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Frequently Asked Questions Answered

If you want to comment on any of the answers, please send us an e-mail.

Q1 -What are the attributes of a "mobile-worthy" application?
Certain business applications are more suitable for mobile computing implementation than others. We use the term mobile-worthy to describe any application that has characteristics which make it particularly suitable for use with remote mobile computers connected to central information resources. These characteristics are:

  • A significant percentage of work is performed away from a fixed place of work e.g. users are moving around a campus, metropolitan area, region or country - thus spend a lot of time away from the home office.
  • Remote users are not permanently connected to an organization’s information servers.
  • The application requires a small, portable and light-weight carry-on computer device (sometimes mounted in a user’s vehicle, van, truck or loading unit).
  • There is a significant economic value, public safety consideration or mission-critical nature in the information captured in the field or made available while the user is away from the office: extra travel is eliminated, selling cycles are reduced, patients’ lives are saved, information is keyed correctly at source (thereby making for shorter billing cycles), etc.
  • Only minimal amounts of data from a central information server need be accessed at the mobile site - unlike the web applications.  Please note that with current speed and cost of wireless networks, web-browsing is not an economical or even a convenient application and can not be called mobile-worthy, according to our definition.
  • Some form of wireless or wireline connection is required either constantly (as in public safety applications) or on-demand.

Q2- I am in healthcare (or public safety, utility, field service, etc) industry.   Where can I meet peers in my industry and find information about successful applications in my industry?
There are a number of places where you can get this type of  information.  Mobile Computing - A Systems Integration Handbook" published by McGraw-Hill is one such reference (see chapter two).  We suggest that you should pursue  the following sources:

  1. Click on "Turn-key Solution Provider" button on our home page.  These solution providers are good sources of industry-specific solutions and customer profiles.
  2. Bell South, GTE, and IBM web sites provide customer profiles of successful installations.
  3. Vertical industry specific conferences, such as Mobile & PDA Expo in Health Care, Utilities, Public Safety.  You meet your peers in your industry who have gone through the process already.

Q3 - I have an application on my LAN or on my mainframe.  Why can't I port it to a wireless WAN?
You CAN use (and port) a wireline LAN (Ethernet, for example) application on a wireless LAN without any change.  Of course,  the speed of current suite (with a few exceptions like RadioLAN) of wireless LANs is about 2 Mbps.  So you should not have as many users on a wireless LAN as you would on a regular 10 Mbps or 100 Mbps LAN.

LAN applications can be provided to remote users through remote access techniques, such as remote control through dial-up, frame-relay and VPNs without any change.

While LAN database applications send enormous amount on the LAN, legacy mainframe applications are typically designed to send smaller amounts of data.  These legacy applications are not as bad on wireless wide area networks as LAN applications.

There are a number of reasons why it is not a good idea to port a LAN application on to a wireless wide area network.  The most important factor is the speed and cost of wireless wide area networks.  Secondly TCP/IP is particularly inefficient protocol for wireless networks. So you should consider some kind of middleware approach - like Nettech's InstantRF or Smart IP.  With this approach, you need not change the application.

Therefore, you should consider these factors while porting or making these applications on a mobile network - whether it is a wireless LAN, PSTN, or a wireless WAN.

Q4- How can I build a business case for my mobile project?
Please refer to chapter four of "Mobile Computing - A Systems Integrator's Handbook".  You should also click on "Mobile Computing Justification" button on our home page.  You will get specific ideas of cost savings in your industry.

You should review the business processes now and after implementing mobile computing solution. Estimate productivity improvements, workforce reduction, increased deliveries, fewer trips, additional service calls per service representative per shift and finally superior customer service and competitive advantage that this may give you.  We are living in a fast-moving business environment.

Q5 - What type of ROI or payback period should I expect in my mobile computing project?
Several research companies, such as Gartner, Giga and others, have quoted payback period of two to three years for most "mobile-worthy" applications.  In utility industry, it is 2.5 to three years.  In field service, it is about three years.  But ROI/payback period based on tangible benefits gives you a part of the story.  DO NOT ignore customer service, increased market share and competitive advantage benefits that are hard to quantify.

Q6 - Should we base our mobile solution on existing business processes or should we try to change the business processes as we build a mobile solution.
We strongly recommend inclusion of business process reengineering (BPR) as part of the mobile solution.  Business processes will and must change with this technology. 

Having said that, we are not suggesting that BPR must be implemented in phase one of the project because change should be controlled and gradual - based on the sophistication of the endusers.  Training is one of the most important parts of a mobile project - yet is not given enough attention.

Q7- Will BPR (Business Process Reengineering) make my project complex and should I avoid it?
BPR will make your project more complex because it takes a lot of time to redesign new processes and a number of cross-functional issues come up.  But you should not avoid it.  Of course, it should be staged properly.   Also, BPR  gives you an opportunity to get your users involved in process redesign - this fosters buy-in into new way of doing work.

Q8 - Please explain to me how a mobile solution using a wireless network works.   Explain the components.
A mobile computing solution is based on the following components:

Hardware:

  1. An end-user computer device - a notebook, a handheld computer or a PDA
  2. Client application that represents user interface and dialogue with the user.  This application also contains data validation rules and certain amount of business logic.  This application may be based on a modern browser or traditional windows95/2000 interface..
  3. A wireless or switched wireline network which transports the data between this remote device and information server on a LAN or legacy mainframe.  In case of the Internet-based solution, you have ISP's specialized router with wireless network support or a shared MCSS in front of ISP's router.
  4. A Mobile Communications Server Switch (MCSS) or a Remote Access Server (RAS)
  5. An web-server, an application server on the LAN
  6. A traditional or Internet gateway to the legacy application super-server e.g.  a mainframe
  7. Other Database servers that provide the most current information about products, prices, inventory, order status, account balances, etc.

Software:

Similarly, the following software components are involved in a mobile computing system:

  1. Client operating software - this may be browser-based or device OS-based e.g. Windows 95/2000, PalmOS, Windows CE, etc.
  2. An application user interface that determines dialogue to get a business function accomplished
  3. Application logic and business rules - these may reside in the enduser device (PC) or in the web server (thin client approach)
  4. MCSS software - provides functions such as wireline and/or wireless network interface, process multi-threading, fault-tolerance, protocol conversion, transport processing, etc.
  5. Wireless middleware that typically resides in MCSS
  6. Web server operating and systems software - typically purchased from vendors, such as Netscape, Microsoft. IBM, Oracle, etc.
  7. Business application processing software - purchased as a package or custom-designed for the organization

In a hardware-software system like this, browser and user interface portion of the client application interacts with the human user. When required, the data entered or collected in the field, is transmitted over the wireless network to an RF network base station. This base station is typically connected through a wireline connection to a communications controller (typically provided by a RF network vendor, such as Motorola or Ericsson). The modern controllers support TCP/IP - the older ones had proprietary RF protocols.

While client and server applications written by a customer may write to TCP/IP transport protocol, there may be (and should be) a wireless middleware that interfaces with multiple radio networks and optimizes transport over expensive RF bandwidth.

Once the data is delivered to a server, it traverses its path just like any other application.

Q9 - How do I select the most appropriate mobile device for my application?
You should take into account the following considerations in selecting the most appropriate device for an application:

  1. Analyze the suite of applications that you are going to use on the device.  Since no single device may satisfy the needs of all applications, emphasize the core applications - the ones most often used by the enduser - "some pain for most gain is not such a bad idea "- Editor..
  2. Determine what kind of data input interface should the application have - keyboard, pen, touch or now voice.
  3. Determine how big a screen does the application require.   Sometimes, you can break the data in smaller bites.
  4. If it is going to be used outdoors, appearance of the screen in sunlight is an important factor to consider.
  5. Find out how the business application will be used most often i.e. for majority of the time - in the car, in a customer's home, office, or while walking about.
  6. If you must carry it in your pocket (big or small), consider a PDA or Palm Pilot or a Windows CE-compatible organizer.
  7. Determine whether it is going to be exposed to rough and tough environment - do you need an ordinary, semi-rugged or highly ruggedized environment. Remember the latter variety are expensive  and more expensive to repair and replace -   sometimes you can buy an ordinary notebook, replace it every two to three years and still come out ahead economically.
  8. Size and weight requirements are important too.
  9. Debate between a notebook, pen computer, hand-held computer and a PDA is a tough one. If the application is routine and repetitive, do not give the user a general purpose mobile device - for example, notebook to a Fedex driver is not appropriate.
  10. Finally, let the users make the final selection - with some guidance from you - the  mobile computing experts, of course. They are the ones who are going to live and breathe with it.

Q10 - Must I use a rugged computer for outside use e.g. in a car?
This depends on a number of factors - your application, who owns the machine - the user or the company, how much it is used outside the office, how harsh the outside environment (weather, rain, snow, etc) is, how many people use the same machine, possibility of dropping it on the ground,  how much care do you expect your users to take of the machine, cost of the machine and more.  In some cases, employing a ruggedized computer is well worth the extra cost, especially for public safety, route accounting, factory floor applications and applications in the field.  Please remember the total cost of ownership is much more than the bare cost of the device.

However, not all outdoor situations not call for specialized and expensive mobile computers that have a long product cycle. If you have professional workers who may take good care of the device just as if it was their own, you may find it more economical to give them commodity brand of computers and replace them more frequently. This latter approach offers you maximum flexibility in buying from a larger vendor community at lower prices because of competition.

Final choice must be based on a number of other factors listed here as well as discussed in a previous question. The users must be involved in this selection process. 

Q11- Which input method should I use - keyboard, pen, touch or speech?
This is a tough question and there is no universal answer.   It depends on the application. On one end, keyboard has been the main method of input for long and many of us are kind of used to it.  Now we are used to keyboard and mouse combination. On the other end, speech is the most desirable and easiest human interface, if computers were smart enough. Speech-based input is getting better every day.   These are two primary methods of input - pen and touch are secondary or supplemental methods of input except for simple applications that may lend themselves to pen or touch.

Pen as a replacement of mouse is fine in mobile application but then we are perhaps talking about pen plus keyboard combination. Pen-only input is suitable only for those applications that are structured and limited menu choices.   Handwriting recognition is still not acceptable enough except for limited set of applications.

Touch is useful in certain outdoor applications with simple menu and dialogue and no descriptive data input is required.  Like pen, it could be a supplement to the keyboard.

So, what is the answer? We say, let the application needs and users' preference decide.

Q12 -  What is so unique about wireless networks that makes mobile computing complex?
The following factors make mobile computing systems integration more complex than traditional non-mobile application integration:

  1. Mobile workers have different needs on the road - they work differently, they are always in a hurry, they work in non-dedicated mode (flipping from one task to another), and they are on their own without too much help. Mobile users need only relevant filtered data and they may be dealing truly mission=-critical applications - fire, ambulance and public safety. Application design must reflect these mobile needs of the user.
  2. Lack of standards have caused too many interface problems. The industry has made a lot of progress made during the last three years.
  3. There are only a few mobile-aware application solutions in utility, public safety, field force dispatch and sales force automation.
  4. You can not simply port legacy or LAN applications on to mobile devices without change or agent software that insulates them from the traditional desktop interface.
  5. Wireless networks are slower, more unreliable and more expensive than wireline networks. You can not flood a wireless network with the data that travels on a LAN at 10 or 100 Mbps speed. Hence you need an optimizing transport middleware - not just compression.
  6. There are many different varieties of wireless networks - each with proprietary radio protocol.  There is no standards-based communications software (or MCSS) that deals with this. Some vendors (such as IBM) provide support multiple networks through their eBusiness wireless gateway.
  7. Wireless support of the Internet is still in very early stages of development. Current implementations of browsers is too rich for the comfort of wireless networks. You need rather frugal methods of using that scarce bandwidth.
  8. Application vendors do not understand peculiarities of radio networks and radio network service providers do not understand application development. You need specialized niche developers and systems integrators.
  9. Not too many cookie-cutter mobile solutions are available in the marketplace. Some progress has been made in a number of vertical industries.
  10. Y2K and Internet-based projects have far greater visibility and stake than mobile projects. Therefore, we shall have to suffer for another year.

For more detailed answer to this question, please refer to Chapter 19 of the Mobile Computing Handbook.

Q13 - Should I go wireless or just use remote network access by PSTN ?
True mobility can be achieved only with wireless networks which allow you to do your application anywhere and anytime. However, you can start with a PSTN or wireline solution but your target environment should be one based on wireless networks if you want highest productivity gains.

If your business process does not require real-time data access or input, you can switched wireline implementation only. This would be the case where construction crew in large projects sends in daily progress report only at the end of the day.

Q14- What are the benefits of using a wireless network.  What are the costs?
As we said in a previous question, only wireless network gives you true mobility and anytime, anywhere communication with the office or headquarters.  You can achieve maximum productivity gains with wireless networks.

On the cost side, we have rather expensive wireless network services, expensive wireless modems and application integration complexity.

Q15 - There are so many different wireless networks. How do I chose the best wireless network for my application?
Please click on "Selecting the Right Network" button on our home page.

Q16 - When should I implement wireless LAN for my application versus a wide area network?
If the mobile users roam around a campus area only most of the time, then you should implement a wireless LAN solution.  You do not need to change any of the applications.  It is just a question of doing a detailed site survey, setting up access points and fitting wireless LAN adapters in the notebooks.   Remember coverage of wireless LAN is in 200 to 800 feet range, though this can be increased by careful design.

You may need a metropolitan wireless solution ( a la Metricom's Richochet network or private radio network for public safety applications) if your workers go beyond  a building but still within a limited distance.

If your  workers visit all over the region or nation, then you need a true wireless WAN solution.  This solution requires a lot of application and systems integration work.

In reality you may need both a wireless LAN and wireless WAN for different users.

Q17 - How do I integrate wireless networks in my enterprise?
You can implement a specialized MCSS for your mobile users. This MCSS can be connected to application server on the enterprise LAN. You will need client-agent-architecture to deal with mobile users who may  interact with same set of business applications but expect an agent process to hide this difference.

Q18 - How much will it cost to go wireless?
You can expect to pay in the range of 20 to 50% of your regular per user infrastructure costs for wireless network usage. This is traditionally in 5 to 10% range for traditional applications.

As a rough rule of thumb, it is not uncommon to allocate $ 100 to $200 per month per user for wireless network usage costs.

Q19 - How does the Internet impact my mobile computing solution?
The Internet will impact mobile computing to a large extent in future.  Here are some possible scenarios:

  1. All remote users may use a subset of the standard web-based interface as current implementations of a custom mobile interface.
  2. Our dependence on the Internet e-mail is becoming so acute that we would be willing to pay for wireless support of these and a few other time-critical applications. This is especially true for high-priced professional staff.
  3. Once the cost of wireless network usage comes down and speed increases, then net-based thin client architecture is more suitable for mobile applications. Right now, it is the reverse because you tend to keep as much functionality on the client side.
  4. Wireless IP is gaining ground and more vendors are building support in their hardware and software - see Cisco-Motorola partnership in a billion dollar venture.

Q20 - When can I expect wireless networks to become faster?  Will they ever match the speed of wireline networks?
You will see regular improvements in the speed of wireless networks, especially on the wireless LAN side.  On the wireless WAN side, you will see significant increases in speed with third generation wireless networks but do not expect this to happen overnight.  Widespread availability of third generation broad-band PCS networks will take at least four to five years in our estimation.

Q21- Please explain to me the various pieces of software I shall need to implement my mobile applications?
The following software components are required in a mobile computing system:

  1. Client operating software - this may be browser-based or device OS-based e.g. Windows 95/2000, PalmOS, Windows CE, etc.
  2. An application user interface that determines dialogue to get a business function accomplished
  3. Application logic and business rules - these may reside in the enduser device (PC) or in the web server (thin client approach)
  4. MCSS software - provides functions such as wireline and/or wireless network interface, process multi-threading, fault-tolerance, protocol conversion, transport processing, etc.
  5. Wireless middleware that typically resides in MCSS
  6. Web server operating and systems software - typically purchased from vendors, such as Netscape, Microsoft. IBM, Oracle, etc.
  7. Business application processing software - purchased as a package or custom-designed for the organization

Q22 - Please explain the role of wireless middleware?
Wireless middleware is required to provide the following key functions:

  1. Interface with a variety of proprietary radio protocols from Motorola, Ericsson, Qualcomm and others.
  2. Provide a common API that uses standards-based TCP/IP calls.
  3. Provide an optimized radio protocol to conserve the use of radio bandwidth - replace the chatty TCP/IP protocol with one that is more efficient.
  4. Support concepts like Smart IP and Mobile IP that allows IP-based applications to be run in a radio environment without paying a performance penalty.

Q23 - I have heard TCP/IP is not the best protocol for wireless. Yet it is a universal transport protocol. What do I do?
Use products that pretend to the application that they are dealing with TCP/IP network but actually use an optimized UDP or UDP-like protocol. Smart IP from Nettech is one such product.

Q24- How do I keep my data on my PDA, PC and server in synch?
There are a number of data synchronization products that allow you to do this.  Click on our product guide.

Q25 - Should I develop my applications in Java or Windows 95/2000?
Mobile applications are no different in this respect than tradionall applications.  If your organizatio has taken the Java standardization decision, go with Java.  Note that some of the specialized tools may not support Java but major products do. However for the time being, use browser-based interface carefully because it is not optimized for wireless networks.

Q26 - What are major systems design considerations that I should keep in mind while developing my mobile computing solution from end-to-end perspective?
Go to Systems Design topic on the home page or click here.

 


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