There are signs that the market for handheld computers - or Personal Digital Assistants - is changing.
Until recently, handheld computers were generally regarded either as suitable only for specialist markets which needed rugged machines with limited processing power, or as a poor relation to the laptop. The situation hasn't been helped by high-profile flops, such as the initial release of Apple's Newton.
But the main problem for handhelds has been their niche status. This has discouraged the industry from developing mainstream applications to run on them.
However, many manufacturers have recognised that some handhelds have a major benefit. This is the facility to plug them into desktop PCs, using a docking station, so that data can be transferred.
Indeed, Scottish manufacturer, Findlay Irvine, demonstrates there is a demand for a PC-compatible handheld although, as yet, this is still confined to DOS.
What users are really looking for is a cut-down version of the same operating systems that run on their desktop and laptop PCs. And there are signs that this is happening. Microsoft's Pegasus handheld device is a significant step (see this month's Barometer on page 18). It runs Windows CE, has a Windows 95 GUI and can link up with the operating system on the desktop.
Microsoft's move is likely to prompt further demands for Apple to produce a handheld which can run a slimmed-down version of Mac OS. While the latest release of Apple's Newton, in its Message Pad 2000 models, is much faster than previous versions, the system still doesn't have the same interface as Mac OS on desktop machines.
Another concern centres on the power and speed of handheld machines.
The situation is changing rapidly, in line with the overall industry price-performance curve. Companies such as financial services specialist Prudential, which recently gave its 6,000 sales staff Psion Organisers, prove that the latest generation of handheld machines are powerful enough to run important applications.
This has encouraged a number of third-party developers to look again at putting more mainstream applications, such as spreadsheets, onto PDAs.
In turn, potential consumers are more concerned about ease of use, size, weight and battery life than power and memory.
Some PDAs are small enough to slide comfortably into a shirt pocket.
However, users are not just looking for small pieces of hardware; easy data entry and external robustness are also important.
Activities: financial services, including insurance, assurance and pensions
Installation: Psion Series 3a
Prudential's move to equip its 6,000 insurance sales staff with Psion Organisers was met with some degree of scepticism. But Martin Symons, sales operational research manager at the company, says investing in handhelds was an easy business decision.
In 1994, new regulations came into force that meant insurance companies had to provide client-specific quotations at the point of sale. 'We had already run trials with laptops, and we knew it would be expensive and risky to equip all our sales staff with them,' says Symons.
At the beginning of last year, Prudential implemented a short-term answer by setting up a central call centre which sales staff could phone for detailed quotations.
Meanwhile, the company's sales strategy manager was evaluating the Psion Series 3a. Sales staff had already used Psion machines to store diary and address information. So the question was whether the Psion Series 3a could cope with the field quotation work.
Symons was convinced that the power of the 3a, combined with some changes to the way the actuarial statistics were specified, would do the job.
It was a bold move, enabling the company to put its sales quotations onto the Psion 3a, which are updated at least quarterly in local branch offices. Symons claims it has been a major success.
Subject: Welsh Centre for Postgraduate Pharmaceutical Education
Activities: training local pharmacists
Installation: Apple Newton Message Pad
Part of the Government's drive to relieve pressure on overworked GPs is to encourage local pharmacists to advise the public on minor ailments.
To back this up, the Welsh Centre for Postgraduate Pharmaceutical Education (WCPPE) provides training on a wide range of topics for Wales' 2,000 pharmacists.
However, Paul Cleverly, the centre's graphic designer, points out that such training is not mandatory, so it has to appeal to its audience and fit in with their busy work schedules.
The answer seemed to lie with the Internet. 'We thought it would be useful if people could access our video library of training materials over the Web,' explains Cleverly. 'The problem was how to get the pharmacists linked in - the PDA looked like it could solve the problem.'
The WCPPE was already loaning out Apple Classics, loaded with computer-assisted training packages, to Welsh pharmacists. But it realised that PDAs would be even more convenient. The centre has set up multimedia software on Apple Newton Message Pad 103s. With these, users can download a list of topics from the WCPPE Web site.
The project has only just been rolled out, but Cleverly is keeping an eye on Apple's PDA moves. 'It's no good taking the 130 route if next Spring there's a model that runs ten times as fast and has two PC-Cards,' he points out.
Subject: Findlay Irvine
Activities: making ice warning and control systems that check the surface grip on runways, railways, roads and and walkways
Installation: Husky Hunter 16 handhelds
Scottish company Findlay Irvine's customers range from airports to local authorities. Its main product is a grip testing machine, which is towed behind a vehicle to measure surface grip.
John Hazelgrove, technical sales executive at Findlay Irvine, explains: 'The company's machines are used in all weathers, by all sorts of staff, from airport fire station crew to operations personnel. So they have to be tough and easy to use.'
Findlay Irvine needed a solution that, while meeting all these criteria, would take the stream of data from the grip tester itself and turn it into information that could be processed by a PC. It chose the handheld Husky Hunter 16 to act as a data-collection computer for its grip tester.
'With the Huskys, we can run software that is compatible with an IBM PC. The machines are rugged, are easily mounted in the cab of a vehicle and can be operated by a single person,' says Hazelgrove. At an airport, where runways have to be tested in all weathers, usually by one person, these are key considerations.
Findlay Irvine sells its grip testers configured with either a notebook PC or the Husky handheld, which Hazelgrove feels is ideal for one-person operations.
The only drawback with the Husky, he says, is pushing up the power without increasing the box size: 'It's always useful to have a bit more processing power and storage, and we'd like a faster machine - but in the same package.'
1 Focus on the prime reason for buying a handheld, rather than trying to get too much out of what is still a small package 2 Handhelds vary in size, so it's important to evaluate physical aspects as well as processing power
3 Look twice at communications: linking handhelds into an enterprise network still requires substantial resource and effort
4 Bear in mind the conditions in which the machines will be used.
In many large organisations, it is established that helpdesks are necessary for providing support to computer users.
In general, a company's IT department provides and staffs the helpdesk service, although there are exceptions. For example, suppliers such as IBM and DEC offer an external service to customers who haven't the resources or don't want an internal support structure. IBM's End User Support programme takes over support services from in-house IT departments.
The development of the standalone PC, and PC networks in particular, made helpdesks imperative. In the days when dumb terminals ruled the desktop, there was little need for helpdesks. Most problems occurred on the central mainframe, and were easily solved by IT staff. If a terminal crashed, the box was simply swapped with another terminal.
But the situation changed dramatically when PCs arrived. Power moved to the desktop. Users were able to install their own software, add-in cards and peripherals, often without considering the company's IT policy.
When these machines gradually became networked, at first departmentally and later in a corporate-wide system, the real problems started. No one had told users that adding a piece of software or a card could bring down the network. And they didn't know that the network administrator or IT department had to approve machine enhancements or upgrades.
Although many companies have now set up formal helpdesks, much of the support comes from other end users.
A survey by Bloor Research shows that, in large organisations, non-IT professionals carry out more than 80 per cent of user support. The report suggests the cost of such 'informal' support is seven times the amount budgeted for 'official' support functions. This obviously needs to be addressed because in many large companies the cost of support is out of control.
The survey warns companies that many end users initially mistrust official helpdesks and prefer informal advice. It points out: 'A helpdesk facility must be accessible, supportive, knowledgeable and able to demonstrate an understanding of the business of its customers. It must also be clear about the products it can support, and should provide a reasonable level of service in a timely manner.'
But the concept of the helpdesk has gone further than just supplying technical support. Some companies are using helpdesk technology to boost their business. Many companies have caught on to the trend of outsourcing the helpdesk to a manufacturer or software house.
Your helpdesk must monitor response times, identify frequent requests from users and take account of new and temporary members of staff using the system. Bloor Research claims that new or temporary users of an IT system usually need twice as much help as an experienced employee.
Obviously, there are certain times when helpdesks are particularly busy, such as just after an upgrade, or when the workload of the business increases and more staff are using the system. Specialist software developers now provide packaged helpdesk systems.
But there are a few golden rules to follow when setting up a helpdesk, not least of which is a degree of knowledge and expertise. The Bloor Research report says: 'Helpdesk staff must understand not only the technology, but the business of the user community, and should be able to respond quickly and efficiently.'
The helpdesk should not only be a central part of the IT operation, but an integral part of the business as a whole. An efficient helpdesk system not only makes life easier for users, it also saves a company time and money by ensuring that key staff are not diverted from their main jobs to help colleagues with IT problems.
Subject: CIBA Agriculture
Activities: supplies animal medicines to 2,600 veterinary practices and the public
Installation: Royalblue Technologies' Helpdesk for Windows
Initially introduced to handle queries about Program, CIBA's flea control product, Helpdesk for Windows has been extended to cover other products.
According to Louise Pearce, customer services supervisor at CIBA, an increase in the sales of the drug and the number of corresponding queries prompted the move to an IT-based helpdesk. Essent-ially, it is a database of common questions from vets and the public.
The helpdesk is staffed by eight agents, and can call on the services of a professional vet.
Pearce says: 'We used to have a telephone system manned by five people.
Now the company has eight part-time workers. The helpdesk has certainly speeded up response times.'
One of the difficulties with the telephone system was that, if the people who manned the phones were off sick or on holiday, other members of staff would have to answer queries, as well as doing their own jobs. The dedicated helpline has overcome that problem, according to Pearce.
Subject: MCL Group
Activities: imports and distributes Mazda cars
Installation: Helpmate from Altimax to provide users on the PC network with technical assistance
MCL uses a software package from Altimax to support 700 users across the network. The helpdesk is available to MCL's internal users and to Mazda dealers across the country.
Jonathan Steel, information systems support controller at MCL, says: 'There weren't many packages on the market when we chose Helpmate. Now that we have been working with this software for some time, I can make a number of recommendations. It is extremely important to choose a package that's easy to use and which fits in with other software on the system so you can switch between applications.'
MCL's helpdesk takes around 75 calls a day - about 10 per cent of the total number of users in the company. Some of the problems are quite easy to solve, such as replacing the cartridge on a laser printer. Other queries are more complex, and support staff need to spend some time looking for a solution.
According to Steel, the helpdesk staff aim to solve any problem in less than four hours, a deadline which the team normally meets. 'If we can't sort out the problem within the company, we turn to the supplier for help,' he says.
Helpmate also contains a reporting procedure which catalogues the most frequently accessed calls for assistance, and builds up a database of common problems. 'At the end of the month we select a category of the most common queries and try to solve them on a global basis,' Steel says.
The helpdesk support staff meet regularly with user representatives to ensure that both sides are aware of what the other requires and is supplying.
1 Many helpdesk projects begin life as a way to assist small groups of users on a departmental network or as a pilot product. You should ensure the package is scalable enough for new users to be added to the system
2 Meet regularly with end-user representatives to ensure the helpdesk is meeting their needs
3 The helpdesk should be knowledgeable, not just about the technology, but about the organisation's core business needs
4 Users should be discouraged from helping each other with IT computer problems. It can end up costing a company money because it distracts staff from their main jobs
5 Many users say they ask colleagues to help solve IT problems because the helpdesk response is too slow. Response times should be agreed with users
Much talked about but seldom seen, Network Computers (NCs) are finally beginning to show up at sites around the UK. The NC concept has moved on considerably since Larry Ellison of Oracle first proposed it back in November 1995, and several different types of NC are now appearing on the market.
All NCs have common elements in that they are simplified, stripped-down versions of a PC, designed to work attached to a server via a network or Internet connection. Because they don't contain hard disks or floppy drives, they can't work if they aren't connected to a server.
But NC vendors have adopted different approaches to software. One camp, made up of manufacturers such as IBM and Wyse, expects most users to run Windows software on their NCs. The other camp, which features companies such as Sun and Oracle, expects users to run new software written in Java.
In both cases the NC only runs part of the application, with much of the work going on at the server end. This is most obvious in the case of the Windows approach, where a diskless NC clearly doesn't have the necessary power to run Windows by itself. Instead, a modified version of Windows NT runs on the server, with the NC acting as a kind of enhanced display terminal.
With the second approach, the NC downloads a Java program from the server, and runs this on the NC. Much of the work will be happening at the server end - the Java application may be acting as the front-end for a traditional database application running on, for example, a UNIX system or mainframe.
These two software approaches may both turn out to be viable in the long run, and many NC manufacturers are keeping their options open by backing both.
Your decision depends on what you are trying to accomplish. If you want users to run standard office productivity applications, such as word processors and spreadsheets, you have to opt for the Windows approach.
However, if you want to make your legacy database accessible to a large number of users, the Java approach is the one to go for.
Subject: BM Polyco
Activities: distributes household, industrial and medical gloves
Installation: Wyse NC systems with Windows software
BM Polyco is the UK's largest independent distributor of household, industrial and medical gloves. Based in Enfield, Middlesex, it has 35 employees in four separate buildings.
The company recently installed 22 Wyse NC systems. The Wyse Winterm is based on a similar concept to the IBM Network Station (reviewed in Business Computer World last month), but uses an Intel 486 processor rather than the PowerPC. Wyse has also built the NC hardware into the monitor casing on some models, so there is no separate NC box.
BM Polyco has opted for Windows software based on Citrix Winframe. Winframe is a modified version of Windows NT that runs on the server, and it can run multiple remote NT sessions.
To communicate with the NCs, Winframe uses a protocol called Intelligent Console Architecture (ICA). A continual stream of information in ICA format goes back and forth, carrying descriptions of what the screen should look like to the NCs, and taking back keyboard and mouse information from them to the server. The NCs need to run client software which can decode the ICA stream and draw the screen.
Before the NCs, Polyco had 10 PCs running applications such as Word and Excel under Windows 3.11 and Windows 95. They were mostly slow 386 or 486 machines that would have been expensive to upgrade so that they could run the latest 32-bit Windows 95 versions.
The company used a UNIX system with VT-100 dumb terminals for its main accounting and order-taking application. It also had an Apple Power Mac for desktop publishing, a portable PC and several standalone fax machines for communicating with customers.
Polyco's main problem was that its computing resources were diverse and lacked integration. Staff often had to move from one machine to another.
The challenge was to integrate the PC, UNIX, Mac and fax systems, and give all users access to the same set of up-to-date 32-bit Windows applications.
Another key objective was to simplify the support task, so the company's in-house IT people could move on to develop new applications.
Systems manager Neal Carter looked at a conventional PC solution and the available NCs, and came up with two options. One solution involved the company installing 22 new Pentium PCs, upgrading the better 486s to Windows 95 and converting the existing UNIX server to NT.
With the other option, Polyco could buy 22 Wyse Winterm NCs, add ICA thin-client software to the existing PCs and the Apple Mac, and buy a new server with Citrix Winframe installed. In this option the UNIX system could remain unchanged.
The first-year cost for each solution worked out at about u36,000. But in the case of the NC, more of the money was swallowed up at the server end.
Polyco opted for the NC solution because it is easier to maintain and support. Neal Carter says: 'In the end, it all came down to time. I wasn't able to do my job of being an IT manager; I was just being a technician.
I was spending most of my day maintaining software and upgrading machines.'
Under the new system, all the changes to Windows software are made just once, at the server. Also, it is possible to see remotely what is going on from any user's screen. Carter finds this simplifies technical support and problem fixing.
With the new system, integration is better. UNIX sessions appear on the same screen as Windows applications.
The server provides fax facilities, and users can access email from their Web browsers. Even the Mac can run the same 32-bit Windows applications, using ICA client software.
Activities: telecoms company
Installation: Sun Java Station
Over the last few months BT has been evaluating five Sun Java Stations as part of a major ongoing customer service initiative. The results have been extrem-ely positive, and BT is likely to deploy several thousand NCs into customer sites next year.
BT's Serviceview project is designed to improve the flow of information between the company and its major corporate customers. This involves putting information terminals into customer sites so staff can report faults, check on the progress of maintenance work and order new equipment more efficiently.
The original plan for the project was based around PCs. These had to be powerful Pentium machines, with 16Mb or 20Mb of memory to support the graphic front-end BT wanted to use, while simultaneously linking up to the legacy systems at the BT end that held the customer and product information.
However, at the same time, BT started to develop a Java version of the software, designed to work on much thinner NC client hardware.
Terry Carlin, head of systems and service strategy at BT, says, 'We are in the middle of rolling out Serviceview to our top 4,250 customers. But, with thin-clients, we believe we can go down to the next tier of customers - 15,000 or 20,000 customers. And, of course, we can do that with a single development.'
The Java code running on the NCs links to the same back-end systems used by BT's sales, service and field-engineering staff. The NC screens are automatically configured for a specific client. For example, they display pictures and contact details of BT staff who are responsible for a particular customer.
Users can log faults or place orders for new equipment. Context-sensitive forms, which ask only the questions relevant to the request, are used.
Once the request is sent, the system returns a reference number so it's progress can be tracked.
BT has been using the brick-shaped version of Sun's Java Station in its trials. But according to Terry Carlin, 'you can use anything really, as long as it complies with the NC specification'. BT has used both the Sun NC and a conventional PC running the Java software under Windows 95 with one of its customers, the Lincolnshire Police Authority.
Carlin believes this is one of the major advantages of the Java approach in that the same software can run on a whole range of different platforms.
'The other key element,' says Carlin, 'is the way the security side of Java works. You can authorise different users to have different capabilities in the application. It solves quite a complex problem.'
One of the aims of the pilot study has been to form some idea of the likely long-term running costs, including time spent maintaining the hardware and software. According to Carlin, 'early indications show we can save 50 to 60 per cent of the lifetime costs of the whole thing. But we've yet to fully document and validate that'.
However, BT is likely to go ahead with deploying Java-capable NCs next year. The clincher, according to Carlin, is customer response. 'The customers are absolutely delighted with it,' he says.
Subject: Norwich Union
Activities: insurance company
Installation: evaluating IBM NCs
It is early days for the NC, and many companies are still evaluating it. One company testing the water is insurance specialist Norwich Union.
According to Kevin Goodings, group Internet principal consultant, the company is actively looking for a suitable Java project. Ideally, this should be relatively self-contained, but something that yields a real business benefit. Goodings is aware of the BT project and thinks it is a useful model.
One of the attractions of NCs is that they promise lower equipment costs and greater centralised control. But if the application involves selling insurance policies, any pilot scheme would have to investigate closely the issue of security.
Norwich Union is also interested in finding out whether Citrix-style ICA technology can simplify support of the company's 15,000 PC users.
Most of them are still using Windows 3.1 or 3.11, so it is likely that some spending would be necessary anyway to provide the capability to run modern 32-bit applications.
Upgrading is proving a very tedious task, with numerous site visits to install new software. Extra memory has also been necessary because users are scattered across the country.
One of the major advantages of the ICA approach is that it should greatly reduce the number of site visits. After a single trip to install the ICA client software on each machine, any subsequent software or memory upgrades could take place at the server end.
With ICA client software installed, existing machines should be able to run 32-bit Windows applications. It should also be possible to introduce thinner NC clients alongside, running the same software.
Network Computer lessons:
1 Work out exactly what you hope to gain from NCs, and which of the two main software approaches would be most appropriate. This will determine the skills you will need, and narrow down your choice of NC hardware supplier
2 If you want to run Windows software on NCs, your best bet is the ICA route. You will need to use Citrix Winframe software or something similar, such as Insignia NTrigue, on the server
3 If you want to use Java, most probably to get at data held in legacy systems, you have a wider choice of NC partner. Sun is, of course, the pre-eminent source of Java expertise. But Oracle is making a major play on the software side, and IBM is again extremely active.
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