Handhelds Link Field Workers and Builders

Computer World –

Handheld computers are increasingly making inroads with businesses that want to tie field operations to enterprise databases.

But getting an application to effectively talk to a database involves planning, testing and carefully evaluating both hardware and mobile software, according to two managers on a recent test of a mobile work-tracking system at Home Finishes Inc. in Livermore, Calif.

In August, Home Finishes and its partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York, rolled out an application on Palm handhelds that lets employees quickly make work-order reports for repairs while walking through recently built homes. The repair notices go to Home Finishes' large Clarify database from Nortel Networks Corp. in Brampton, Ontario.

"Before, it was a pad of paper filled with orders that were faxed later in the day, so you had all the data entry people and the accuracy problems with that," said Chad Downey, PricewaterhouseCoopers' project manager.

Inexpensive and Familiar

Home Finishes plans to sell the application to builders and others, so it picked devices from Santa Clara, Calif.-based Palm Inc. because of their relatively low cost and brand-name recognition, Downey said. And the application may be used by home buyers, who would have a greater chance of being familiar with the Palms, he said.

Chris Gatley, senior vice president at Home Finishes, said smart phones were also evaluated because many field workers carry cell phones and it might have made sense to have a device with both phone and database functionality. But during development, planners realized that clicking on items on a drop-down list would be confusing for users if the same device suddenly rang and needed to be used as a phone, he said.

Home Finishes' application allows needed home repairs, such as missing hinges or faulty electrical switches, to be recorded and posted on the company's Web site. Home buyers and subcontractors can check online to see when repairs are needed or competed. For example, a painter might use the system to coordinate his time with other workers without making numerous phone calls, Gatley said.

Downey oversaw the creation of both the application that's native on the handheld device and the software conduit to the Clarify database. The data, once entered on the Palm, reaches a server at Home Finishes, which checks to make sure that all the data fields have been entered.

To prevent the transmission of incomplete or inaccurate data, the servers do a password check on the Palms, which each have their own digital signature. To further ensure accuracy, Home Finishes blocks the ability to beam data between handhelds via infrared, Downey said.

Half-hour training sessions also help reduce the introduction of bad data, Downey said. Before the August rollout, a user trial was held. "The user test was just critical because we had to make sure the application was easy enough to use that inspectors weren't going to just throw their Palms at something," he said.

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