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ERP transactions from anywhere

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Are you ready for the ultimate remote access challenge? At first they are just curiosities, toys for the tinkerers. Then they start proliferating. Soon after, though, power users start getting frustrated about excessive data entry: They wonder why they can’t connect their new toys to the sales, financial, marketing, and other corporate systems and avoid duplicating keystrokes.

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A variety of newsgroups and vendor sites offer information about PDAs and the enterprise. Here are three especially useful vendor Web sites:

Palm computing platform
3Com Corp.
Santa Clara, Calif.
This is the gateway to the world of the PalmPilot: access to a software development kit, applications ideas, and other resources. Since most Palm use has been limited to calendar, memo pad, and other personal organizer functions, you won’t find a lot of references to ERP. But it is the right place to start your journey.

Symbol Palm Terminal
Symbol Technologies Inc.
Holtsville, N.Y.
Symbol Technologies makes a variety of data collection devices used in warehouses, factories, and logistics centers. Usual cost is several thousand dollars. In March 1998, Symbol introduced the Symbol Palm Terminal that includes a bar code scanner for what sources say is less than half the cost of hardwired devices. The Web site contains a number of application stories and a software developer’s kit ready for download. If you want to use a Palm in a manufacturing environment, put Symbol and its Web site at the top of your shopping list.

Oracle Applications
Oracle Corp.
Redwood Shores, Calif.
Oracle is further along than other ERP vendors in solving the challenge of linking PDAs like the PalmPilot to its ERP suite, in my humble opinion. In fact, a core part of its upcoming Customer Relationship Management package is enabling a field salesforce to sell using PalmPilots. The Web site has an Adobe Acrobat file with a description of how the Oracle Field Sales for Palm Devices works. Watch for product announcements this fall. The site also has information about how Oracle has stuffed a subset of its database into the Palm form factor.

IT managers react in horror at the thought of undisciplined users linking their renegade systems to the corporate jewels. Minor skirmishes between mid-level IT managers and business managers escalate into tense meetings between the CIO and the CFO and the VPs. The suits remain at odds until someone persuades the CEO that his or her point of view should prevail. Inevitably, IT loses the battle and is ordered to connect the devices to the systems.

Welcome to déjà vu, year 2000. Those nasty battles that erupted in the mid-1980s after the introduction of the IBM Personal Computer are going to be repeated next year. Only this time, the user device in question is the personal digital assistant, and its target is your enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. Millions of 3Com Corp.’s PalmPilots and other personal digital assistants (PDAs) are out there, and millions more will be sold this year. They are theoretically capable of exchanging data with your ERP system, thanks to the nifty wireless Internet connections offered by the new Palm VII, and others of its ilk.

The early PDA adopters of the past few years will be joined by your salespeople, factory floor managers, warehouse supervisors, and other mobile professionals in arguing that a PalmPilot is an inexpensive way to boost their productivity and improve customer service. Wireless connections offer the ability to work from anywhere; you can do deals even when in the bathroom!

A more detailed analysis of IT managers’ and organizations’ views about PDAs shows the same gnashing of teeth and complaining that I heard 15 years ago, when a team of Datamation writers and editors did a special report on linking micros to mainframes. (For an update on the current state of PDA corporate affairs, see the April 1999 Datamation story, “The invasion of the handhelds.”) Note that roughly 16% of PalmPilot users expect to gain access to corporate applications data next year, up from zero this year, according to Forrester Research Inc., of Cambridge, Mass. And that demand for access will only continue to grow.

Don’t bother trying to put your finger in the dike you’ve erected to keep out PDAs. Instead, focus on how to make this happen. Fighting PDA access to ERP servers ultimately will be a career-shortening move.

Some useful advice

Enough people have been thinking about this and writing code that some useful advice can be offered. Note that I didn’t say relevant experience. You won’t find a whole lot of people with experience doing an in-production, bi-directional PDA to ERP link.

And that’s the real goal. Downloading sales data, recent transactions, or other ERP information into a PDA is a small first step. Real productivity and customer service gains come from a bi-directional link, where the PDA can be used to enter sales orders or shipment inquiries into the ERP servers and then get a promised shipment date in return.

The current generation PDAs may seem pathetically underpowered as a client for ERP systems (“You want to download what into 800 kilobytes?”), but by the end of 1999 you won’t be able to use that argument to keep those handheld devices from becoming part of your job description. I’m told that J.D. Edwards & Co., Oracle Corp., and SAP AG this fall will unveil versions of their ERP suites that can accommodate PDAs; note that the newest PalmPilot can contain 4 megabytes of memory.

Building a bi-directional link between PDAs, smart cellular telephones, and other handheld devices and your ERP system involves the following challenges:

  • Messy GUIs. The IT department has to master several new graphical user interfaces–you should get to know the Palm and Windows CE, as well as the Nokia high-end smart telephone lines;
  • Squeeze play. The ERP application and the database must be able to partition the application into objects small enough to fit into the 4MB of storage in a Palm VII;
  • Synchronization. Keeping scores of laptop applications and files updated is a major pain for large companies. But it’s a walk in the park compared to maintaining thousands of handhelds that lack even a rudimentary keyboard; and,
  • Systems management to the max. If you don’t already have a systems/network management package helping you maintain your ERP system, the invasion of thousands of PDAs linked to ERP apps will drive you to an asylum.

    Don’t bother trying to put your finger in the dike you’ve erected to keep out PDAs. Instead, focus on how to make this happen.

    Here’s an architectural and implementation approach to solve the problem. Don’t try a top-down approach to repartitioning your ERP system to fit thousands of different PDA user needs. Instead, take advantage of the componentization of leading ERP packages, and offer your users a menu of ERP modules that could be stuffed into a PDA via their desktop.

  • Since all of your PDA users also will have a desktop back at the office, that device becomes the configurator for each PDA profile. Linked to the server, the desktop can present a series of PDA functionality choices. Based on the existing policy management provisions in your ERP system, each user can select from a series of functions that can be downloaded to the PDA. These include: inventory status and in-process forecasts for the warehouse managers and logistics teams; and pricing, production schedules, and raw materials inventories for the sales team who need to do available-to-promise discussions with clients.

    After the user has selected the desired functions, the desktop can then determine if the already registered PDA can handle the volume of data and applets. If it can, the desktop uploads the PDA and alerts the server to support future data exchanges via whatever type of link is embedded into the PDA. If the user wants the PDA to hold more than is possible, the desktop can direct the user on how to reduce the wish list to the practical.

    Sounds simple, right? Sure. Based on what I’ve heard and read about this, it won’t be easy or cheap to link PDAs to ERP systems. But you better start thinking about this now and checking in with your ERP vendor on what it is going to do to help you. //

    Larry Marion is an editor and consultant with more than 20 years of experience in the use of computer technology in manufacturing and finance. He is the former editor of Datamation, Electronic Business, and LOTUS magazines. He can be reached at


    Remote access advice

    Some comments from vendors and a user about linking PDAs to ERP:

    “Practically every company we talk to is considering how to best utilize the handhelds within its environment,” notes Allyson Fryhoff, director new business initiatives, mobile and embedded products division of Oracle Corp., of Redwood Shores, Calif.

    “The interest among our customers is across a number of applications: service management, plant maintenance, time entry, salesforce automation, and shop floor data collection devices,” says Kim Hutchings, product manager for pervasive computing at SAP Labs Inc., in Palo Alto, Calif. “We’re focusing on developing applications for specific users for specific transactions. We’re not just shrinking R/3.”

    “Cell phones are on our list, too,” adds Hutchings. “The challenge with cellular is the communications infrastructure. It isn’t quite ready yet…. Some people in Silicon Valley think PDAs will replace phones one day,” she says, with only a slight bit of irony in her voice.

    “I feel SFA [sales force automation] is the only area where this type of integration makes sense,” contends Jorge Taborga, CIO of the Bay Networks unit of Nortel Networks Corp., the Ontario-based data communications equipment company. Bay was an early implementer of R/3. “However, the synchronization technology between PDAs and back-office systems is very primitive at this time.”

    “We’ve already modeled and prototyped PDA links to OneWorld,” Paul Barker, head of technology marketing at J.D. Edwards & Co., in Denver, told me at the company’s recent user meeting. “We’re working on various form factors–Windows CE, Nokia, PalmPilot.”

    “IT managers’ roles should focus on the user interfaces and design tools. IT should look to the ERP provider for the architecture and structure of the product to accommodate remote access via an info appliance,” Barker adds.

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