Why Pen and Paper Is Still the Pervasive PDA

Thinque, others realize rigid applications aren't timesavers, because mobile users need flexibility

On a recent episode of "NYPD Blue," a harried detective tried to look up a telephone number by tapping a stylus on a handheld PDA. "Ill take a hammer to this thing before Easter," he muttered. Such is the fate of too many efforts to introduce mobile work force automation.

The difference between what sounds good and what actually works in the field is the difference between the predictable environment of a demonstration and the chaos of real life. "There will be days," said George Bayz, president and CEO of Thinque Systems, in Los Angeles, "when your field representative wants to finish up and get home to coach basketball practice. Hell want to fill in the data that he can only capture on the customers site, then complete the call report later."

If mobile applications lock their users into a fixed and cumbersome workflow, warned Bayz, "your people will throw their laptop PCs in the back seat and leave them there until their calls are done—then try to reconstruct their entire day later." When mobile applications become an added burden, instead of fitting into workers routines, the result is more work, not less: Workers continue to use pen-and-paper methods, for their flexibility as well as their reliability under field conditions, while redundantly (perhaps inaccurately) re-entering data for online reports.

Thinques approach to mobile application design encourages developers to be fine-grained in their data-entry requirements. The companys Call Report Builder software enables many levels of constraint: A data-entry field may be restricted to certain data types, as in the typical data-capture development tool, but it can also embody multilevel rules as to which entry fields must be completed before other parts of a report may be prepared.

If certain values in one entry field imply restrictions on the values of other fields, those rules travel with the report form definition. Violations of entry rules can be detected on the mobile device, without waiting for server-side logic to detect the problem during a later upload.

"Sometimes, the worker wont be connected," Bayz said, no matter what visions people may offer of pervasive wireless networks. Systems have to allow for offline operation with deferred connection.

Bayz dismissed the idea of calling any winners in the race to equip the mobile worker with wireless connections: "The important competition isnt between Palm and Windows CE: Its between all mobile IT on the one hand and the morning FedEx envelope on the other."

For most workers, he emphasized, mobile IT hardware has been too cumbersome, and applications too rigid, to make mobile IT fit readily into a busy mobile workers routine. Bayzs comments bring to mind a 20-year-old dictum from personal computing visionary Alan Kay: "A portable computer is one that you can carry along with something else: say, two bags of groceries."

Less is more

Another crucial concern in the design of a mobile work force solution is the filtering of information from desktop levels of detail down to a level that suits the worker on the go. Theres much more involved in wireless productivity than merely cutting the wire: "Its all too easy," said Thinque Vice President Ellen Libenson, "to wind up with a screen of stuff that doesnt solve a problem."

Reduction of mobile info overload is the mission of AmikaFreedom, an e-mail content highlighter from AmikaNow Corp. that won honors as a Personal Productivity finalist in eWeeks recent eXcellence Awards contest. As one of the Corporate Partner advisory board judges of the eXcellence Awards observed: "What could be a bigger contribution to productivity than taming the e-mail monster?" This is especially true for workers in the field. Delivering less, not more, is a new approach for enterprise IT but could be a critical success factor for mobile work force automation.

Mobile application developers should also take advantage of information sources that have never been important for desktop workers, such as real-time location updates from Global Positioning System satellites. Another eXcellence finalist, Eartha Enterprise, from the Eartha Systems unit of DeLorme Inc., gives mobile application designers a combination of mapping and direction-finding data and applications that can be integrated into a mobile work force support system.

Not all e-business is purely online business: Important work will still be done in the real world. Visionary e-business builders will maximize the flexibility of IT—using tools such as Thinques Mobile Solutions Platform, AmikaFreedom and Eartha Enterprise—rather than expecting the real world to bend to ITs will.