Wireless IT is harder than it looks? Who knew?

Flashback to the days when this midsize tech vendor is selling turnkey business systems to lumberyards, and a pilot fish working there is about to get a new assignment.

"One day, my manager stopped by my desk with a handheld RF terminal," says fish. "He wanted me to write a program for it to do physical inventory for a customer. The device had a 4-line LCD display and a small alphanumeric keypad.

"I went into the computer room and connected the base unit to a serial port on our PDP-8 minicomputer. Then I took the handheld and checked the signal in various parts of the building."

Turns out the signal range is about 200 feet, but there's a problem: The building's aluminum studs create dead spots where fish can't maintain a connection.

Fish tries adding a repeater antenna, and that helps -- but some of the dead zones remain.

Still, he's able to write a program that displays a product-number prompt on the handheld. Someone doing an inventory count can type in a a product number and a quantity, and the program checks the database for a match on product number, then updates the inventory count in the database.

And it works pretty well -- as long as fish can maintain a connection.

"I tested as well as I could in our building," fish says. "I even went outside and walked around the parking lot, to make sure the device could connect to the server.

"Finally, we shipped the equipment to the customer."

Not long after that, fish gets a phone call from the manager at the lumberyard where the system is being tested. He tells fish the device works pretty well, but his warehouse is 400 feet long, and the handheld unit loses its connection about halfway down the aisle.

How have you been doing physical inventories before? fish asks.

Manager explains they put a dumb terminal in a shopping cart and push it down the aisle to each bin that holds dozens of pallets of lumber. The inventory guy plugs the terminal into a port that's connected to a cable that has already been run to the bin from the warehouse inventory computer. Then he starts counting.

Sighs fish, "Even with the repeater antenna, the handheld device still couldn't reach every part of the enormous warehouse, so despite two weeks of effort by an RF engineer to improve connectivity, they gave up and shipped the equipment back to us.

"We never sold a single handheld unit."

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