Transmitting efficiencies

In 2003, when the Vancouver Police Department phased in their current touch-to-talk satellite network, the agency picked up on a trend that began nearly a decade earlier.

Mobile technologies provide unprecedented opportunity for businesses and public agencies to dramatically improve efficiency. However, wireless networks sometimes cannot keep up with demand, leaving those who rely on their services offline and out-of-luck.

Needless to say, Vancouver Police weren't early adopters of mobile technology. Instead, they meticulously took into account concerns about security, stability and functionality, ultimately deciding on a mix of devices that fit their communication needs, according to Kim Kapp, the department's public information coordinator.

Eric Lineberg, chief estimator at Vancouver-based TEAM Construction LLC, points out this debate of pros and cons from a builder's perspective. "Everything is available at any time, so you're able to relay or forward something on instantly," Lineberg said. "In that same sense, I think the biggest drawback – in an industry that travels a lot – is when you have poor coverage from a network, which causes the information to move slowly, if at all."

TEAM ended up testing number of carriers and devices to find the right fit.

UPS brought wireless technologies to its operations in 1991 with the advent of their Delivery Information Acquisition Device. Dennis Ewing, Technology Support Manager at UPS in Portland, explained that the DIAD – originally intended to streamline a messy, manual process of paperwork – has evolved over the years.

"As our volume grew, sometimes it became a real challenge to present the kind of service we wanted to our customers regarding shipment statuses," Ewing said. "We were looking to enhance our ability to provide clear, accurate information to our customers and have exceeded that goal through pioneering and advancing this technology."

Now in its fourth version, the DIAD combines data collection and transmission over multiple wireless connectivity options, digital signature capture and extensive expandable memory. But the most advanced feature is its Global Positioning Satellite integration, which enables the dispatch center to optimize logistical information and locate drivers based on proximity to an on-call pickup. 

Clark Public Utilities started utilizing mobile technologies in 2003 when they implemented a mobile meter reading system with a radio frequency. Dana Christensen, the company's Field Services Manager, says the technology allows them to collect up to 25,000 readings where a manual process might collect 1,000 readings on a good day.

"We gain customer confidence by taking out the potential for human error," Christensen said, "and as far as efficiencies – they're pretty obvious."

While these are examples of mobile devices tailored to specific operations, the concept of specializing mobile technology transfers into the broader consumer cellular market. This trend is apparent in sales of a converged handset offering both capabilities of a Personal Data Assistant and a cell phone – called a "smartphone."

According to Tom Bordeaux, Northwest Director of Small Business Sales at AT&T Wireless, smartphones are where his carrier predicts the most market growth. Statistics from Canalys, a leader in technology market data and analysis, support Bordeaux's claim, with smartphone market share showing 13.4 percent growth in global shipments for the second quarter despite the global recession.

Similarly the IBM Institute for Business Value predicts the number of mobile Internet users will grow 191 percent from 2006 to reach one billion users in 2011.

"Almost every industry is adopting smartphones specifically for the email application, but they're getting more than just an email out of it," Bordeaux said.

Kevin Gray, deputy director of Clark County Public Works, noted e-mail access as a major selling point. In 2007, CCPW distributed Smartphones to roughly 20 percent of their 250-member staff. Once in the field, the devices increased productivity as a result of relaying voice and data information remotely.

"They're not the cheapest things in the world, but in comparison to other phones and services they're not that expensive either," Gray said. "Think-if you can save a couple of trips back to the office to pick up a survey note, for example, they've already paid for themselves."

It's an efficiency that Bordeaux emphasizes from a sales standpoint as well. He said that his team looks for ways to help clients make their businesses more profitable or functional – exploiting the device's potential for an attractive return on investment.

"There's a lot of out-of-box solutions, especially in the small business world," Bordeaux said. "There are so many applications out there, and they're making small businesses realize that technology is going to change the way they do business"

Simply put, mobile applications – or apps – grant users access to programs such as Microsoft Office documents and platforms like Facebook from their mobile device. The thousands of apps on the market allow customers to customize their device to their business needs.

Bordeaux cited examples of apps helping companies with dispatching needs, inventory-centric operations and even the universal task of processing of timecards. "That's what they want," he said. "They want to be more efficient – do more, with less people. Not necessarily removing people, but freeing up time."

Six business-friendly "apps" for mobile devices

Box: Provides a convenient way to access, share, and collaborate on up to 1 GB of business documents for free.

Salesforce Mobile: Monitors sales leads and accounts from the field.

Documents To Go: Allows users to view, edit and create most Microsoft Office files on their smartphone.

ProOnGo: Allows users to track user expenses, mileage and time remotely.

Clock IN/Clock OUT: Collects and organizes employee time data simply and accurately.

Oops I'm Late!: Sends notifications based on a users' schedule and location using a Global Positioning System.