Handheld Database Application Provides Mobile Clipboard for Service Technicians
By Frank Yacano, Director of Business Development, SYWARE, Inc. (www.syware.com)
Handheld PCs have emerged as a valuable tool for mobile data collection and productivity. However, lengthy development cycles have prevented many ideas for applications from reaching fruition. Potential entrepreneurs are frequently not professional programmers, but specialists in a particular field who recognize an opportunity and would like to take advantage of it. Fortunately software tools are available that enable even non-programmers to develop extremely useful handheld applications - and make a good income as a result.
A good example can be seen in Technician Assistant, a call tracking application for use by system administrators, PC technicians, and other technical support personnel. Running on Windows CE and Pocket PC handhelds, the application provides a convenient and efficient way to capture and organize information related to service calls. Users include IT support staff as well as independent consultants.
Technician Assistant was created by Jeff Swope, founder and president of InterPlant Software (interplant.wdnetwork.com). With an extensive background as a system administrator, Swope knew that most field technicians had no effective method for keeping track of their service activities, typically relying on scribbled notes in a binder notebook or on yellow "stickies." This was not the most ideal way to keep track of a service history, and would lead to problems and confusion when troubleshooting a device six months down the road.
Rapid Development Environment
"The rapid development ability got my attention," he explains. "I'm operating with just a few other people, and we need to be able to do things quickly. Starting from scratch is counterproductive - with Visual CE much of the work was already done." Swope created Technician Assistant in less than one month. Without Visual CE, he estimates that it would have taken 6 months to a year to build the application from the ground up.
Visual CE's drag & drop interface also enables Swope to quickly customize the application for major clients. For example, a company from New Zealand requested a custom package for their technicians who support computerized machines that generate tickets in parking garages. Site names, equipment classifications, and all other types of information were customized for equipment found in New Zealand parking garages.
"Visual CE will save you time and resources," Swope adds. "Other small companies that recognize a market opportunity for handheld applications can benefit from a tool like this. It will get you up and running very quickly on whatever development project you have in mind."
Drop-down lists and windows that open within a screen allow users to easily record and access detailed information, even from a palm-sized form. The drop-down lists allow the technician to select pre-defined vendor names, operating systems, and other information about the devices they are likely to encounter. For example, to specify a PC manufacturer, a window opens to list major suppliers including Compaq, Dell, Gateway, IBM, and Everex. A similar window lists major operating systems. If the desired name is not found, the technician can simply add it to the list.
Time billing is another useful feature. When a consultant goes on a call, he can tap a time stamp button with his stylus to start the clock, then tap the button again when he's done to stop the clock. The hourly rate is entered in advance, so at the end of the call, the application calculates exactly what the customer owes.
The data collection capabilities pay off during troubleshooting. If the technician gets a call on the same piece of equipment six months later, he can search on the serial number or other criteria and get a history of service calls and work performed. This ability to review the history of service activity on a piece of equipment or software saves time, eliminates guesswork, and improves efficiency.
A version geared to network administrators provides the ability to record and track details about network equipment such as routers, switches, hubs, and bridges. All popular elements for each network device are pre-defined in drop-down menus. For example, the router menu lists Cisco, 3-Com, and Lucent, among others. In addition, technicians can use the application to dynamically generate IP addresses from a database of available addresses, rather than run the risk of assigning duplicate or incorrect addresses.
Like all Visual CE applications, Technician Assistant can interact with any ODBC compliant database such as Oracle, SQL, or Microsoft Access, allowing easy integration with back end systems. For example, integration with a company's service help desk could provide a collaborative solution for use by all field technicians. Predefined error conditions such as "System Disk Error" or "Won't Power Up" that are reported to the help desk could be uploaded to the handheld along with client contact information. After the technician completes his work, service records and field notes could then be transferred back to the Help Desk system. If another technician makes a repeat visit, he can upload a complete record of all prior service activity.
Wireless, Interactive Server Access
In a service environment, SYWARE's mEnable wireless technology creates new opportunities for dramatically improved efficiency. For example, work orders can be issued automatically at the moment that the help desk logs the call. Service information captured on the handheld can be uploaded back to the server in real time - a particularly useful feature when parts are needed in a hurry.
Visual CE with mEnable provides drag & drop ease of use that allows entrepreneurs like Swope to easily extend their handheld applications with wireless functionality. The software uses the TCP/IP protocol to communicate over LAN, WAN, or Internet connections through standard wireless network adapter cards that install into the handheld unit.
Universal Data Collection Tool
Swope is currently exploring opportunities where Visual CE can be used to build applications that consolidate information in many different areas, including healthcare, inventory management, auto sales, and real estate - "anywhere people keep notes in ten different places, and then misplace them."
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