For the occasionally connected company, there is the image of a personal, purse-sized device for the salesperson intent on checking e-mail and rearranging an appointment to accommodate a client. At the extreme is a vision of the ubiquitous, wearable computer, an array of microprocessors hidden in a multitude of mundane objects, from baseball caps to name tags to eyeglasses to rings.
Welcome to the age of the ever-present computer, the next best thing to anywhere, anytime connectivity.
In a nation where organizations seem obsessed with ever greater bandwidth and continuous access and availability - not to mention greater efficiency, effectiveness and productivity in reaching global markets - 7 by 24 takes on a whole new meaning.
Among those flexing their muscles in the mobile computing market is Lotus, long at the forefront of this IT segment. The company comes at you with a complete suite of products, from Lotus Notes and Notes Mail to Domino, Domino Mail and Weblicator.
For the mobile user whose mental model is information managers, Notes serves as a groupware and e-mail client, replete with calendar, group scheduling and access to intranet applications. Alongside is Notes Mail, the messaging client that connects to Domino and other open platform servers.
On the back end are Domino and Domino Mail, the server side of mobile computing, which offer access to e-mail stored in Notes from any World Wide Web browser as well as messaging services from remote sites such as airport kiosks. It is, in essence, your basic anywhere, anytime model.
The last arc in the circle is the so-called Weblicator, which lets you work with data from the Web while off-line. Like similar products, this tool lets you copy Web pages or parts of them to your hard drive.
Among the worldwide users who are connecting increasing groups of staff with the Lotus products is Tom Hillstrom, director of communications technology in the Florida attorney general's office in Tallahassee, Fla. (legal.firn.edu). He is responsible for supporting mobile and remote users with time-critical information. That amounts to about 400 attorneys and 100 investigators out of nearly 1,000 workers scattered in 11 offices in north, central and south Florida.
"The push really came from Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who determined that it was critical to connect lawyers and investigators in the field to our office and our internal networks," says Hillstrom.
He notes that attorneys spend a great deal of time outside the office, either in court or on the road, doing chores such as obtaining depositions. The same goes for investigators. To give them professional support, the attorney general's office supplied attorneys and investigators with laptops, installed state-of-the-art digital resources for legal research and moved its operations into a Lotus Notes work-flow model.
"The systems we installed have improved depth, timeliness and accuracy as well as productivity - key elements that we would lose if people on the road were cut off. Now users can do legal research and participate in the work flow, whether to approve vacation time for a legal secretary or to key in information in the case tracking system," says Hillstrom.
On the horizon are personal information managers, like the PalmPilot series by 3Com Corp., Santa Clara, Calif. These will allow attorneys two-way connections through e-mail systems, an access mode that could help during trials when support staff need to relay last-minute citations about witnesses, for example.
More extranets, or Internet-based controlled access networks, also are in the works, with two in progress. One connects with 50 other agencies within Florida and contains such data as letters to lawyers, court actions that affect Florida, legal opinions that affect the government and a case tracking system where the attorney general is representing a specific agency. The other extranet, hosted by the Florida attorney general, shares case-related information among the 20 states involved in antitrust litigation with Microsoft.
"The extranets are not so much for case management as for knowledge management. For instance, we have a number of Notes templates coded for emergency or semi-emergency situations, such as hurricanes. We are also responsible for monitoring price gouging during crises," says Hillstrom.
The extranets can even serve as an input database, he says. He used Florida's case against American Family Publishers as an example. The attorney general's office Feb. 2 charged American Family Publishers and its celebrity spokesmen, Ed McMahon and Dick Clark, with deceiving consumers in order to sell magazine subscriptions. A news release from the attorney general's office stated a civil complaint filed in Hillsborough County Circuit Court sought penalties of up to $15,000 per violation of the state's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. It also sought a ban on various tactics used by the company to foster consumer responses to its solicitations.
Another point on the mobile computing spectrum is the work of Noblestar Systems Corp. in Falls Church, Va. The $50 million, 400-person firm specializes in cutting-edge application and enterprise software development. It works closely with a number of government agencies on mobile solutions for troop deployment and equipment inspection.
Their latest is Scout TMS, a software framework development that lets a person use a PalmPilot or IBM WorkPad to share real-time data via modem (scout.noblestar.com). Within minutes you can access data stored in Lotus Notes, Microsoft Exchange and other back-end systems.
According to Dave Rensin, manager of the Mobile Computing Group at Noblestar, among the company's target markets is the occasionally connected enterprise, which includes an international lending institution and parts of the Department of Defense.
"A typical customer for us would be a governmental unit or company that owns PalmPilots or IBM WorkPads and wants access to data such as budget numbers or sales figures. We write the code that allows them to do that, basically architecting a mobile solution," says Rensin.
When asked why the mobile computing space had not taken off sooner, Rensin points to numerous "really bad false starts." It was not until the advent of the PalmPilot that the industry got it right.
With over 2 million units in circulation and more than 3,500 registered PalmPilot solutions providers, programs and add-ons are in abundance. Rensin highlights two especially interesting developments, one an add-on to the PalmPilot and the other an innovation that exploits wearable computing.
The first comes from Symbol Technologies Inc. in Holtsville, N.Y. (www.symbol.com), a company that defines its space as point-of-activity data management systems and which pioneered a wearable, hands-free bar-code scanner way back in 1992.
Its new product amounts to a bar-code scanner that sits atop the Palm III, the next generation PalmPilot. For Rensin, there's an enormous application, for example, in government warehouses for inventory and database updating.
The other development, the iButton, comes from Dallas Semiconductor Corp. in Texas. Worn as a ring, among other shapes, and made of steel, the iButton carries information on a 16mm chip you can transfer to a computer via cable connected to a parallel or serial port. According to the company, information is transferred between the iButton and host with a momentary contact at up to 142 kilobytes per second.
Some of its applications include adding computer memory to store digitized photos and tracking the number of hours a system is on for maintenance and warranty. The ring can also carry a temperature sensor to monitor spoilage, or a transaction counter to use as a small change purse.
At this stage of technology, the ultimate mobile computing application is the fully wearable computer, produced by such companies as Xybernaut Corp. of Fairfax, Va., with its Mobile Assistant II, and ViA Inc. of Northfield, Minn., featuring its ViA II flexible PC worn around the waist.