Field of dreams
From the teenager texting friends from the backseat during a long car trip to the traveling salesman transforming a company vehicle into a mobile office, the ability of consumers to remain connected via myriad networks, devices and applications is almost taken for granted across most of the U.S.
A similar trend is occurring in government enterprises, but the adoption rate is slower than in the burgeoning consumer market, for a variety of economic and technical reasons. But industry experts agree the time is coming soon when government field workers will be able to conduct business in the field more effectively and efficiently, thanks to new devices and applications driven by the consumer experience — and the need for cash-strapped government entities to get the most from scarce resources.
“For government at all levels, leveraging that technology is extremely important in holding down costs and maximizing your labor force,” said Chuck Robinson, the key executive for business support services in the city of Charlotte, N.C. “It’s something that Charlotte’s embracing in a very big way, and we’re looking for more ways to do that.
“I really think that putting the power of a person’s desktop in their hands or in their vehicle and being able to understand what the work force is doing is valuable.”
There are plenty of reasons for government enterprises to embrace mobile technology. Even a decade ago, government field workers — from inspectors to maintenance crews — often had to go to a location, make an assessment and then file a written report on the matter. The written report then had to be input into a computer system — a time-consuming process that could create problems associated with delay, inaccurate transcription of the written report or just by taking the worker out of the field to file the report.
In the public-safety arena, police officers increasingly are equipped with mobile devices that allow them to conduct database queries during traffic stops and even automate ticketing, which can be done quicker and more accurately using modern technology. The result is that the officer is able to spend more time on patrol and fewer cases are kicked out of court because of transcription errors.
Government officials hope to achieve similar efficiencies in their sector, according to Bill Schrier, who recently retired as chief technology officer for the city of Seattle.
The city’s public-utility field workers are able to use an asset-management system to check inventory remotely and order parts for repair work, and that concept is one that could spread throughout the government enterprise.
“I would hope that building inspectors could do something similar,” Schrier said. “They could actually come out with their tablet computer, see what the plans are electronically and compare how the construction is matching up to those plans, make voice or written annotations on the tablet computer and perhaps even produce an inspection report on site.”
But that vision is not a reality today, at least not in Seattle or any other local government that Schrier could recall. While devices such as smartphones and tablets are available and could be used for such purposes, the specialized applications needed by government field workers often are not available for these devices, he said.
Schrier said he believes more government-specific applications will become available after the Windows 8 operating system becomes available later this year, because many relevant applications were built for Windows client devices. If it happens, Schrier said he believes tablets could become the device of choice for many government field workers, such as building inspectors.
“If [a software company] would write an iPad-specific app or an app in Windows 8 that has the radio buttons, drop-down menus and stuff, I think that would sell like hotcakes,” he said. “You could take pictures of things and actually make annotations on the pictures — checkmarks and circles. You would think it would be a natural, so they must be working on it.”
Indeed, meeting the specific needs of a government enterprise can be challenging at the moment, according to Jim Hilton, Motorola Solution’s senior director of industry solutions for manufacturing. While the traditional ruggedized mobile computing market has matured and offers a wide array of enterprise-specific applications, that is not the case with tablets, he said.
“For mobile computing, the market is extremely strong, as far as applications being available,” Hilton said. “The interesting thing is that, about the same time as everybody started talking about tablets, the operating system discussion changed as well. Not only is Windows Mobile appropriate, but moreso, a lot of people are looking for Android.
“Because it’s a larger-screen device, and because Android is a relatively new operating system, the applications available for our tablet is 10% or 20% of what it would be for our more rugged, Windows-based devices.”
But that situation is expected to change quickly, Hilton said. New software tools allow developers to build applications that can run on either platform — a process that used to take several months can now be completed in a few weeks, he said.
With this in mind, Motorola expects the number of application offerings for Android to be similar to those available on the Windows platform within a year, Hilton said. As for the iPad, the hugely popular Apple tablet runs an operating system that is so consumer-centric that “the availability for field-service applications is pretty limited,” he said.
Indeed, the iPad currently is more popular among elected officials in government than field workers, Schrier said.
“The biggest use of iPads for government that I’ve seen has been for city-council meetings and county-council meetings,” he said. “Instead of providing [elected officials] with a stack of documents, you give a council member an iPad, so they can quickly find the ordinance they’re reviewing, or the other papers.”
Given the rapid expansion of wireless 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi systems, the ability and desire to extend workplace functionality continues to increase. Combined with the many potentially helpful applications — from real-time alerting to asset management to remote reporting — government entities are expected to embrace the mobile revolution to ensure that field workers’ valuable time is used as efficiently as possible.
Government enterprises soon should have a choice between traditional mobile computing solutions and emerging tablet-based offerings, making it “an outstanding time to look at new technology for field mobility, in general, and particularly in field service,” Hilton said.
But government entities should be careful when making such decisions to consider all aspects of the potential solutions, including the ability to secure transmissions, maintain power and be rugged enough to withstand less-than-ideal environments, Hilton said. In some cases, a consumer-grade device may be all that is needed, but many government field workers require tools that are more robust and resilient.
“The rugged environment determines whether that consumer-grade tablet even is appropriate,” he said. “I might need a bigger screen, but please don’t give me a toy.
“There was a reason why we weren’t first to market, for both security purposes and because of the recognition that the enterprise [user] has got to be able to trade out that battery. You can’t go dead. You’ve got to have that connectivity. You have to be able to drop it and have it survive the drop. [And] the bigger the screen, the more susceptible that screen is to breaking.”