When Toronto-based Getronics Canada Inc. takes a call to repair a computer or other hardware, the customer placing the call can check its status on the Web, seeing whether a technician has been assigned, when he or she arrives on site and when the repair is completed. It’s also important for

Getronics that this online information be up, says Jerry Webster, vice-president of field managed service at Getronics Canada.

The company previously used pagers to dispatch technicians and an interactive voice response (IVR) system to let them report in on the status of calls. But voice response couldn’t handle all the data technicians needed to report – such as part and serial numbers – so technicians phoned dispatchers to update the data for them. That introduced delays, used up dispatchers’ time and ran up airtime on the technicians’ cellphones.

Last fall, Getronics decided to equip 250 field service technicians with handheld computers that communicate over a digital cellular network and give them remote access to Getronics’ call management system.

Such applications are a popular use of cellular data services, says Iain Grant, managing director of telecommunications industry consultancy SeaBoard Group in Montréal. “”The Maytag repairman isn’t always lonely, and in fact, now he’s wired.””

The major courier companies were pioneers, Grant says, but now many medium to large firms use mobile data services to keep field staff in touch. It’s a good use of the relatively low-speed cellular networks, Grant observes, because “”there’s not a lot of information transfer, but it gets rid of a lot of paper.””

Getronics chose middleware from Nextair Corp. of Toronto for the interface from the technicians’ handhelds to its call management system. Webster says his company liked Nextair’s Airix wireless environment largely because it could support any wireless network and all the major handheld architectures.

Early this year, Getronics ran a pilot using a mixture of Palm, Pocket PC and Blackberry devices and the three major wireless carriers’ networks. Then Getronics settled on Pocket PC devices from Siemens AG operating over Rogers Wireless Communications Inc.’s network.

Webster says Rogers’ nationwide coverage was a factor in the choice. “”I was comforted by the fact they owned the whole network from coast to coast and they weren’t partnering with other carriers,”” he says. Past problems with pager services involving multiple carriers made him leery of partnering arrangements. The choice of Pocket PC was driven partly by loyalty. “”We are a Microsoft partner and so that had some attraction to us.””

Getronics own IT staff built the interface to its call management system using Airix Design Studio, Nextair’s tool for defining the business logic, data models and user interface. This is one of three components of the Airix software. The Transaction Server sits between the network and the host application, looking to the application like just another local user while it handles the host end of the connection, including encryption, says Ron Close, Nextair’s president and chief executive. The Airix Smart Client runs on the mobile device, handling the other end of the network connection and the user interface for the mobile user.

Customers can define the logic of an application once – even if it supports more than one type of mobile device – Close says, while defining user interface elements for the different devices.

Webster won’t disclose the cost of the project, but says Getronics expects a return on its investment within a year.

“”We’ve cut our cellphone costs in half, we’ve eliminated the pager costs, so those are two big benefits. We believe we can streamline our dispatcher team because they don’t have to spend the time selecting a technician and updating a call on their behalf.”” Besides measurable savings, he says, there are softer benefits, such as giving technicians more control over their work days. “”That just makes my whole field force feel more empowered, and when they’re more empowered they’re more motivated,”” Webster says.

For Nextair, an eight-year-old company that built its business on dispatch software, the deal could be a foot in the door with the global Getronics organization.

“”We’re very keen to be able to propagate and move that success into the U.S. Getronics organization and Europe where their head office is,”” Close says. That could happen: Webster says Getronics recently finished an international review of the project and Getronics’ European and Japanese arms were quite interested.

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