PDAs at work

Handheld devices are not just for personal use anymore.


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Clark Wilson Homes Inc.
The company: Clark Wilson Homes Inc. is a medium-sized construction company in Austin, Texas.

The problem: With 18 builders, 75 subcontractors, and up to 240 construction projects to oversee, managers at Clark Wilson Homes found that using a paper system to track the myriad details and schedules for each project was time consuming and error prone.

The solution: The company purchased handheld computers with Punch List software from Strata Systems. In the field, builders use simple pull-down menus that document needed repairs and schedule work for subcontractors. The information from the job site is sent to the company's main computer, where it is sorted and sent off to subcontractors via e-mail.

The IT infrastructure: SClark Wilson Homes uses PalmPilots from the Palm Computing division of 3Com Corp., with Punch List software. The company also uses Palm HotSync server software to connect to its main database.

The future: The company hopes to add a scheduling software package to the handhelds so employees can download all the details of a project into the devices.
A cartoon in a recent issue of The New Yorker shows two pilots in the cockpit of an airplane. One says, "This is so cool! I'm flying this thing completely on my PalmPilot!"

While flying airplanes is not yet within the capability of handheld devices, the cartoon illustrates how ubiquitous the diminutive personal digital assistant (PDA) has become since the PalmPilot's debut four years ago.

PDAs, originally used primarily as personal information managers, have become essential equipment in business today--doing much more than simply tracking appointments. Salespeople, builders, doctors, and students are all stretching the power of their handheld devices to keep notes on clients, send e-mail, store essential information, and, more generally, just help them get through their daily routines.

In fact, an estimated 35% of the 3.7 million handhelds sold in 2000 will be purchased by individuals who will be fully or partially reimbursed by their company, according to Diana Hwang, program manager, mobile research at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. That figure is up from 21% in 1999.

Another measure of the growing demand for PDAs in the workplace is the explosion of new applications being written specifically for business use. Third-party applications for Palm OS and Windows CE devices include databases, communications software, inventory control, project management, and business productivity tools. "You see a lot more commercial vendors developing applications to support the handhelds," says Hwang. Major database players such as Oracle Corp. and Sybase Inc. have developed versions of their popular applications for the handheld market, giving users real-time remote access to corporate data.

Banishing the building blues

Darrin Roush
Darrin Roush, QA manager at Clark Wilson Homes, gave handhelds to the company's builders to coordinate the work of 18 builders and 75 subcontractors on as many as 240 houses at one time.

Darrin Roush turned to PDAs several years ago to relieve two of his company's biggest headaches: communication and organization. When Roush, quality assurance manager at Clark Wilson Homes Inc., a construction company in Austin, Texas, saw builders jotting notes about their projects on scraps of paper, he knew there had to be a better way.

First, he gave laptops to the builders so they could update their schedules in real time and keep all their notes in one place. However, the builders found the laptops too cumbersome to carry and too difficult to use--so that idea was dropped.But Roush didn't give up. He knew that technology could help the company with the complicated management challenges of coordinating the work of 18 builders and 75 subcontractors on as many as 240 houses at one time.

Two years ago, Roush bought Palm handheld devices from the Palm Computing division of 3Com Corp., in Santa Clara, Calif., for all Clark Wilson's builders. He also bought Punch List--software developed specifically for builders--to load on the Palms. The software, from Strata Systems LC, of Austin, Texas, uses pull-down menus to let builders keep notes on every detail of the work, from repairs to supplies to subcontractors' schedules.

Before they used handhelds, the builders compiled their paper notes and called each subcontractor--plumbers, electricians, painters, and others--at the end of the day, spending up to 15 minutes discussing issues that arose during the day. "Then, later, they would often need to call the very same subcontractor because of something they forgot to mention or something new they discovered that the subcontractor needed to be aware of," Roush says.

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