Technology for the Post-Automation Age
Pen tablets help you automate processes, not workers.
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When it comes to enabling your mobile workforce with cutting-edge technology, automation is an anachronistic term at best. Your mobile workers push themselves to their limits, spending hours traveling across the county from either job site to job site or customer to customer. Try telling them that they are going to be "automated" and watch their eyes glaze over. It will be so quiet you'll be able to hear your profits fall.

If you intend to make your mobile workers anywhere near as productive and responsive to customers as your office-based staff, you must focus on the human element to be successful. And the success of your mobile solutions in the years ahead will certainly have a major impact on the fate of your company-and your career-as more and more of your competitors zoom in on enterprise mobility. According to Bob Egan, Gartner Group's director of networking research, the typical Fortune 1000 firm will commit 10 percent of all networking spending to mobile and wireless solutions within four years.

One of the lynch pins in designing and implementing a winning mobile information system is choosing computing devices that fit the way your employees work. Of course you must use great diligence in mapping out your workers' methods and practices, then pick hardware that best suits their needs. A utility lineman who spends eight hours a day climbing power poles probably has little use for a fully loaded, 400-megahertz notebook complete with DVD drive. Meanwhile, an insurance agent walking into the office of a Fortune 500 client armed with nothing but a two-way pager, no matter how bleeding edge it is, would be laughed out of the building.

The Pen is Mightier.
As you scan the mobile computer brochures your IT wonks have retrieved from trade shows, search the Web for the latest hardware and quiz your colleagues about what has and hasn't worked for them; there's a good chance you're missing an entire category of devices that your workers just might embrace. When was the last time you considered adding pen tablets to your checklist?

Pen tablets have long been associated with blue-collar applications such as heavy industry and warehousing. Enabled with touch screens and pen input, many executives still think of pen-based computers as expensive clipboards. Sour memories of failed pen computers like the Apple Newton are tough to shake. But pen tablets are becoming powerful enterprise tools and viable solutions for workforces in many markets, even ones once considered too white-collar for such hardware.

American General Life & Accident Insurance rolled out Fujitsu pen tablets to 7,000 field sales personnel to help reduce paper forms clutter and make employees more efficient. These aren't jumpsuit-clad adjusters employing pen tablets in auto yards or disaster areas to record damage; these are customer-facing agents who have a direct, bottom-line impact on winning new business and maintaining client loyalty. Rather than picking a device that would literally create a barrier between agent and customer-as a raised laptop screen and pint-size keyboard would-American General has chosen a relatively friendly piece of hardware. Much to the agents' delight, paper forms have been more easily translated to the pen tablets' display, and inputting data is close to the familiar task of putting pen to paper. Using electronic signature capture, agents are even able to seal deals while in the field.

Today's pen tablets are a far cry from the heavy "bricks" of just a few years ago that boasted all the computing power of a toaster oven. Now it is easy to find a light, robust, pen-based computer running an enterprise-compatible operating system such as Windows 98 or NT-which your IT managers will appreciate. For all the consumer success of Palm Computing devices and all the promise of the EPOC OS developed by the Symbian consortium, your company most likely is and will be a Windows shop for the foreseeable future.

Take a close look at the Qbe Personal Computing Tablet from Aqcess Technologies. Although the Qbe (pronounced "cube") is ineptly named to attack the vertical markets, it bears more than a passing glance from enterprise managers. The Qbe line is equipped with Intel Pentium II and III processors and runs Windows 98 and NT under its legal-pad-size shell. The tablet is fully expandable, coming out of the box with a variety of I/O ports as well as modem and Ethernet connectivity. There's a 13.3-inch color touch screen and bells and whistles usually found on high-end notebooks, including a digital camera, a CD-ROM drive, swipe-card reader, stereo sound and voice recognition software. The Qbe starts at $3,495. Go to www.qbenet.com for more information.

The Fujitsu stylistic LT is one of the lightest and most compact full-featured pen tablets ever made. Weighing just 2.3 pounds and measuring 1.1 inches thick, the stylistic LT is certainly no computing lightweight. There's a 233-megahertz Pentium processor on board, along with a shock-mounted 4.3-gigabyte hard drive, 64 megabytes of SDRAM and an 8.4-inch color display. Fujitsu also offers a wireless keyboard and mini docking station to transform the stylistic LT into a desktop replacement. Not bad for $3,265. Go to www.fpsi.fujitsu.com for more information.

Looking for a solution that won't stretch your budget? Hitachi's new line of pen tablets, the HPW-600ET and HPW-600ETM, start at just $1,199 and come loaded with features. Running Windows CE 3.0 Pro, Hitachi's computers run at 128 megahertz with their SH4 processors and boast up to 32 megabytes of system RAM. The 7.5-inch screen features full 16-bit color and 640 by 480 resolution in a package weighing less than two pounds and measuring 8.7 by 6.3 by 1.2 inches. Fully expandable, the devices have a built-in 56K modem and IrDA port, along with VGA, CompactFlash, PC Card and USB ports. Each tablet ships with an antimicrobial coating, handy for health sciences and delicate manufacturing environments. Go to www.hitachi.com for more information.

These and other state-of-the-art pen tablets deserve your attention. Who knows? Your "automated" workforce might even thank you.

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