March 15, 2001, 4:07 PM — YOU WOULDN'T WANT TO HAVE BEEN a field sales representative for Frito-Lay back in the early 1980s. After delivering America's popular salty snacks all day in the sweltering heat or freezing cold, the reps had to return home to sort through a load of paperwork before they could crack open a cold one and put their feet up. Since the field sales guys technically owned the merchandise once they took it out of the warehouse, their day wasn't done until the books were settled by hand.
To hear then Frito-Lay CIO Charlie Feld tell it, most of the reps could hardly balance their own checkbooks, much less deal with corporate accounting tasks, so they often drafted their wives to help them. Sorting through the wads of receipts and forms was a nightly ritual that didn't exactly qualify as quality family time.
So Frito-Lay's 10,000 sales reps were happy to get their hands on first-generation handheld computers (HHCs) in 1986 that considerably lightened their homework. Based on a Fujitsu device with a homegrown application, the HHCs would transmit daily sales figures each evening back to the corporate mainframe in Plano, Texas. With a careful pilot program, Frito-Lay's first foray into wireless technology was a success -- salesmen bought into it and the entire program paid for itself.
Although the sales reps loved the new app, not much was easy about being one of the first companies to implement wireless technology. For one thing, there were hardly any vendors at the time. Pioneers like Frito-Lay had to fund multiyear research and development efforts and then cobble together their own solutions -- at great expense, in both time and money. There were no standards for hardware, software or radio frequency data transmission. And -- at least at first -- there were no public networks that companies could use to transmit their wireless data. All this doesn't even take into account the doubters. Very few people believed that wireless devices would ever be as reliable as that sales rep and his wife hunched over the kitchen table.
In fact, the wireless pioneers made their investments in wireless technology not because they wanted to, but because they had to. They had no choice. In the case of wireless technology, necessity truly was the mother of invention.