Campus Nomads

These corridor-roamers want high connectivity paired with low-tech devices.

On any given day, Heather Kaneer totes an extra pound on her waistband as she travels between residence buildings on the sprawling 1,700-acre Ohio State University campus. The cafeteria meals aren't to blame -- it's the pager, cell phone and handheld device clipped to her belt. As OSU's coordinator of housing administration, Kaneer must keep in constant contact with residence hall directors and central office staff.

She admits that the Handspring Visor Platinum handheld that she purchased in 2001 is "a dinosaur." She uses its calendar feature only because it syncs up easily with her Microsoft Outlook desktop software. She purchased the cell phone herself after the phones issued to employees by the university came under scrutiny for the amount of personal use, even though users claimed their personal calls and paid for them. "It became so ridiculous," she recalls. Now, however, "half of what I use my personal cell phone for is work," she adds.

Kaneer's mobile technology habits are typical of many administrators and professors at the university. "Our field is deliberately low tech because we value the one-to-one interaction," she explains. Some staff members even carry around desk-size paper calendars to keep schedules and arrange meetings with students who don't have handhelds.

Michael Hiatt, associate director of information systems at OSU, must keep these cultural norms in mind as he moves toward standardizing the university's student affairs operation on a single, multiuse mobile device.

He's not alone. IT teams constantly struggle to meet the vast mobile computing needs of campus nomads -- from Palm power users to the hopelessly paper-dependent -- in an effort to standardize systems and keep operating costs low.

High Tech for Low-Tech Culture

Since last August, Hiatt's IT staff at Ohio State has been testing BlackBerry 7520 models as well as a few newer versions -- all with Nextel connectivity -- and Palm Treo 700w smart phones with Windows Mobile 5.0 software. No clear winner has emerged so far.

Hiatt likes BlackBerry's walkie-talkie feature, which could help maintenance and housekeeping staffers manage service requests at the university's 21 main campus residence halls. When his team began the BlackBerry pilot, it installed a dedicated server. Just 1% of the student affairs employees use the technology purchased by OSU right now.

The Treo model being tested doesn't have two-way radio capability, but Hiatt anticipates that newer models available this spring will add the feature.

The Palm Treo has simplicity on its side. It connects directly with the university's mail server. "Being able to cut another box out of the mix is important to us," Hiatt says. What's more, the familiar look and feel of Windows software appeals to the low-tech crowd. "Anything that looks like what they already know would be good. Otherwise, they just won't use it," Kaneer adds.

A lone tester is evaluating the Treo, but nonusers who see Hiatt's demo can pick up the device and easily navigate the system. "It has less moving parts. That's what we're driving toward. And the [stylus] interface is a cut above," Hiatt says.

He says he hasn't compared costs for the devices yet but estimates that they come out even when infrastructure needs and licensing for 100 to 200 devices are considered. A BlackBerry 7520 costs about $200 with a two-year service agreement, plus server costs and maintenance. The Treo 700w costs between $400 and $500 with a two-year service agreement, but no extra server is required.

Hiatt says he expects to make a final decision this summer, but if newer versions don't materialize with some of the expected features, "we could end up using two standards for a short time." And when it comes to private vs. business phone calls on either device, Hiatt says, the university's pay-for-private-calls policy isn't likely to change.

NetPagers, Stat

Contrary to what all those hospital warning signs might have visitors believe, "patients don't flat-line because somebody uses their cell phone" inside the hospital, says Daryl Crowley, director of information services at Memorial Medical Center of West Michigan in Ludington. But any mobile device that rings can distract physicians and nurses from their work. What's more, some doctors who are considered leading-edge in medicine are behind the curve when it comes to technology. Faced with new mobile devices, they often hand them off to tech teams or assistants with instructions to "make it work."

Crowley's team has found a setup that works for the doctors and staff at Memorial Medical Center: Motorola Inc.'s PageWriter 2000 and Sun Telecom Inc.'s Titan III intranet-based alpha pagers with connectivity from Arch Wireless Operating Co. Along with some customized software developed in-house with the help of a local developer, the NetPager system allows nurses to send detailed messages to doctors and departments, eliminating the call-back process and saving time, steps and maybe even lives.

Previously, nurses phoned the operator, who would then page a doctor. Or a staff member would look up the number and then dial 1, 9 and 616, followed by the pager number. When the connection was made, they entered a code number that indicated whether the page was urgent or routine. "It's a pretty lengthy process, especially if you need someone critically," says Cathy Giles, a registered nurse and NetPager power user.

With the NetPager system, a physician's contact information is available from any PC throughout the hospital. A nurse can click on the name of the person to page, type in a message such as "come to the critical care unit STAT," and click the Send button.

The critical care unit and emergency room have taken NetPager a step further by compiling groups of users who usually receive the same messages, says Giles, who adds that no patient information is transmitted via a pager, though the text may include room numbers.

What's more, pages are saved and logged in the system, along with the content of the text message. "We can prove whether a page was made" and determine what workstation it came from and who was logged on at the time, Crowley says.

In the future, Giles says, she would like to see the paging system integrated with the physicians' on-call schedule. "If you're not on call, you can mark yourself out of town" and name an alternate doctor, she says.

The 200 NetPagers currently in use cost the same as numeric pagers -- about $98 to $138 -- and there are no additional infrastructure costs.

After three years of NetPager use, uptime remains well above 95%. Though outages are rare, "Internet access is most likely to drop [first], then the pager company, then our server," according to Giles. Now that users are hooked on the NetPager system, they groan at the thought of paging the old-fashioned way -- even when the system is down just once a month for regular maintenance. "When it's down," says Giles, "they cry!"

See the complete Faces of Mobile IT special report.

Collett is a Computerworld contributing writer. You can contact her at stcollett@aol.com.

Special Report

The Faces of Mobile IT

Different types of mobile workers, such as road warriors, telecommuters and blue-collar workers, need different forms of IT support.

Stories in this report:

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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