Keeping Mobile Workers Connected and Productive

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There was a time when Paul Epstein used to sweat being out of the office for more than a few hours at a time. That's because Epstein, managing director at LCG Capital Group, LLC, an investment banking and advisory firm, is out of the office at least half of the work week, conducting a lot of business on the go.

But being a road warrior now is easier than ever. Epsteins secret weapon? His Blackberry.

Using the Blackberry lets Epstein not only access and send emails but check contacts and his calendar. He also says he likes being able to open Word documents.

''If I have contracts I need to review or write-ups we've done, I can review them if I'm waiting at an airport or offsite and not near an office,'' says Epstein, who is based in Tampa, Fla.

Move over laptops. Handhelds are increasingly being used to conduct wireless business transactions, thanks to middleware that allows companies to port network applications over to the devices.

''Handheld devices are typically about productivity... they hold a lot of promise'' for streamlining business processes, says Kevin Burden, manager of the Mobile Devices Program at Framingham, Mass.-based International Data Corp. But Burden and others say that while there are a lot of nice add-on applications available, for the most part, users generally stick with the primary uses of the handhelds: wireless email and voice communications.

It's Not a Laptop

''People want a zero-pound laptop and what they are trying to do is turn these PDAs into that, but at some point you have to draw a line... because a handheld will never run a full version of Office,'' says Ken Dulaney, vice president of Mobile Computing at Gartner Group, an industry analyst firm. Dulaney adds that even Microsoft's own pocket handheld, Windows Mobile, will ''never be compatible'' with Excel.

There are about 8 million users of wireless email worldwide, and that number is expected to reach 1.5 billion within 10 years, according to Gartner.

Dulaney says most applications are not ideal for these devices because browsing is a challenge. One screen on a PC may translate to eight or 10 screens on a handheld, and that means a lot of scrolling because of the size, which on some devices, is a 2x2 screen.

''The size of the unit is a constraint and that's not going to change. People think this device can do what a laptop can do and it can't,'' says Dulaney. ''It will never exist.''

But like most users, Dulaney says handhelds are ''a Godsend'' for those in-between times when you're not sitting at a desk and need to get at ''quick-and-dirty information''.

Tracking Time

At West Coast litigation firm Keesal, Young & Logan, which services both national and international clients, all 80 lawyers needed a way to be accessible 24x7. That meant finding a mobile computing solution that would provide seamless access to Microsoft Outlook and other business critical applications via a secure, dependable, wireless connection.

On top of that, the firm wanted a way to better manage the lawyers' time.

The law firm, based in both Long Beach, Calif. and San Francisco, attempted a pilot program to deploy laptops to its workforce a few years ago, but found the computers were left unused in their offices 80 percent of the time. Although laptops effectively support remote access, a high level of mobility requires a smaller, lighter and more convenient form factor, says Justin Hectus, director of Information at the firm.

After trying Blackberrys, which employees said did not provide ''true wireless deployment and synchronization'', the firm now is using Treo 650s for phone, email, organization and productivity. Hectus also has deployed a custom time and knowledge application called TimeKM, which lets lawyers track activities, such as the time of a phone call with a client, for example.

Another function Treo users at the firm now have is a workload application, which allows lawyers to notify partners whether their workload is light, medium or heavy. Based up their real-time updates, ''Were able to more readily staff new cases,'' says Hectus. The application is available on either their Treo or desktop, but he says it is a good fit for the 2x2 inch device since ''it's literally two checkboxes and because it's so easy [to use], it means the information is updated more often.''

Lawyers at the firm also can use their Treos to access personal statistics, such as how many hours they have worked, and client financial information, including the number of hours that have been billed to a particular client.

There are no headaches from a management perspective, says Hectus, adding that the Treo is a relatively inexpensive development platform.

Scott Pratt, a partner at Keesal, Young & Logan, says that for him, the major benefit of the Treo is the ability for clients to reach him regardless of where he is or what time it is.

While on a business trip in Prague, Pratt says he was able to communicate back and forth with a major client in a matter of minutes on his Treo. ''The hotel I was staying at did have great Internet access, but... when I was out of the hotel, I had constant access via my Treo to make phone calls and receive and respond to email.'' Pratty adds that his client was impressed he was responding when it was 1 a.m. in Prague.

''I think they were extremely appreciative that they were getting a response as quickly as if I were at my desk,'' says Pratt, who is based in Long Beach.

''To a man, even the most cost-conscious partners here recognized this is of significant and noticeable benefit to our clients'' and improves the bottom line, says Hectus. ''You don't have to do any ROI on this to know it makes sense.''

Epstein recalls a time his firm was representing a company and had to get a term sheet negotiated under a severe time constraint and then approved by their client so the lender could move forward. The problem was he wasn't anywhere near a computer. Epstein was on vacation at the time, but, thanks to the Blackberry, he was able to respond right away.

''Responsiveness is such a huge part of our business. When you're dealing with a company's finances, they don't want to wait until you get back the next day,'' Epstein says.

He adds that while handhelds don't have all of the functionality of a laptop or desktop, the Blackberry is ''the most important purchase I think I've made... relating to business. I don't miss something really important that needs to be done right away.''

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