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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

laptops currently dominate?

"It's an interesting question," he says. "Right now, we've gone pretty much with full Windows-type devices, and that increases our flexibility to give [new] applications to our users. And our developers are more familiar with that paradigm than the tablet-based paradigm. It's something we're keeping a very close eye on, but we haven't really deployed anything within our organization."

What about devices that can be worn? Mobile computing giant Itronix, which doesn't currently offer a wearable, is playing that issue conservatively. Are wearables the wave of the future? "They may be, but we're going to go into it one step at a time," says Thomas, adding that he has no comment on the if and when of an Itronix wearable.

As for concerns over obsolescence, Kasznay says his utility plans for its laptops to have a three-year life-about the same as a traditional laptop-before it "reaches its own obsolescence." In that sense, any concerns over obsolescence are not so different from the purchase of other computers.

Built To Last

And then there is the consideration of how rugged the device needs to be. Like the laptop-or-handheld question, it depends on the application, says Gerber. For instance, the service-and-repair "trouble" crew members who are outdoors 24 hours a day in all weather extremes require devices that are "ultra-rugged"-a generally recognized term (based on military spec standards) meaning that the device can withstand 54 consecutive drops while in operation without shutting down. (Comparable standards for dust, liquid, etc., also apply.) Itronix's GoBook MAX is an example of an ultra-rugged device.

Credit and collections workers, meanwhile, merely require devices that fall in the lower, "rugged" category, meaning that the devices can withstand 26 consecutive drops, with a limited number of the machines tested requiring replacement. Laptops that are mounted in vans-including those that leave the vehicles occasionally-are generally rugged. Itronix's GoBook is an example of this kind of device.

With all the considerations that go into purchasing these devices, Kasznay emphasizes the importance of getting various people involved in the decision-making process. Do you bring the field workers themselves into the discussion? "Of course-you have to," he says. "It's a requirement. You need to have the buy-in of everyone, especially them." Kasznay says that the utility brings in various vendors to show their devices, and field service workers actually "drag them outside in the sun or in the cold or whatever is necessary. Usually we give [the computers] to somebody to beat on for a couple days." Similarly, on the software end, iAnywhere's Paola notes that applications need to be designed for the end user, who may not be computer-savvy.

Which Communications Platform(s)?

Wireless platforms are improving, but they remain an imperfect communications medium-one reason why many utilities use more than one platform. Consequently, field service computers must be able to operate in what Gerber calls a "network diverse environment." Some utilities, for example, might use a combination of local area network, wide area network, and even satellite. Northeast Utilities, for example, mainly uses CDPD (cellular digital packet data, a data transmission