Power In Hand

By eweek  |  Posted 2001-02-26

Power In Hand

Theres nothing like serendipity. So thought Clarity Systems principal Bill MacMullin when he came across Collective Communications Corp. at a conference last August.

MacMullin, a professional-services consultant, had been working with client ICU Medical Inc. since October 1999, upgrading and improving the companys mobile communications system.

ICUs 35 U.S. salespeople used the system to download customer information from GoldMine database servers to their laptops. Next, they synchronized the updated data via a dial-up connection to the corporate system.

As you might expect, the process was both tedious and>> time-consuming. Like many frustrated mobile customers, ICU knew there had to be a better way to do business.

Enter Clarity Systems MacMullin. He took a look at ICUs existing system and then recommended a new mobile platform based on Palm. "[ICU] had been using a CRM product called Maximizer 3.0," says MacMullin. The initial project went as planned, but "then we ran into some problems with their laptops. The laptops were basically inadequate. They were old, they didnt have enough horsepower."

Also, says Bruce Herron, ICUs CIO, the salespeople werent exactly conscientious about using their laptops.

"Salesmen!" says Herron with some exasperation. "They arent centered on technology. Its not a priority in their day to make sure the data on their laptops is current. When they needed the current data they wouldnt have it, or they would assume that what they did have was current, when in fact it wasnt."

Whats more, ICU turns inventory 88 times a year, according to MacMullin. "If the information from the field isnt up to date, you end up with information that is old and loses value very quickly. If Ive called on a distributor and also called on a hospital, the two arent tracking well together."

Part of the problem was the Maximizer CRM software the salespeople were using.

"It was too complex for them, with too complicated an interface," Herron says. "They would have difficulties and questions, and theyd have to continually call me or other support people."

Moreover, there was no uniformity among the laptops the sales staff had. "Each guy would have a different set of applications," says Herron, "and there was no way to truly support them on their end."

Several salespeople had Palm Pilot VII PDAs. So in May 2000, ICU gave them MaxLink, the PDA interface to the Maximizer Enterprise 5.5 server.

But according to Herron, MaxLink was extremely limited, so much so that it would be worthless in ICUs environment. "It didnt have any enterprise features whatsoever. If a user created a contact, it was available to all users. That means that every user is going to get the full database, and thats way too much data."

It was also way too little privacy. ICU is one of three separate corporate entities. And, on occasion, all three are competing for business in the same place, making compartmentalization of information essential.

Centralizing CRM

Centralizing CRM Herron wanted to ditch the laptops and move to a centralized data system that ICU salespeople could access via wireless Internet using a Palm Pilot. MacMullin brought in Collective Communications Dave Feldman for a presentation, and ICU decided to become a beta tester of Collectives ePDA middleware.

The ePDA product, says MacMullin, "is communications software that allows the user to connect to a variety of data stores, such as GoldMine, through the wireless Internet. When they access the data, theyre actually accessing it as a node on the network in real time, just as if they were workstation users on the network. We use the Palm OS screen forms. We can search data, we can create and edit notes, add new records to the database, maintain our calendaring [and] use it as a basic contact manager."

Collectives ePDA consists of two basic pieces. The ePDA Collective server resides behind the enterprise firewall and in front of existing data warehouses and applications. On the users end is a client that, in the ICU implementation, resides on a Palm Pilot VIIx.

The client controls authentication and security, so the server can identify the user who is logging in. "When you log in for the first time and you need access to your database and advertising schedules, you wont have any of the applications on your device," says Feldman. "It will recognize you when you log in and see what applications youre allowed, then download those applications dynamically to your device. This also happens automatically whenever applications have been added or changed."

Java Does the Trick

Java Does the Trick Collective based its software on Java 2 technology, which provides a platform for developing applications based on such industry standards as XML. The Collective technology incorporates Java Messaging Service, Java DataBase Connectivity, Java Native Interface and Java networking APIs. It works on Windows NT, Windows 2000 and Unix Solaris.

The server side of ePDA has two parts, a centralized management service that controls the throughput of the data and an application service that links to the user applications. "We have two ways to get access to information on the back end. We have eDB, which is a query tool, and we have APIs. The APIs we give to our partners to let them write those applications," explains Feldman.

Flexibility combined with simple, centralized management is ePDAs strength. Any number of applications can be written to provide interfaces to any of a customers legacy systems. All of those applications and their counterparts—the Java applets that act as mediators between PDAs and the corporate intranet—comprise a "Collective," which is managed through a single interface. Multiple instances of a Collective can be running on multiple servers, yet the entire show can be monitored and controlled from one console.

The components of a Collective can collaborated on the server side, allowing collation of data drawn from multiple back-end systems before it is transmitted to a handheld device. An example would be a summary of sales, inventory and accounts receivable activity on a regional basis. That server-side preprocessing accommodates the memory and processor limitations of PDAs.

Because ePDA is based on Java, it works with the inherent features of the client device—for example, with the Palm Pilots own screen forms. "If I want to schedule an event in GoldMine," says Feldman, "I bring up Palms calendaring form. I can schedule it and it goes right into GoldMine."

To conserve scarce bandwidth, ePDA doesnt download a whole Web page every time the user makes a query. All it retrieves is the data, and the user interface is a form that resides on the client device. "You can work in an off-line mode, because you have an application that resides on the [Palm] device," says Feldman. In contrast, WAP-based systems require an active connection to the Internet in order to view or manipulate data.

Bettering the Beta

Bettering the Beta The beta test at ICU started in December 2000. Since then, says Herron, there have been minor revisions, the principal one being getting through the ICU firewall.

Once the ePDA beta code was fixed to allow access through the firewall, Herrons next request was easier startup of the Collective server. "It was still a little raw, requiring a great deal of input on my part just to bring it up. Theyve simplified that process tremendously. We picked up problems such as searches being case-sensitive, which isnt what you want because you could get the impression that the record doesnt exist and create a duplicate. That was one they corrected."

Though the implementation is barely past beta, Herron is pleased. "Overall, I think this technology will give our sales people an edge that doesnt exist in this business today. Theyll be able to plug in queries [and] get inventory information returned immediately. Theyll be able to place orders immediately, and theyll be fully automated," says Herron. "This tool is basically a communications platform that allows us to connect our salespeople with any data source that we have inside our company."

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