Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Mobile Forms, Mobile Applications & Mobile Business Processes

Our customers often follow a learning path when it comes to mobilizing their business. Let me identify several steps on this path:

  1. Mobile forms - replace paper forms with electronic forms on handheld computers, Tablet PCs or laptops.
  2. Evolve the electronic form to become a full mobile database application on a mobile computer
  3. Extend business processes out from the enterprise and into the mobile database applications.
  4. Replace many traditional communication methods (phone calls, faxes, web queries) with real time enterprise database queries from mobile database applications.

Let me walk you through a scenario -

  1. Step 1 - Company M wants to replace paper service orders with electronic service orders on a ruggedized handheld computer. In phase 1, they are content to pick up the handheld in the morning with pre-loaded service orders, and return the handheld device at night to synchronize the work they accomplished during the day. This saves a great deal of data input and mistakes by the office staff. It is a simple forms application.
  2. Step 2 - Company M decides they would gain a great deal of efficiencies if they could dispatch service orders during the day directly to the handheld computers, and synchronize the completed or pending service orders throughout the day. This requires a database application to run on the handheld for data storage and database synchronization. It also requires a wireless network card so you can synchronize data over the mobile phone networks, and a synchronization server to keep all handhelds synchronized with your internal enterprise databases.
  3. Step 3 - Extend business processes out to the mobile handheld device. Company M now wants to attach an inventory tracking process to their mobile service order application. When parts get used on a service call, they want the parts to be automatically removed from the inventory tracking software application in the office. This can easily be added to their mobile database application.
  4. Step 4 - Digital signatures are added to the service order application on the mobile device. Scheduling additional service calls can be added to the mobile device. Querying customer history can be added to the mobile database application. Credit card processing can be added tot he mobile much more.

In summary, most companies don't jump in and do everything that is possible in the first deployment of a mobile solution. There are phases, and an evolution of a mobile solution. MobileDataforce's mobile software platform enables companies to evolve on their own schedule, budget and learning curve.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Business Processes and Mobile Handheld Solutions

A successful business is made up of successful business processes. In business terms, in order to be successful, the business processes in use must produce overall profits. With those assumptions in place - let's discuss the following scenario:

Company X is profitable, but wants to reduce the costs associated with their service order and dispatch processes. They want to reduce the time, paperwork and administration costs of dispatching, re-typing and processing field service orders.

Company X determines that mobilizing their service order processes by dispatching and closing service orders using mobile handheld computer solutions that synchronize remotely with a service order management system in the central office would dramatically reduce the costs and improve profitability.

The dilemma: Many off-the-shelf service order management systems don't currently have a mobile client that runs on a handheld computer, or the ones that do, don't support the "unique" business processes that Company X uses as competitive advantages. Let's discuss this in more detail by given some examples of business processes that might be competitive advantages:

  1. Company X - inventories parts inside service vehicles to reduce driving time to and from the warehouse. This saves time, fuel costs and increases the number of customers serviced by each team on a daily basis.
  2. Company X - has 1 vehicle in each region that carries special parts that are less common. This vehicle acts as a mobile warehouse for these parts. Other service teams can meet up with this mobile warehouse when they need special parts.
  3. Company X - has a 1 business day guarantee on service for their clients. No one else can support this service, so it is a significant advantage.

Let's stop here and consider Company X's needs. They need to mobilize their service order processes, but they don't want an off-the-shelf solution that can not support their competitive advantages. What is the answer?

The answer of course, is to mobilize their service order processes in a manner that supports their competitive advantages. This is unlikely going to be with an off-the-shelf software product. It is much more likely that they need to find a mobile software platform that can support their unique processes, support the handheld computers they select, and can integrate with their existing service order management solution that is used in the central office. Bottom-line, they need a custom solution.

Custom solutions often carry large price tags that make them too expensive for the small to medium size service company. How to you solve this issue? You find a mobile software platform that can meet your requirements that is not too expensive.

Let's again review the identified competitive advantages in the 3 points above:

  1. The service vehicles carry inventory to reduce driving time to and from the office. The problem - currently the paper based service order process forces the field service teams to drive back and forth to the office to pick up and deliver the paper service orders so this negates the fuel savings advantages. The solution - dispatch service orders via a wireless network providers' data services plan using GSM/GPRS (mobile phone network) to send service orders to the mobile service technician's handheld computer. In addition, completed service orders will also can be sent directly to the central office without the need to drive back to the office. This provides time saving, fuel saving and allows a field service team to complete more service orders in a day which saves on personnel costs.
  2. Company X has 1 service vehicle in each region that carries special (meaning less common parts). Any service team requiring these special parts must locate this vehicle and meet up with it to get the parts. The current process requires service team 1 to call the central office, ask which service vehicle inventories the special part, find the location of that vehicle, and coordinate a meeting point. This is very time consuming. The solution - the handheld computers support an integrated GPS system that identifies their locations at all time. Any field service team can quickly query on their handheld computer for the closest service vehicle that inventories the required parts. A meeting place can be quickly coordinated, the part acquired and the service performed.
  3. Company X has a 1 business day guarantee on their service. Mobilizing the dispatch of service orders, and optimizing the parts inventory retrieval process, plus the integrated GPS system in the handheld computers allow the central office to optimize the driving, dispatching and support of this unique business process.

There are many additional competitive advantages that clever business people can design. You do not want a mobile software platform that will limit your ability to be clever and make money. You need a mobile software platform that is powerful and flexible enough to support your unique business processes and is affordable.

Of course I have a recommendation - MobileDataforce's PointSync allows you to model and design the way you want to communicate and track your field services' business processes. It supports your mobile business processes in the manner that protects and promotes your competitive advantages.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Public Roads - September/October 2006 Issue

In the mail this morning I received the most recent issue of Public Roads from the TFHRC. The Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center (TFHRC) is a federally owned and operated research facility in McLean, Virginia. TFHRC is the home of the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA's) Office of Research, Development, and Technology. They also publish the journal Public Roads. In this journal there is a lengthy case study of how the Idaho Transportation Department uses MobileDataforce's inspection and asset management software for handheld computers.

Paul Ziman, operations, pavement, maintenance, and materials engineer with the Federal Highway Administration's Idaho Division Office is quoted as saying, "We are excited about the innovative use of PDA devices for maintenance acitivies... ITD (Idaho Transportation Department) has been pleased with the performance of the PDAs. Currently, the main use is as a platform for supporting electronic forms in the field. This method would be ideal for any personnel required to complete paperwork while operating away from their office. The form design software is easy to use, and the forms themselves operate smoothly and intuitively."

MobileDataforce's EMEA Partner Summit

This week we conducted our first European Partner Summit in Den Bosch, The Netherlands. We had 24 reseller and alliance partner organizations attend this event. I want to thank all of our partners for dedicating their time to this event. We appreciate it!

Many of the Benelux's largest systems integration companies are now MobileDataforce partners. We spent the day training our partners on how best to market, sell and implement mobility solutions. Many of our partners are building complete mobility practices around the PointSync Mobility Platform. PointSync is designed perfectly for the systems integrator. They can deliver just about any kind of mobility solution imaginable using PointSync. I wrote a detailed blog article the other day on the advantages of standardizing on a mobility platform.

Here is partial list of attending partners:

  • Modatec
  • Hewlett Packard
  • Palm
  • Symbol Technologies
  • Intermec
  • Sybase
  • Gap Gemini

One of our partners is now working on 8 different mobility projects with one company. They are using PointSync to deliver each of them - even though each project involves a completely different business process.

Thanks again to all of our reseller and alliance partners for attending.

Sharing Information & Thoughts On Mobile Solutions

I believe that it is helpful and beneficial to share information on best practices for implementing enterprise mobile software solutions. I receive nearly daily feedback that this blog is useful and provides a valuable service. I also know our competition reads this blog so they also can learn how to run a software business. That is OK, I want their customers to benefit from MobileDataforce's shared knowledge.

MobileDataforce is happy to provide speakers and consultants to help companies and organizations learn more about implementing mobile solutions. If you would like to discuss your mobility projects please contact us.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Mobile Software Platforms and Standardization

I just returned from a meeting in Rotterdam, The Netherlands where Unilever, one of the largest consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies in the world, has asked MobileDataforce to assist them on a 4th mobility project. This project involves laptops, handheld computers, desktop computers and hundreds of mobile users.

The Unilever project highlights an important consideration for companies interested in mobilizing multiple business processes – should a company select multiple mobile software applications or standardize on a single powerful and flexible enterprise mobility platform. Consider the following situation with me – Company X wants to mobilize the following processes:

1. Dispatching and retrieving work orders to and from their field services teams
2. Automating and mobilizing a parts inventory tracking system (parts used for repairs)
3. Employee time cards for the field service technicians
4. Vehicle tracking system – to see the location of all field services teams
5. New product sales system – if field services teams sell upgraded products or services

Let’s assume that the company already has database applications inside the office that manage these business processes. How are these 5 processes going to be mobilized? Does the company need to find 5 different mobile software solutions in order to mobilize each of these individual business processes? This is an important question. Can you image the amount of work to select, purchase, configure and deploy 5 different mobile software solutions. The time and work would be cost prohibitive!

The answer is to select a mobile software platform. A platform that the company can standardize on for the purpose of mobilizing all necessary business processes. A platform that once learned can be used to develop and support an unlimited number of different mobile solutions and where economies of scale can be gained.

The business values of standardizing on a mobile software platform are the following:

  • IT developers get trained on one mobile solution, not many – saves time and money
  • All mobile software solutions follow standardized synchronization methodologies – easy to learn and support.
  • Network connectivity works the same across remote laptops, Tablet PCs, PDAs and ruggedized handhelds – saves deployment and support time.
  • Helpdesk only needs to learn and support one system – saves time and money
  • Database Administrators need only permit one mobile platform integration methodology – ensures data integrity.
  • All mobile solutions including laptops, Tablet PCs, industrial grade handheld computers, Win CE and Windows Mobile PDAs use the same code base – just different screen layouts – easy to develop, deploy and support.
  • All mobile applications get managed from one administrative dashboard – saves time and money supporting and deploying new applications and software updates.
  • Experience has value - the more applications that are developed and deployed on a standardized platform, the larger your libraries of custom reusable code grows, and the more knowledge you have. This helps future projects become simpler, faster and easier to develop and support (economies of scale).
  • You need call only one company – the author of the mobile software platform – to receive software support. Not multiple companies, multiple support systems, multiple update schedules and multiple support fees and programs.
  • The more mobile users using one platform – the greater the price discounts for addition mobile users (again economies of scale).
  • Companies deploying significant numbers of mobile users become more than just a customer to a manufacturer of a mobile software platform. They become a strategic partner that influences product design, product roadmaps and timeframes. The relationship becomes strategic to both parties. Each party interested in achieving the same supporting goals.

    Of course this means it is critically important for you to find the right mobile software platform and software manufacturer that can support your goals and solution requirements. A company that is proven and experienced - a company that even the world’s largest companies like Unilever trust as their mobile software platform. I would invite you to contact us at MobileDataforce to discuss your project requirements.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Magic Quadrant for Handheld Computers

I was in Paris, France last week at Symbol's EMEA Partner Conference. While there I heard more evidence of a trend I have been watching for a while. The 2 largest ruggedized handheld computer manufacturers - Symbol and Intermec have both recently come out with small, ruggedized, full functional handheld computers. These handheld computers combine the ruggedness of larger handhelds, and include barcode scanners, GPS, phones, WiFi, bluetooth and more. Symbol says that their MC70, pictured above in PointSync Developer, has become one of their top sellers. It is especially appealing to the "field service" market. That is also the market MobileDataforce focuses on.

I have also recently seen a lot of very interesting looking small ruggedized handheld computers coming out of Korea and China. These are sub $1,000 USD devices that can reasonably be used as handheld computers, phones and barcode scanners. They are a little bulky for the suit coat, but work nicely attached to the belt.

MobileDataforce is a big fan of these smaller handheld computers. They carry a lot of power and allow us to provide software solutions to our customers for reduced overall project costs due to less expensive ruggedized hardware.

If you can get full functional, ruggedized handheld computer/phones for under $1,000 USD - there is very little business justification for buying consumer grade PDAs. Most consumer grade PDAs with business capabilities are priced at $500-$800, yet are not ruggedized.

Let's go back to the title of this blog - Where is the magic quadrant for handheld computers? It is handheld computers that are truly convergent. Convergent, meaning they combine the ruggedness and size that is easy to carry, plus they have the phone, Windows Mobile 5.0, GPS, barcode scanners, plus the industrial grade batteries to support a full day's work.

I love it!

Friday, October 06, 2006

More on Buy vs Building Mobile Solutions, Part 3

There are always reasons and/or business justifications for wanting to mobilize a business process. Something has motivated the individual or company to march down the path of mobilization. So when considering whether to buy or build a mobile solution these additional factors should be considered:

  • Tolerance for risk
  • Opportunity Costs
  • Expected ROI
  • Competitive Advantages

Let's briefly discuss each of these considerations.

Tolerance for risk - are you willing to risk attempting to develop an enterprise mobile solution for the first time (If your team is an experienced mobile development team, then you can ignore this point)? It can be done, but the first time requires a lot of thought, design meetings, trial and error, debugging and above all else - time. What if the design can not scale? What if the synchronization engine that your developer made is too slow? What if after 8 months the system is still only half complete and full of bugs?

Opportunity Costs - this is one of the most common issues that IT managers discuss with me. Most often IT departments are already over worked and behind schedules. The last thing they need is a another new project added to their list and schedule. IT managers are already annoyed at their current workload, and now the business unit is asking them to develop a completely new and unproven mobile solution? The IT manager is not happy. All they can think of is the headaches this will cause.

The questions the IT managers ask the business unit managers are:

  1. What project should I delay in order to insert this new project into the schedule?
  2. Who is going to support it?
  3. Can I hire more developers to develop and support a mobile solution?

These questions then force the business unit manager to go back to senior management and ask them to re-prioritize other IT projects in favor of the mobile solution. So now all the business unit managers get involved and defend their particular interests.

The opportunity costs can be considerable if you want to code/program the complete mobile application yourself internally.

Expected ROI - if the business unit requesting the mobile solution expects to save $53,000/month by mobilizing their work order management system, then every month that passes without the mobile solution being deployed wastes $53,000. So if coding your own solution from scratch takes 3 months longer than using a RADs-ME tool like MobileDataforce's PointSync, you must consider the $159,000 you just wasted.

Competitive Advantages - we have developed many mobile solutions for companies that are considered competitive advantages. Solutions that provide new and unique revenue opportunities for our customer. We have seen this in the automotive industry, the beef industry, the concert and event promotion industry and many more.

If the business justification of the mobile solution is motivated by a competitive advantage, then the length of time it takes to code a mobile solution from scratch must be considered. What if the mobile solution takes 5 months to code from scratch, but only 5 weeks with a RADs-ME tool like PointSync? The associated competitive advantages and disadvantages must be considered in the equation.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

More on Buy vs Building Mobile Solutions, Part 2

This seems to be the topic of the week this week - so let me add more thoughts to this topic.

If your organization has .NET programmers that are available now and they have a lot of time on their hands, then yes it is possible to develop your own enterprise mobile application. Here are a couple of questions before you start:

  • Have your programmers completed successful mobile applications before? If this is their first time there is a steep learning curve that must be considered.
  • Is the same programmer going to code the mobile application, code the security, code the synchronization logic, code the database integration and code the business logic? If there are multiple developers/programmers involved - ask question #1 about each of them.
  • Are these programmers going to also write your user guide and document the solution?
  • How long will your programmers stay with your organization? What if the programmer leaves? Who will support it and maintain it?

There are many parts to an enterprise mobile solution. It is rare for even an experienced .NET programmer to have experience in all of the components. Here are some good questions to ask a programmer before you start coding your mobile application:

  • How do you plan to sync the data?
  • What sync engine will you use and why?
  • How will you connect to the enterprise database remotely from the field?
  • How do you handle security?
  • How will you integrate the data into existing database systems?
  • How will you glue all these components together in your application so it all works?
  • How will you support multiple mobile devices- Windows Mobile, WinCE, Tablet PC, Windows PC?

These are all questions that need to be answered before a programmer begins. Here is the problem - often a programmer views their component (the mobile application on the handheld PDA) as 90% of the project. Will that simply is not the case. The majority of the time and effort is in connecting all the different components together, integrating and testing.

I have often heard a comment from a programmer that the mobile application is done, although it takes another 8 weeks before it could be deployed. The mobile application is often the smallest part of the project. Many programmers can code a simple PDA application. However an enterprise mobile application needs much more than a simple, stand alone PDA application. It needs full synchronization, remote connectivity, device management, integration, security and more.

- the reason companies love MobileDataforce's PointSync Suite is that all of these components and features are already developed and available for you to configure. You are not required to figure out all of these issues and code them. PointSync is a RADs-ME tool - A rapid application development solution for mobile environments. It is designed for organizations without the desire or time to program all of these components.

So in summary - anyone with the time, interest, intellect and money to code a complete enterprise mobile solution can. PointSync is for those that need the mobile application without the time and money needed to code it from scratch.

More on Buy vs. Build

Even More on Buy vs. Build

You've got to be kidding - yet more on Buy vs. Build...


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Buy vs. Building an Enterprise Mobile Solution? Part 1

This is a good and fair question. Let's start our discussion with a scenario - You want to monitor assets for your government agency. That means you want to track all the street signs, sewer pipes, manhole covers, guard rails etc, that your organization owns using a mobile software application on a handheld computer. You also want to mobilize your inspection processes involving these assets. In addition, you would like to integrate a "work order" management system to dispatch repair technicians when work is needed. You would like all of these processes to be mobilized on a handheld computer that synchronizes with your central databases.

The problem - Often the above processes involve more than one desktop application and multiple backend databases. How would you mobilize all of these? You can't buy 1 mobile software package that will integrate with all of these desktop applications and databases. Why, some of your applications are home grown, undocumented and specific to your working environment. No one else knows your unique inventory of applications. Typically you will have 3 choices:

  1. Buy pre-built mobile clients for each of your off-the-shelf desktop applications. So if you have 8 desktop applications that you use, you will need 8 different mobile software packages in order to mobilize these processes. This is very expensive, forces you to learn 8 different mobile applications, punch 8 different holes in your firewall, learn 8 different synchronization technologies, and 8 different configuration environments. In addition, this does not help you to mobilize your home grown custom applications. Another challenge, most of your 8 desktop applications will not have mobile client applications available.
  2. Develop mobile software applications from scratch using .NET or other programming environments. This can be done, but you need a person with mobile programming experinece to develop a new and different mobile client application for each desktop application and database. There is little ability to reuse code so each of these mobilization projects will take considerable planning and lengthy development time.
  3. Use a mobile software platform that is a rapid application development environment for mobile solutions. This allows you to quickly configure mobile client applications that can synchronize with multiple backend databases. You can standardize on one method of synchronization, learn one development environment, one integration methodology and have one company that can train and support you. You don't need to be a programmer, and you can edit and update your own mobile applications as often as you want. You maintain control of your own applications and you can easily support any of your custom home grown database applications. You can mobilize all 8 of your desktop applications using one mobile software platform. You don't have to pay someone else to develop mobile applications, your own IT team can support any of your mobile client application needs. I am bias, but there is a lot of value to owning your own mobile RADs-ME tool (rapid application development environment for mobile solutions). You buy your RADs-ME tool once, and then you can develop an unlimited number of mobile applications. You control the cost, you control the updates, you customize to your requirements and you are not dependent on some outside software company's schedule and cost structure. Once you have been trained, you can develop mobile client applications internally for any desktop database application.

PMM Selects MobileDataforce Software for Handheld PDAs

Last week MobileDataforce was selected to provide mobile asset management/field inspection software for a large project in South Africa. It will be used by the South African government to assess property taxes.

Properties will be inspected, data will be collected on a mobile handheld device and the data will be synchronized to an enterprise database. The software application that will be used is MobileDataforce's PointSync. It will be integrated with GPS and mapping software so the exact location of all property assessments can be identified and documented.

Manitoba Hydro Selects MobileDataforce Software

We do a lot of business in the electrical utility industry. This previous blog article identified many of the mobile utility projects we have delivered. This week we gained a new customer in Canada called Manitoba Hydro. They selected MobileDataforce as their mobile software platform for field inspections. They listed over 17 inspections that they want to mobilize (convert from paper to mobile handheld data collection).

The solution will involve using rugged PDAs in the field, MobileDataforce software for the mobile inspection application and synchronization to an enterprise database.

Clinical Research Company Selects MobileDataforce

MobileDataforce just won the contract to develop a large clinical research solution for stroke victims. This project involves healthcare providers using handheld PDAs and PDA software from MobileDataforce to monitor treatment programs and the clinical results over a number of years.

MobileDataforce is becoming more and more involved in the healthcare field. We have recently delivered solutions for remotely monitoring young patients, mobile asset management in hospitals, safety inspections of hospitals and now clinical research.

The clinical research project involves using handheld pdas for data collection, software from MobileDataforce, and synchronization with an enterprise database.

Ease of use, flexibility, and quick application development were reasons given for MobileDataforce winning the award.