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Technology Corridor

Communications platforms, ruggedness, software, and other factors all play a part in your purchase choice.
Fortnightly Magazine - February 15 2003

they are in coverage, to be able to synchronize that information back."

The ability to store data and sync once coverage is available is important for other reasons as well, Paola points out. Connecting through wireless costs money, so the ability to sync on a periodic basis as opposed to being constantly connected saves dollars. Further, having to stay connected constantly would suck up the battery-another reason why data storage and synchronization ability is important.

Northeast Utilities, in Berlin, Conn., a customer of iAnywhere, corroborates the importance of being able to store data now and sync later. "It's critical for us to maintain the minimum amount of data over the wireless system, just for effectiveness and price and everything," says Andy Kasznay, software engineer at Northeast Utilities. Partially because of this synchronization and storage ability, Kasznay says his company pays roughly $30 a month per user to transmit data.

Laptop or Handheld

With computers getting smaller and more powerful in all arenas, the options in the field service space continue to grow. Itronix, one of the largest players in field service computers for utilities, offers an array of devices, from the ultra-rugged laptop to the semi-rugged handheld. A utility considering a purchase of these devices must make the decision of whether to go compact and convenient, or large with more screen space. Some might assume that handhelds are the wave of the near future, but although they are constantly improving in performance and flexibility, what the device will be used for drives the decision of whether to go with a laptop or handheld.

"It depends on the application," says Matt Gerber, vice president of marketing at Itronix. "We have utility customers that use the full spectrum of our products. On one extreme, you've got, let's say, a trouble call operation where we typically see laptops. And what's driving that is, when you have someone in real time, you want to give them street maps, you want to give them graphics of, if it's an electric utility, what the line configs are like, so the trouble man knows where the switches are. So that's typically [a situation for] big displays, a lot of information."

But that same utility, says Gerber, might buy an Itronix Windows CE device for people who are doing credit and collections-an application where handhelds are prevalent. Another application for handhelds is meter reading, because a larger screen is not needed and it's generally a matter of simply looking at one customer's data.

Northeast Utilities uses laptops-primarily CF-27s and CF-28s from Panasonic Computer Solutions, Secaucus, N.J. (around $5,000 per computer)-for such applications as environmental tracking, in which it tracks hazardous material spills, and "call before you dig" situations. With the heavy use of maps for such applications, the need for laptops as opposed to smaller devices is obvious. It also uses handhelds for such applications as substation inspections, although the handhelds are not wireless-synchronizing is done at the end of the day when workers return to the shop.

Does Kasznay think handhelds will take over some of the applications that