Mobile & Wireless World: Less can be more

Enterprises look to keep it simple with mobile apps

PALM DESERT, Calif -- When enterprises develop mobile and wireless applications for internal or customer use, keeping the applications simple and small is usually the best route to take, according to speakers at Computerworld's Mobile & Wireless World conference this week.

Although mobile devices can mimic most of the capabilities of a desktop computer, such as handling attachments and rich-text documents, Ralph Nichols, service program manager at Pitney Bowes Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said plain text is usually a better choice for sending data. He developed a purely text-based system for the company's 3,500 field service technicians, making it both easy to use and easy to understand, yet integrated with the company's Field Service Management system from Siebel Systems Inc. in San Mateo, Calif.

To make the system easy for any technician to use, Nichols insisted it be completely plain text-based, avoiding the use of abbreviations that could lead to confusion. The result is a system based on plain-text fields and "pick lists" designed to make it easy to dispatch repair calls and report results.

The fields on each technician's mobile device provide customer name, machine type and problem, such as "machine vibration," that mirror the fields in the Siebel system. If the technician uses a part for a repair, he clicks in another field that lists repair parts, sending a message to back-end systems that automatically update parts inventories.

Any enterprise planning to deliver information to users who tote a device smaller than a laptop needs to deliver information "concisely formatted" to fit on a 3-in. screen, according to Justin Hectus, director of information at Keesal, Young & Logan, a law firm in Long Beach, Calif.

Hectus said partners at the law firm use mobile devices hooked into the company's back-end knowledge management system with text fields that are simple but powerful. They allow partners, for instance, to enter key bits of information on the fly that can be immediately shared, as well as accessed later.

Any mobile system should also be designed so that it encourages, rather than discourages, its use, Hectus said.

Travel Inc., a Duluth, Ga.-based corporate travel firm that serves 100,000 business travelers from 1,000 client companies, found keeping it simple a daunting task, according to Linwood Hayes, the company's chief technology officer. It wanted to allow its customer base to access itineraries and Department of Homeland Security alerts while on the road. But since this pool of customers used a myriad of mobile devices with multiple operating systems, Hayes was stumped about how the service could work -- until he hooked up with Air2Web Inc. in Atlanta. Air2Web helped him design a system that could send information to any mobile device operating on any wireless standard anywhere in the world.

The m-Itinerary service, which Travel Inc. launched early last year, tapped the power of the simplest mobile data interface -- Short Message Service -- to push airline flight information as well as car and hotel information to customers, Hayes said. While simple and lacking the flash of a more complex message format, Hayes said this approach provided the company's road warrior customers with exactly what they needed: the ability to get "itinerary information in real time."

Hayes said Travel Inc. also uses the service to push out DHS security alerts in real time, another value to business travelers, who can use this information to adjust travel plans or get to a departure airport with extra time to make it through beefed-up security.

Travel Inc. also offers a premium, Web-based service that allows customers to actively check and pull itinerary information. That system still uses a simple text-based interface that works on any device and with any carrier, anywhere.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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