Government Zest for Mobile Computing Grows
Government Zest for Mobile Computing Grows<@VM>Levels of Mobility<@VM>Uncertainties Abound<@VM>Growing Government Appeal
? By John Makulowich
With snow on the ground and the wind chill factor below zero in much of the United States this time of year, mobile computing is sounding like a very good idea.
Who would not want to work from some remote, sun-drenched location ? the places you see pictured on travel posters ? talking with colleagues by videoconference over the Internet? Or even inside your own cozy home, tapping out memos or writing code on your government-supplied laptop?
This fantasy, shared by many technically savvy knowledge workers in and outside government, raises a host of sensitive issues that managers and senior executives are going to face more in the years to come.
One of the early adopters of telecommuting, back in 1992, was none other than IBM Corp. Among major companies, it probably has one of the most mobile work forces in the world. Now it is using the lessons it learned over the years to guide clients seeking to follow that winding and unsure path.
For the unsuspecting executive seeking to go mobile, Debbie Dell takes a multilevel approach. The national competency manager of mobile and wireless services for IBM Global Services, operating from Boca Raton, Fla., divides her business world into companies that IBM helps from day one and those where a fix is required.
"In either case, the customer comes to us with the view that mobility is a way of re-engineering their business. Our first step as consultants is to focus on the key question: What is your purpose in going mobile? From a business standpoint, what exactly are your trying to accomplish?" Dell said.
Asked to define the term, Dell said mobility is more than the remote office. It amounts to nothing less than the ability to work or achieve productivity anyplace, anywhere, any time. That includes the programmer, the sales person, the worker in field service, the professional and even Dell herself, working from home in market development.
She said a company starting from ground zero is easier to work with than one trying to repair a bungled mobility effort. One reason is that mobile computing is part of a total solution that includes e-commerce and e-business ? not just a task to be attached to the organization with the management equivalent of duct tape.
It is not surprising that many companies are coming to Dell now after seeing some of the gains, both in revenue and stock price, made during the holiday season by firms like Amazon.com. It serves as the paradigm e-business and e-commerce company with books and CDs for sale online and with its one-click ordering.
But there is another dimension to mobile computing, one that raises a number of questions that beg clear answers. For example, one side of re-engineering to accommodate e-commerce, an increasing demand of the mobile work force, is dealing with the magnitude of tracking customers and shipments and of deploying hardware to support that effort.
"Many of the questions raised about mobile computing depend on the level of mobility," Dell said. "There is desktop to laptop, where you give staff the ability to work in different places and occasionally at home. However, if you deploy many of your workers to their homes, that has technical, personnel and legal impacts.
"Whatever the level, though, there is no question that we are going to continue to see an increase in telecommuting," Dell said.
A major lesson IBM learned over the years, according to Dell, is that the mobility concept drives many other changes. Among the questions that executives are asking Dell, No. 1 centers on human resources, on the need to develop policies that address such issues as compensation, work hours and availability.
"That issue may finally come down to determining where the break or boundary is between work and home," Dell said.
"A second concern of executives is technical standards, of what technology solution to commit to, what testing has been done and where the product stands in rollout," she said. "Everyone wants to avoid the solution that does a disappearing act in 12 or 18 months.
"The third big concern is financial [return on investment] and the total cost of ownership," said Dell.
Lior Haramaty is one executive who knows the importance of product development and staying power as well as technical standards. He is co-founder of VocalTec Communications Ltd., in Herzliya, Israel, and vice president of technical marketing.
In February 1995, his company was the first to introduce a consumer product for IP telephony, Internet Phone, allowing the mobile user to place calls over the packet-switching network of the Internet.
That product, now in version Internet Phone 5, evolved from efforts that stretch back to 1988 with a voice over networks prototype, moving from local-area network through wide-area network to IP.
The company's product line lets users send audio, video, data, text and collaborative communications between personal computers and other devices over IP networks like the Internet and intranets.
"At first, the phone companies saw our Internet Phone as a toy," Haramaty said. "Later they viewed it as a threat. Now they see it as an opportunity. The current buzzword shows how far we have come: Voice is the data. Why try and transfer data over voice lines when you can transfer naturally over data networks?"
In mid-December, VocalTec announced that six companies, along with ITXC Corp. and Lucent Technologies, will support the iNOW! (interoperability NOW!) Profile set to be published this month. iNOW! is a standards-based, multivendor effort that will ease interoperability among IP telephony platforms.
The six companies include major industry stakeholders, such as Cisco Systems Inc., Ascend, Clarent, Dialogic, Natural MicroSystems and Siemens.
All of these firms will work with the iNOW! Profile to make their gateways and gatekeepers interoperate with each other's products and with those from Lucent and VocalTec.
The benefit of the initiative is that carriers and callers will no longer be limited to where they can call.
In the past, calls had to end on the same platform from which they began, and Internet telephony service providers (ITSP) were forced to choose between relying on a single vendor or operating several networks of incompatible gateways.
Haramaty said no one is quite sure what kind of IP telephony products are needed in the marketplace. His company targets users who simply need a lower cost phone call. And he stresses such users should have no technical expertise.
"This is a very important point. We are trying to make sure the market is growing, with all phones talking to one another," Haramaty said. "If there is no competition, there is no market. We have a lot of minutes flowing over the IP networks used by technical people. Our goal was to create a carrier class Internet telephone infrastructure, and our VocalTec Ensemble Architecture is exactly that. It allows voice and facsimile over IP networks."
Like IBM when it pioneered the concept of telecommuting, Haramaty has no problem being ahead of the market. His corporate philosophy is to put products out there; if standards are not defined well enough, so be it.
"Our approach is: Let us take what we have today and ship products," Haramaty said. "We cannot wait for the refinement in standards. We need working products in the market; we need to get products interoperable now."
The degree to which IP telephony along with telecommunications and computing are converging to give greater depth to mobile computing in the government arena can be seen in two special cases: one involving law enforcement in Maryland, and the other with banking examiners across the country.
Sgt. Jeff Pauley, a supervisor in the management and technology services branch of the Maryland-National Capital Park Police, Montgomery County division, is part of a law enforcement operation with 87 sworn officers and a civilian staff of 20. Their responsibility is to protect 9 million annual visitors to the region and 29,000 acres of trails, streams, playgrounds, lakes and parks that they visit. This is done using patrol cars, motorcycles, horses, bikes and boats.
In this age of mobile computing, with their limited resources they are exploring the outer ledge of technology, experimenting with voice input reporting, digital photo cataloging for evidence, a computerized records management system and a specialized mobile laptop.
What difference is mobile computing making in the way they do their jobs? According to Pauley, before the mobile laptops that officers now carry in patrol cars, they could investigate about 11 license plates in an hour, on a good day, by phoning the dispatcher and inquiring about a particular plate. The dispatcher would call up the information in his database and report back his findings. Now, with direct access to the database from their own mobile laptops, officers can check 88 plates an hour.
Using the Cellular Digital Packet Data method, one developed by IBM and McCaw Cellular Communications Inc., to carry data better on analog cellular radio systems, the Park Police now use their mobile laptops to make arrest warrants as well as file driving status inquiries, send messages to other officers, receive calls for service information and notify the dispatchers when they are available for calls.
The division also is testing a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system and citation generator, which officers use to produce parking and other civil citations.
Most of the projects are paid for by three federal grants that originated from President Clinton's initiative to put 100,000 police on the street and make officers more efficient and effective.
"We tried to create a virtual office in the patrol car," Pauley said. "We focused on problem-oriented policing, that is, to get to the root cause of a problem and solve it. For that to work, it is important to keep officers in the field and reduce the time they spend at headquarters filing reports. With laptops, they can take the office to the victim and collect data on the spot."
The next challenge, according to Pauley, is to find mobile computing devices that meet the needs of special operations, such as officers who patrol by bicycle, motorcycle, boat and horse.
The issues in this case are weight, portability and weatherproofing for the equipment.
At another point on the spectrum of the mobile computing horizon is the work done by the Treasury Department's Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. This division ensures that national banks toe the mark for sound management and legal compliance.
In what began with a three-phase pilot program in late 1996 and early 1997 and will roll out nationally in the second quarter of 1999, the OCC is using mobile computing to help bank examiners make sure banks satisfy industry laws and regulations.
The OCC requires that all of the nearly 3,000 nationally chartered banks undergo examination every 12 to 18 months. With 2,500 examiners at 80 sites in 50 states who travel year round, OCC did away with the cumbersome need for examiners to connect to a mainframe at each location by developing a software application called Examiner View.
The product takes advantage of database replication and mobile computing technologies to let the examiners more easily access data and forms remotely without having to re-enter them.
While the OCC originally planned its national rollout for the first quarter, the year 2000 issue has pushed the date back, according to Daniel Berkland, Examiner View program manager.
"Part of our challenge is that we have a customer base that is very used to the old system. They detest it, but they are used to it. Our training covers how you do examinations with the new system," Berkland said. "Just going through the software and showing off features is not interesting for users who do not have a lot of time. Their focus is: What do I have to do to make this system work?"
John Wahl, special project manager reporting to the chief information officer, adds that the rollout plan is to use examiners as trainers to teach their colleagues the system, with sessions likely to last two days and stress hands-on assistance.
"Mobile computing was a large, conceptual issue for examiners used to a 3270-type mainframe application. Now the database is on the laptop," said Wahl. "Replication was also new to them. Under the new system, we collect data as they do their work."
Wahl said one surprise during the pilot testing was the examiners "did not just stone us and throw us out." While he hoped he had a good product, he was encouraged that the examiners wanted them to go on and implement it.
Is there much interest from colleagues and others in the banking industry? No question. Berkland and Wahl have seen representatives from the Office of Thrift Supervision, who manage savings and loans, the Federal Reserve and the FDIC. There has even been some interest from the international regulatory community, specifically people in the Netherlands, Belgium and Japan.
Overall, the benefit for OCC is productivity and efficiency, with better use of examiner resources.
On the technical side, there will be more and better data to do systematic analysis and a more sophisticated procedure to update through replication.