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Wireless warriors

Wireless warriors

From the boardroom to the steaming jungles of Amazonia, hand-held devices are helping workers do their job as well as connect with head office. Darren Greenwood highlights some innovative uses of remote technologies.

Living like Indiana Jones, pounding the jungles of South America, or chasing after exotic but potentially dangerous animals in the Galapagos Islands, just how do you manage your email? And when you are in a remote town in Ecuador, how do keep in touch with home? These are just some of the challenges New Zealand wildlife photojournalist James Frankham faced while 'road-testing' the new Palm-based LifeDrive during a recent assignment in the Galapagos Islands.

"Tena is a washed-up backwater, steaming with jungle humidity and the rising miasma of two-stroke smoke," Frankham emails MIS from Ecuador.

The LifeDrive is one of 20,000 applications available using Palm-based technology, a major factor behind Frankham choosing it over a Windows-based system. The hand-held device has an internal memory of 4GB, enough to store 1000 photos, 300 songs or 2.5 hours of video.

With built-in wifi, bluetooth and infrared, the device can send and receive email, record field notes and control a camera when photographing sensitive subjects. "It can connect with anything, anyway you like," he says.

The photojournalist previously used a credit-card sized electronic organiser called Rex, but switched to the LifeDrive because it can network with his laptop via wifi.

"And when a compact flash card becomes available for it, I will be able to go onto the field on short trips without a laptop at all," he continues.

In the Galapagos, Frankham used LifeDrive, slung around his neck, safely shielded from the elements by an Aquapac softcase, so he could record animal noises or interviews, despite the 30 degrees Celsius heat and humidity.

"Using a clever freeware application, I can even remotely connect my camera via infrared for close-up shots of any shy species, or any nasty ones that bite," he continues.

The 193-gram device has been exposed to water and dust, been dropped several times and even survived an Amazon white-water rafting river trip.

Thus, it gives the photojournalist and filmmaker, who faces the same business issues as any self-employed person, vital access to his data at all times.

"Back on the ship later in the day, I connect the LifeDrive to the wafer-thin folding keyboard and begin writing the article. I can display the photos I shot just minutes before and even make a wireless network with a computer and transfer all the notes, recordings and images via wifi."

The dirty administrative business like expense ledgers are completed in a flash using the built-in expense application and it syncs all my contacts, notes and tasks with Outlook. And when I'm near a wireless hotspot I can compose and send email as if I never left home," he says.

However, Tena, described in guidebooks as the "quintessential South American jungle town" has no wifi. Instead, it has two cybercafes, one inexplicably closed and the other with slow and irregular power so the transfer of pictures may take hours. "But that's the reality of chasing publication deadlines while still working in the field," Frankham adds.<

Operation email

As Frankham's sojourn shows, remote technologies these days mean more than sales staff sending back their data or courier drivers telling head office the delivery has been made.

The information age has created a new military doctrine of "network-centric warfare" with weapons platforms, sensors and command and control centres connected by high-speed communications networks.

Global satellite communications mean New Zealand's defence forces posted in Afghanistan or Timor can easily send messages home, as can America's troops from Baghdad. For US forces assigned to Iraq, bandwidth is not an issue.

During the Desert Storm in 1990, US forces were supported by bandwidth speeds of 100Mbit/s. When the US invaded Afghanistan, US forces on the ground sent coordinates of targets by email to B-52 Stratofortress bombers in flight.

Now, in Operation Iraqi Freedom, some 350,000 coalition forces have more than 3000 Mbit/s of satellite bandwidth, boosting the effectiveness of existing Desert Storm platforms.

Andy Woodwark, relationship manager for the New Zealand Defence Force, says his own organisation is "building that capability," though he declines to give details.

Nonetheless, Kiwi forces use satellite and radio-based technologies for overseas operations. In some situations, such as Afghanistan and East Timor, Kiwi forces carry ruggedised Panasonic Toughbooks. These laptops can withstand more impact than standard notebooks, but are four times more expensive. For more standard operations, they use Dell notebooks.

"When the military attache's hard drive fails in Beijing, he does not have to return it to New Zealand to get it fixed," Woodwark adds.

Back in the civilian world, greeting card company John Sands has just rolled out an iPaq-based mobile device from Dexterra to its 120 New Zealand sales staff and 430 Australian sales staff.

Mobility project director Peter Jackson says the company's old Telxon hand-held units were failing, so orders were being lost and the 1980s technology was no longer supported.

Some 25 separate devices were trialled with John Sands settling on Dexterra because it "took a long-term punt that .Net and Pocket PC will be around" and it takes much longer to train a java programmer.

With the increasing failure of the old system, John Sands staff were doing more and more work by paper, but fortunately the changeover was possible by replicating its existing business processes onto the pocket PCs.

"There was no learning of what buttons to press. That helped with training," Jackson explained, adding most of his staff are older and not so tech-savvy.

The Dexterra system also features intelligent adapters to CRM and ERP systems such as SAP, Oracle, Microsoft and Siebel, allowing field access to necessary data. Field staff can now complete 65 different tasks during a sales call such as reordering stock, logging returns, instructing retailers how to set up displays and showing off new cards.

John Sands further claims an ROI within six to nine months, fuelled by an annual paper saving of 390,000 sheets, staff productivity increasing 12 per cent while reducing variable wage costs by 8 per cent. Customer serviceability levels have also increased from 82 per cent to 91 per cent.

Jackson says the Dexterra devices are exceeding expectations but in its early implementation, John Sands faced a glitch because it attempted to create a single Trans-Tasman network for these devices. Somehow the phone links could not handle this, thus the company created a point of presence in Auckland, so its own broadband/VOIP network could carry the data traffic to John Sands' ERP system in Melbourne.

Jackson doubts rugged devices are worth the three times added expense, as losses tend to be through theft than dropping, but advises organisations looking at similar implementations to buy devices with more memory.

He also adds customised pocket PCs may not always talk to other customised pocket PCs and it is essential to have a vendor who can make application changes remotely.

"It's the height of project management arrogance that you have everything 100 per cent right. You want to make changes remotely, whether they are in Invercargill or Whangarei," adds Jackson.

Boardroom tools

Global packaging business Amcor has rolled out online boardroom aids for its directors, committees and leadership team members across Australia.

The Melbourne-based company says the devices meant their executives do not have to carry reports as they travel across the region.

Amcor chairman Chris Roberts says the age of the paperless office never arrived and the logistics and security of moving to secure digital records was important.

The company chose the Leaders Online system from 80-20 Software, which promises a complete document and email management system for mobile users.

Amcor's seven board members use Windows-based tablet PCs, while others access the software using conventional laptops. The installation two years ago went well, though Amcor admits an upgrade to more powerful Intel Pentium Processors was necessary.

Today, Amcor executives are also increasingly using wireless LAN hotspots to download documents, using a two-layered security framework built around encrypted virtual private networks for security. Its ability to record written notes is also popular with the users.

Amcor's New Zealand executives, however, have yet to deploy the system. Richard Hosking, group commercial manager of Amcor Kiwi Packaging, whose division represents half of Amcor's New Zealand interests, explains, "The Australian business is different to ours. It has a different cost structure."

The New Zealand staff use laptops and the CEO has a Blackberry. The tablets are not used "basically for reasons of cost. We run a lean ship," he adds.

In Melbourne, freight forwarders McCarthur Express has just rolled out an Avaya application on Nokia Series 60 platform devices. The technology allows the smartphones to be used like a PDA as well as use the company's own VoIP network to eliminate toll calls. The firm has replaced regional phone networks with a single VoIP-based network.

General manager Peter Spoto says the project is saving the firm much money and allows staff to give information to clients in real time. The only implementation issue was voice quality over the datalines, but this was remedied with some fine-tuning.

"You can never plan enough. We are in a very time sensitive industry. You cannot afford data networks to go down," Spoto advises.

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