlands
  8. Canada
  9. USA
  10. South Africa

The internet is enabling businesses to expand as never before. The internet provides low cost communication globally. Online marketing allows you to meet companies around the world. Online project management tools enable the management of remote projects. Video conferencing let's you look your team leaders and customers in the eyes across the Atlantic, Pacific or any other ocean or sea. Wire transfers allow us all to get a paycheck. Digital products like software can be distributed across the internet - kind of like a digital fedex service.

Now consider MobileDataforce's mobile software platform - PointSync. A person can be conducting a quality assurance inspection of a food processing plant in Melbourne, Australia and with a click of a button on a mobile handheld computer, the information can be immediately synchronized to a database in New York city for viewing by managers. The internet makes this communication both inexpensive and a reality for most of our deployments these days.

MobileDataforce and Large International Deployments

MobileDataforce has been involved in several good sized international deployments of mobile handheld computer solutions lately. These kind of implementations need careful management and planning. Here are a few points to consider and plan for:
  1. First of all the customer must have dedicated staff assigned to the roll-out. It can't be done ad hoc.
  2. If at all possible have the deployment teams onsite at the pilot location.
  3. Pilot and beta programs need documented issue reporting paths. Everyone involved must know how to report issues, and how they are to get resolved.
  4. Don't roll-out to large numbers in the first round. Test...roll-out...test...roll-out...there is a nice pattern here. Minimize the impact of inevitable issues in the early stages.
  5. Use PointSync Manager to deploy updates to the field. PointSync can publish updates to the end user transparently. This reduces end user errors and self-inflicted injuries.
  6. Often it is helpful to load the mobile application onto each handheld device before the initial roll-out. Minimize the variables that can go wrong in the field. Keep it simple for the new users. We often load our mobile applications to an SD or Mini SD card and then simply insert the card into each new device and load.
  7. Keep the user interface on the mobile application as close to the paper process as possible to minimize the training time required. If there is a certain process flow that your field users are familiar and comfortable with, then keep your mobile application as close to it as is reasonable.
  8. Mandate the use of a mobile application, don't give the field user the option of paper. Learning takes time and is often annoying - make sure the end user knows there is no going back to paper...so start learning it.

Even a Sales Guy Can Build a Mobile Application

Even a sales guy can create bar code scanning applications for use in route deliveries to grocery stores! I was walking down the hallway in our office on Monday and Mark was proudly showing off an application he had developed for the Symbol MC70 bar code scanner. One of his clients delivers products to grocery stores and wanted a route delivery application using this handheld device. So what did Mark do? He (a sales guy) developed one for them! This just proves that MobileDataforce has nearly accomplished our dream. Ok, ok, ok...he didn't quite get it production ready, but he got the mobile application running.

Our dream has always been to develop a rapid application development environment- PointSync, that could be used by the business folks to develop mobile applications. Every month we are adding new features and functionalities to our mobile applications to make them simplier to use and faster to implement.

Route delivery applications often consist of the following parts:
  1. Inventory
  2. Delivery
  3. Merchandising
  4. Planograms
  5. Promotion
  6. More

Planograms are one of the most interesting components to me. Here is the definition of a planogram:

  • The placement of merchandise that is arriving to the store can be planned out on paper by using a Planogram before the products actually arrive to the store. A planogram is a retailer's drawing (blueprint) which visually communicates how merchandise and props physically fit onto a store fixture or window to allow for proper visibility and price point options. The retailer can plan to mix the new products with current items or initiate entirely new displays. If you have more than one store this is an excellent way to communicate to your staff how you would like displays executed.

I would like to add some more to the description of planograms - Here at MobileDataforce one of our recent route delivery application projects included a design of the shelf space plus a color code to signal what task needed to be done for that shelf space and product. This was all done on a handheld computer using MobileDataforce's PointSync. Talk about efficiency. The delivery person would walk into a store, enter the store code/street address and a detailed task list would be produced instructing him/her on what needed to be done with each product and shelf space in that particular store location.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Remote Audio Training on Mobile Handheld PDAs

My software engineers added some very cool new features to PointSync last week. The feature I found most intriguing was the ability to add audio files to business logic and button actions. Now a field service technician can request audio instructions (remote training help) on what information needs to be associated with a field on their mobile application. Here is an example:

Field service technician - "hummmmm....how do I answer this question about parts used on my work order?"

Press the Audio file button next to the field - "parts used refers to the parts you pulled out of inventory to use on a customer's repair job."

Field service technician - "Now I understand"

You can also use these audio files in data validation alerts. For example:

Audio File - "BEEP! The answer must be a number between 14-99"

For multi-language purposes - you can include audio instructions in multiple languages.

These are just a few of the cool things my software engineers are doing in the dimly lit back room in the glow of their monitors.

Another Software Company Selects MobileDataforce

Cartegraph has selected MobileDataforce to mobilize several more modules of their popular government focused asset management suite. In June I wrote a blog article on our initial work together. The results of this mobilization effort will be that local city, county and state governments can more efficiently and accurately management their assets, field inspections, work orders, inventory and public safety responsibilities.

MobileDataforce South Africa - Mobile Solutions in ZA

This year MobileDataforce has experienced record levels of mobile software solution sales in South Africa. We are starting a large government sponsored inspection project that will involve hundreds of handheld computers and inspectors next week.

Mobilizing asset management is one of the most common requests we receive here at MobileDataforce. Companies and government agencies want to identify and inventory their assets, track where they are located at any given time, the condition of their assets, the maintenance records of their assets, and the use of their assets. Often these assets are spread over a large region and it takes a mobile handheld asset management system to efficiently monitor and document them.

Canyon County - Building Inspection ROI

This week my sales team was working with a small county government on designing a mobile handheld building inspection application. The projected cost savings from converting from a paper based inspection system to a mobile handheld computer based inspection system was $85,000 in the first year. This is a huge savings for a small government agency.

We see similar ROIs from mobilizing government agencies' around the world. You can reference this blog article for more information on ROIs from mobile applications.

Melbourne PointSync Training - Sept. 28th & 29th

Dave Wasden, VP of Product Management at MobileDataforce will be in Melbourne, Australia conducting a 2-day training class, September 28th & 29th, on how to develop full end-to-end mobile solutions for use on handheld computers.

This class includes the following:
  1. How to architect and design mobile applications
  2. How to develop PDA and Industrial handheld mobile database-centric applications
  3. How to build business logic and data validations into your mobile applications
  4. How to synchronize mobile handheld software applications data
  5. How to integrate mobile data to an enterprise database
Please contact Andy Noble if you would like to attend.

Maryland Mobile Technology Seminar

On November 1st I will be speaking at the Maryland Mobile Technology seminar in Baltimore. This will be the third event in this series and we meet a lot of new people with very unique and interesting mobile project needs.

This week I spoke at the Utah Mobile Technology conference and it was great fun. These are educational events where generally 6 mobile industry veterans share knowledge and experiences in how to architect, design, develop and implement mobile software and hardware solutions.

Let me know if you would be interested in having one of these seminars in your region.

MobileDataforce's European Partner Summit

On October 17th I will be speaking at our European Partner Summit in The Netherlands. MobileDataforce has a number of very interesting new mobile software solution updates and new developments that we will be discussing with our European partners. We will also be discussing mobility trends, mobile solutions and how to provide our customers with the best possible services and support.

Monday, September 18, 2006

GPS, GIS and Handheld PDA Software Solutions

GPS is everywhere! More and more often customers are asking that their mobile handheld computer solutions included integrated GPS. Work orders, vehicle tracking, asset tracking, and route delivery projects now often require it. Recently on my trip to Australia, a company asked that their sales force automation project include GPS data capture. They want to make sure their sales staff are visiting their customers as reported.

Many companies want the added documentation that capturing a time/date stamp with a GPS coordinate gives them. They apply this to any work done at that location.

On engineering and construction projects - it is often requested that geological tests' (water, soil, compaction, etc) locations be captured with a GPS coordinate, to make re-testing easier.

On vehicle tracking projects - our customers often want to know the exact location of their vehicle (company asset) at any time. Why? So they can re-route the delivery truck when needed, optimize the route, or predict delivery times for customers. Sometimes, 2 delivery trucks need to meet up and exchange cargo. If the central database at the company office can see the location of all of their vehicles in real time, it makes it easier to have trucks meet up at convenient locations.

Using a RAD tool like MobileDataforce's PointSync, it is easy to capture a GPS location within any mobile application.

Rugged Handheld Computers

On almost a daily basis my sales team gets asked what handheld computers does MobileDataforce support. This is a fairly easy question to answer because PointSync supports all Win CE, Windows, Windows Mobile 5.0 and Windows for Tablet PCs operating systems and the devices that use them. Using PointSync - you can build once and support all of these different operating systems.

Once you have configured your mobile application using a RAD tool like PointSync, you will then configure the application's screen size and GUI to match the screen space of the handheld, laptop or Tablet PC that you need.

This is a powerful feature. Many times supervisors may have laptops, but the work crew in the field may have a ruggedized handheld. Both need access to the same enterprise data, but on different size screens.

We often deliver solutions using the following handheld devices, although we are not limited to them:

Psion Teklogix
Symbol Technologies
Intermec Technologies
TDS Recons

Utah Mobile Technology Conference

Tomorrow we are conducting an educational event in Salt Lake City for government agencies and local companies that are interested in mobile technology. This is our second event and these are usually very well attended and a lot of fun.

Sessions include:

  • Panel discussions on subjects related to mobile projects, mobile technology and mobile strategies will be covered in detail.
  • Latest advances in ruggedized computers
  • Latest advances in PDA phones
  • Latest advances in mobile enterprise software solutions
  • Latest government mobility projects and technologies.

Reviewing the list of registered attendees I note IT folks from city, county and state agencies. I see a few from local facilities management companies, labs, transportation agencies, department of environment and many others. This will be a lot of fun.

If any of you would like an educational event on mobile technology in your neighborhood please let me know.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Handheld PDA Applications & Business Processes

Replacing paper forms and paper-based business processes is a big part of the work we do here at MobileDataforce. However, people don't always realize that moving from paper to mobile applications can provide a whole lot more than simply an electronic version of a paper form.

Business processes and workflow can be designed into your mobile application to provide the following benefits:
  1. If/then statements assigned to data fields - if the answer is YES then the application jumps to page 7, if NO the application jumps to page 2. An example - if your roof is made of tile, then jump to page 5 and answer questions concerning tile roofs.
  2. If greater than statement - example, if the answer is greater than 5 (b>5) the application can jump to a different page and ask a different set of questions. This is often used in handheld computer based inspections and quality assurance applications. For example, the condition of the building's paint is rated from 1-10, 1 being bad, 10 being good. If the answer is 2 - then this represents a bad condition that can be configured to initiate or jump to a work order and scheduling page.
  3. User Login - if you login as a supervisor - you get visibility into pages that the work crew does not see.

These are just 3 of the hundreds of different combinations and ways you can build business processes and workflow into a mobile form or application. For more information and sample code please read Dave Wasden's blog article on this subject. Additional benefits - new hired staff will learn faster and be more efficient because the application is directing them through the proper steps to complete an application accurately. Automating business processes allow you to scale your work and ensure business processes are followed.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

ROI for Enterprise Mobile Solutions

It has been quite some time since I wrote about the subject of mobility project ROIs (return on investment). I last addressed this issue in a January article so let me provide an update on it.

Mobility ROIs often come from the following:

  1. Reduce time required to re-type data from a paper form to a computer application
  2. Reduce driving/delivery time to turn in paper forms to the office
  3. Reduce fuel expenses from driving to the office to deliver paper forms
  4. Reduce typing errors when re-keying data
  5. Reduce shipping expenses if you are posting documents to the office
  6. Reduce time on phones trying to understand the author's handwriting on paper forms
  7. Reduce delays caused from waiting for paper forms to be submitted and re-typed
  8. Reduce time wasted on incomplete paper forms (missing information)
  9. Reduce time wasted on phone calls dispatching new work/service orders
  10. Reduce field training time - mobile software can instruct the user on correct methods
  11. Reduce time wasted on correcting wrong or invalid data (wrong customer numbers, etc)
  12. Reduce fuel expenses from inefficient service order routing and dispatching
  13. Reduce time invested in invoice disputes - show time/date stamp & GPS location of work
  14. Reduce staff workload and staff expense - re-typing and communicating with field
  15. Speed up customer invoicing, and collect cash faster
  16. Save data directly to a central database (that is backed-up) for safe keeping
  17. Save data directly to a central database for immediate visibility by management
  18. Route optimization saves fuel, improves productivity and saves time.
  19. Take before and after digital photos of work to prove time, location and work
  20. Improve customer service with faster more efficient work dispatch
  21. Improve customer service by checking inventory levels remotely
  22. Improve customer service by checking shipping status remotely
  23. Improve dispatch and productivity with real time work order status updates

As this list identifies - there are a great many reasons to mobilize. In summary, improved efficiencies, improved customer service, improved productivity, improved cash flow, reduced errors and expenses. This equates to better business.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

MobileDataforce Delivers Mobile Solutions to Large Enterprises

MobileDataforce is doing very well. We are succeeding at winning large mobility projects around the world including South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, UK, The Netherlands, Canada and in the USA. Why are large companies trusting MobileDataforce (a relatively small company) to deliver these mission critical applications?

MobileDataforce - with 6 years of experience delivering mobile solutions, is one of the most experienced veterans of this industry. We have some of the smartest and most experienced mobile software developers and project managers in the world, and we have invested over 24 man-years of development into our PointSync solution. Our strategy from day 1 has been to create RADs-ME applications (rapid application development solutions for mobile environments) that would help IT departments, Systems Integrators, and my own services teams deliver powerful mobile solutions quickly and affordably. We want our customers to be receiving their ROIs in as short an amount of time as possible. This required us to develop applications and frameworks (that we call PointSync) that allow the user to develop a wide variety of different mobile applications for a wide variety of industries quickly and effectively.

MobileDataforce also partners with the best. We have more experience than any other company at developing and delivering RADs-ME applications, but not in developing mobile relational databases. In order to have the fastest, and most powerful mobile databases in the world embedded within PointSync - we have partnered with Sybase/iAnywhere to deliver them as part of the PointSync solution.

Sybase/iAnywhere has a $2 Billion market cap, and has been building enterprise database solutions since 1984. They have thousands of employees, offices around the world, and over 10 million licenses of their mobile database called Ultralite distributed around the world. Sybase is the world's leader in mobile databases and synchronization technologies. We partnered with Sybase in order to offer our clients the fastest mobile application development environment, with the most powerful and proven mobile relational database technologies. The combination of MobileDataforce's and Sybase's mobile technologies provides our customers with the most experienced, secure, scalable and proven solutions in the industry.

PointSync enables our customers to quickly create powerful mobile database applications, using the best technologies from the best software companies in the industry. Here are a few of our large enterprise customers:

National Park Service
Department of Environmental Quality
Department of Agriculture
Department of Fish and Game
Micro Beef
Fulton Hogan
US Air Force
Alabama Power
Idaho Transportation Department
Rail Crew Express
New York Power Authority
Washington Group International

P.S. we also have a large number of small customers that have 5-25 mobile users as well. We keep our software prices low enough that even small companies can earn a good ROI in a few months.

Mobilizing Business Processes for Handheld Computers

I often get asked if we have experience delivering mobile solutions for a specific industry and a specific company's unique business process. For example - ACME Air Conditioning Ltd wants to know if we can deliver an ACME mobile work order solution. This is a fair question, since everyone wants to work with a company that has experience, however it is also important to understand what is unique about your business process and what is not. I will explain in a moment.

Let's first discuss a few definitions:
  • Mobilizing - replacing paper forms with mobile applications on a mobile handheld computer, or taking an existing software application that runs only on desktop or laptop computers and configuring it to operate on a mobile handheld device such as a Windows Mobile 5.0 Pocket PC, or a Win CE device.
  • Business Process - It is the steps or tasks that are involved in doing a business function.

Now let's review a work order business process. This business process is used by many different industries including:

  • Sign Installers
  • Government Agencies
  • HVAC
  • Building maintenance
  • Elevator Maintenance
  • Manufacturing operation
  • etc.

A work order often has the same common components across many industries:

  • Identify the service technician's name/ID
  • Time/Date
  • Customer
  • Warranty information, equipment description
  • Work/job location
  • Service assignment/task
  • Description of work completed
  • Parts used
  • Status of work
  • Technician closes work/service order or selects a follow-up task
  • Total charges
  • Technician and/or customer signs the work order

A work order looks quite similar all over the world no matter what the company, industry or geographical location. So developing and customizing a mobile work order for a company is relatively simple.

Now let's consider the data synchronization process. The movement of data between a handheld computer and an enterprise database is also quite similar across most business processes.

Handheld computer application==>synchronization server==>enterprise database

Then back enterprise database==>synchronization server==>handheld computer application.

The path the data follows is nearly the same no matter the business process. So our synchronization technology can easily support ACME Air Conditioning Ltd's requirements with little or no customization.

The mobile application is where one needs to create customized configurations and features. However these features in some form or another are used by nearly all mobile applications. I covered this in another blog article. Features include the user interfaces, business logic, validations, support for special handheld device features (barcode, RFID, GPS, etc), mobile printing and customized logos/branding. This is all done using a RADs-ME application (such as MobileDataforce's PointSync Developer). PointSync Developer enables the user to configure these features and functions with point and click selections. Every organization, every solution, and every geographical region of the world requires these same features. So none of these application requirements are unique to a business process or industry - every mobile application requires them.

So the important question is not if we have experience working with ACME Air Condition work orders, but rather do we have experience developing work order business processes in general, and can our software application provide all the functionality, flexibility, security, and synchronization technologies required to quickly configure your mobile application at a cost effective price.

To summarize -

  1. Business processes (such as work orders) often are very similar across many different industries around the world. Therefore experience developing a work order business process - prepares you for supporting many different work order formats in many different industries.
  2. The flow of data (synchronization) between a handheld computer and the enterprise database is also quite similar around the world, and across industries.
  3. The features and functionality required in most mobile applications are also very similar across industries, business processes and geographies.
  4. The most important questions a company needs to ask are - Does a particular mobile software solution provide the flexibility and functionality required, at a cost effective price, and does the vendor have experience mobilizing your specific business process?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Asset Management, PDA Handhelds & Village Governments

We sent Eric Freed, one of our senior PSO team members, out to West Dundee, IL to implement a mobile asset management solution for the village of West Dundee. It turns out that one of the village officials is also a member of the local fire department. When Eric needed a place to stay overnight, they volunteered an empty room in the brand new fire station.

Eric insisted that the alarm going off three times during the night was not too bad, but there were no mints on his pillow and the beds were not turned down. He also recommends wearing pants when sliding down the fire pole.

The solution that we implemented involved using Trimble ruggedized handheld computers, MobileDataforce's PointSync, and Cartegraph's asset management software called SignView.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Mobile Handheld Applications & Marketing in Canada

Marketing is an interesting phenomenon. Why do some geographical areas suddenly generate a lot of sales opportunities, when prior months they were silent? Ontario, Canada is suddenly on fire. We are receiving all kinds of phone calls and emails from companies in Ontario this month interested in MobileDataforce's mobile solutions. I shrug my shoulders and am thankful.

Perhaps with the hint of autumn in the air, companies are back to thinking about how to improve their remote business processes. As field services teams complete their seasonal work and return to the office with suggestions for improving their field data collection processes, IT teams call MobileDataforce asking for recommendations.

If a PDA phone can be used to keep remote and mobile workers updated, why can't those same devices communicate with their enterprise databases? THEY CAN! Perhaps thoughts like this motivate Canadians to call in September!

Coming Back for More - Mobile Applications

In the world of software and services, the best compliment a customer can give is to come back for more. In the last month, these existing customers, have requested additional products and services from MobileDataforce:
  • Pepsi MidAmerica
  • Unilever
  • St. Gobain
  • Cartegraph
  • Idaho Department of Agriculture
  • City of Los Angeles
  • Teph Seal
  • Micro Beef

There were many more, but these are fresh on my mind. I want to thank all of our customers for your continuing confidence and business!