Finding the right equipment
wasnt easy"> It didnt take long for everyone to realize that the hardware they chose was not suitable for industrial environments. "What a learning experience that was," Armstrong said. "The Veo cameras were a consumer product in an industrial application." Added Potter: "Veo hates us right now. All these people were sending thousands of broken cameras back to them. They said they never meant them to be used in commercial environments."In December 2003, the team again contacted Symbol, of Holtsville, N.Y. Symbol announced its MC50 handheld computer in October 2004, aiming it at vertical markets that needed something between a corporate PDA and a super-rugged one. It wasnt weatherproof, but it had some built-in shock protection and, more important, an integrated camera and modem. Home Depot received a deal of $950 per device, including the modem. "That is roughly twice the cost of otherwise similar models from Hewlett-Packard [Co.] or Dell," said Todd Kort, an analyst at Gartner Inc., a consultancy in Stamford, Conn. "But all it takes is one major breakage incident with [HPs] iPaq or Axim and you have lost your cost advantage relative to the MC50. An important factor is that these ruggedized devices are typically used for five to seven years, whereas most enterprises use iPaqs or Axims for 12 to 24 months before moving to another device." The service agencies are still in the process of switching over to the Symbol devices; some are still beholden to leasing agreements with Dells VARs, and it may be 18 to 24 months for some of them to make the switch. Meanwhile, Home Depot is always looking for less expensive alternatives. "Id like to see the price come down," Armstrong said. "We have a big spend. I love our relationship with Symbol relative to in-store service, but Id like to see the prices drop." Virgin Megastores deploy multimedia kiosks. Click here to read more. In general, Home Depot is happy with the results of the system. EnfoTrust processes and stores some 340,000 photographs from some 11,500 handheld computers each day. Before the implementation, a typical service representative worked an average of 28 hours each week, Armstrong said, citing a recent labor study. Now, they work an average of 40 hours per week. "Were feeding [Home Depot] the information that they need, but were also tracking it for ourselves," Mishkoff said. "We know now how many hours our reps are in the stores, which is a good thing. Before, we basically managed by walking around the stores and just seeing how they looked." Next steps While they clock in daily on the infrared beacon and record all their data in the stores, most service representatives still synchronize their devices with EnfoTrusts server only once a dayand not from the store. Often, representatives use a dial-up connection from their home or hotel. Armstrong said he is looking to replace the beacon-based check-in system with a more technologically advanced way to locate service representatives, but there are no definite plans for GPS or any other location-based technology. Home Depot is also in early pilot tests that involve pushing data to and from BlackBerry devices from Research In Motion Ltd. via a cellular connection. Many service representatives already use BlackBerry devices, Armstrong said. RIM recently launched a BlackBerry that runs on the Cingular Wireless high-speed EDGE (Enhanced Data for Global Evolution) network, and RIM has been touting it as the perfect tool for mobile field force automation. The higher the bandwidth of the network, the more graphic-heavy data it can process. In the meantime, Potter and the Home Depot services team are hoping to integrate their system with Home Depots in-store Wi-Fi network in the next year, so that service representatives can send data directly from the stores. Wi-Fi integration will mean building a secure VLAN (virtual LAN) connection; otherwise the powers that be will not sign off on it. This also means working with the IT department again. Early in 2004, Cisco Systems Inc., of San Jose, Calif., beat Symbol in a bid for a vast WLAN (wireless LAN) installation at Home Depot stores, an account so coveted that Cisco CEO John Chambers was personally involved in securing it, according to sources close to Cisco. Neither company has officially announced the deployment. "The current thought process is to go over the wireless LAN eventually," Martin said. Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis on mobile and wireless computing.
The Axims, designed for the corporate office, proved to be vulnerable to dust and falls. Mishkoff said his service representatives reported numerous broken screens. Newer X50 models have fared better but still require peripheral cameras.