All the Things You Need in the Palm of Your Hand

Let's face it. Most consulting engineers spend more time out of the office than in, especially during so-called "normal business hours," where communication with clients and associates is essential. With job meetings, site visits and business functions, it's rare to see engineers in their offices. For this reason, communication can be a challenging part of performing services for clients.

By Tomas Hernandez, Jr., Principal, DBC Technologies, Inc., New York October 1, 2003

Let’s face it. Most consulting engineers spend more time out of the office than in, especially during so-called “normal business hours,” where communication with clients and associates is essential.

With job meetings, site visits and business functions, it’s rare to see engineers in their offices. For this reason, communication can be a challenging part of performing services for clients. In fact, many engineers have found it necessary to create a portable office, which for many travelling professionals has become the office.

The cell phone is, of course, the device that has had the greatest impact. Most professionals now have their cell numbers on their business cards and use them in the normal course of a business day. E-mail has gotten that way as well. Many corporate clients use e-mail as a normal method of remote communication and expect their consultants to be in touch daily—in many cases, hourly.

All of this has led to the growing popularity of hand-held devices that incorporate multiple functions, including cell phone, personal digital assistant capabilities such as e-mail and calendaring, and even cameras.

There are a number of devices available, and each approaches design and functionality in different ways. One new offering from Research in Motion, headquartered in Waterloo, Ontario, is a hand-held device with crisp 64K color display and powerful 900-, 1,800-, and 1,900-MHz tri-band GSM/GPRS coverage for international use, including North America and Europe. One of the firm’s hand-held models includes a fully functioning wireless phone, Internet browser, enterprise and personal e-mail, and two-way SMS-based text messaging. It also offers simple contact, task and scheduling tools that do a fair job.

This 4.8-oz., 4.4-in. x 2.9-in. x 0.8-in. unit comes with a USB syncing cable, travel charger, desktop stand, swivel holster, and headset. The rechargeable battery is rated for up to 4 hrs. of talk time and 10 days standby. The display and the QWERTY keyboard are backlit to help out in poor lighting conditions.

Like earlier RIM products, this new model 7230 uses a combination jog dial and back button for interface navigation instead of the stylist pen seen on Palm and Pocket PC devices. This is a significant feature. One-handed navigation is possible with this device.

These devices use the BlackBerry Enterprise Server client for e-mail from Outlook Exchange or Lotus Domino systems and for Internet mail, with up to 10 Internet e-mail accounts. In other words, both office and personal e-mails can be sent and received from the same device.

The company’s representatives—and a number of its corporate customers I talked to—reported 100% integrated and synched e-mail and calendaring that is always on and always up-to-date. The device is awkward as a phone, but it’s an excellent choice where e-mail is the critical application for the enterprise.

A different approach to hand-held products comes from Motorola, headquartered in Schaumburg, Ill. Instead of starting with a PDA and making it into a phone, the firm developed a phone-sized device and added the functionality of a PDA. It’s based on Microsoft’s Windows Mobile for Smartphone. The tri-band GSM 900/1,800/1,900 MHz clamshell MPx200 is powered by a 200 MHz processor and has a base 32 MB of RAM. Featuring both an internal, 16-bit transflective TFT color display and an external, monochrome Caller ID display, it also comes equipped with a non-SDIO capable SD/MMC Card expansion slot and a 2.5-mm earphone jack.

Moreover, it comes with many pre-installed applications, including PDA, Pocket Internet Explorer, MSN Messenger and Windows Media Player. An additional attachable camera will enable users to send MMS messages with pictures.

Accessories include a 16 MB SD Card with several applications, a desktop cradle for synchronization purposes, a USB synchronization/charger combo cable and a set of stereo headphones. It also offers standby and talk times listed at up to 112 hours and up to 270 minutes. As a phone, it’s a great size and shape, but as a PDA the screen is small, though readable. Full-blown applications, however, would be difficult to run with such a small screen.

For a Palm-based device, my hands-down favorite is the upcoming Treo 600 from Handspring, Mountain View, Calif. The company has made major inroads with its line of handhelds and is slowly headed in the same direction with its smartphones. At the CeBIT trade show in New York last spring, Handspring showed off a new phone that offers many improvements, with a built-in camera and a brighter screen. It also moves away from the flip-up cover to a single piece device.

This device uses a combination of four-way navigation button—standard on many cell phones—and home and menu buttons at the bottom of the phone for navigating through the applications, along with a full keypad. A single button lets the user both snap pictures, with a basic built-in 640-by-480 digital camera, and transmit the shots via MMS. You can even take and send pictures in an instant or connect a face to a phone number with picture caller ID.

The unit also functions as a text messaging unit and mobile e-mail device. The wireless e-mail system will work like the Blackberry’s, where messages are pushed to the device as they arrive at the mail server. The Treo 600’s e-mail system will work with many vendors, including Blackberry, with a simple e-mail client as well as from other third party vendors.

Best of all, it runs the Palm Operating System, which means that it offers the use of hundreds of general purpose and construction specific applications.

The device works very well as a phone, with a speakerphone whose quality is good enough to play music. The 600 is bigger than a standard phone, measuring 4.4 in. x 2.26 inc. x 0.87 in. deep, and weighs around six ozs. The QWERTY keyboard is very functional, and the screen, while small for a PDA, is functional. In general it’s a nice compromise, with PDA, phone, Web-browsing, and e-mail.

All of these devices discussed above are compromises. Each device offers its own set of strengths and weaknesses in design and functionality. They are also second-generation devices that, over time, will continue to get better. There will always be some users who feel that a PDA, cell phone and cameras should continue to be separate devices. Others will embrace these innovations. A firm’s goals and needs are what determine the best solution.

Multi-Office Networking Grows in Popularity

It’s more common than ever for multi-office A/E firms to connect branch offices to the headquarters office via a wide-area network (WAN) or virtual private network (VPN), according to a survey from Natick, Mass.-based ZweigWhite.

The firm’s 2003 Multi-Office Firm Survey of A/E/P & ENVIRONMENTAL CONSULTING FIRMS shows 81% of multi-office firms link offices via a WAN—the highest percentage ever reported in the 11-year history of the report. Further, 40% of firms connect offices via a VPN, up from 28% in 2000.

David Lacy, an associate with ZweigWhite and leader of the firm’s AEC System Solutions group, said that in today’s world, it has become a necessity for branch offices to have high-speed connections to the home office. “Any firm that does not allow for this kind of access operates less efficiently and is at a competitive disadvantage,” Lacy said. “I would advise firms to look closely at their competition because most firms today gain efficiency and productivity through high-speed access to their central database.”

Additional survey data show that among firms with a WAN, the vast majority (83%) make it mandatory for all offices to join the network. The remainder either make it mandatory once the office reaches a certain size or leave it up to the individual office to decide.

When it comes to the advantages of having offices connected via a WAN or VPN, the vast majority of firms report that it improves communication and facilitates file sharing among offices. Other reasons to connect offices include for e-mail, electronic timesheets, and intranet access.