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Field Service Computers: Consider the Variables-and the Benefits
Communications platforms, ruggedness, software, and other factors all play a part in your purchase choice.
When a utility considers equipping its field service work force with computers, the decision-making process often starts with software-not with questions about the ruggedness of the utility's field device, or whether the company should go with a Panasonic or an Itronix laptop.
"[The software that drives the decision commonly is] a dispatch-oriented software, either that has been custom built by someone in the utility or that they purchased," says Jeff Thomas, marketing communications manager at Itronix, in Spokane, Wash. "Then they say, 'Jeez, I want to take this application and use it in a mobile work force environment so that what I see is the same thing that my mobile worker sees when out doing his service calls."
From there the ball starts rolling. The utility might contact a software supplier to explain what it wants to accomplish out in the field; the supplier then could either send the utility something out of the box or a custom- written program.
Only at that point are considerations raised about the actual device that will be placed in the hands of the technicians: What platform should it run on-a notebook? A handheld? Finally, once a utility starts considering the devices, there are questions of how rugged the devices need to be, what communications platforms will best suit its needs, and, of course, the omnipresent technology-purchasing considerations of obsolescence.
Software considerations lie at the heart of a field service computer initiative, largely because of coverage issues. Anyone who has a cell phone knows about going out of coverage-the device becomes, if only temporarily, useless. Same goes for a wireless laptop or handheld used by a field service worker. "What you really do is design with acknowledgment of the problem," says Judy Johnson, senior vice president of marketing at Fieldcentrix, in Irvine, Calif. "You can't solve the problem because the problem is that wireless coverage is not perfect."
How do Fieldcentrix and other software providers "acknowledge" the problem? By enabling the computer to continue operating, and storing information, while out of coverage. Johnson says about half the vendors working in the field service space are able to offer that capability. "It's harder to do, but everybody's getting there," she says. "Because otherwise, whenever you're out of coverage, it's out of coverage, out of luck."
One company that emphasizes the importance of being able to synchronize with the home office after going out of coverage for periods of time is iAnywhere Solutions, in Dublin, Calif. Clearly, the company views this ability as one of its selling points. "When you're in a field service environment, you're going to be in situations where you don't necessarily have access to your corporate office," notes iAnywhere Group Products Manager Mike Paola. "You might be in remote areas where you don't have that connection. So it's really important for us to be able to provide them with a local data store, and then again once