Public sector sees the convenience – and costs – PDAs offer employees

Over the next few months, about 1,000 Canada Post employees will be cut loose. Not in the slang sense of getting laid off, though. Instead, they will be liberated from the cables that have traditionally tethered them to their desktops, thanks to the Crown corporation’s efforts to mobilize its workforce.

Aaron Nichols, general manager of information technology at Canada Post, said the organization recently finished piloting about 300 Audiovox Windows Mobile 5.0-based devices and is planning to roll out about 700 UTStarcom PPC 6700s with Windows Mobile 5.0, many of which will go to its road warriors — sales staff out on the road visiting customers — and hundreds of locations nationwide, although anyone who meets certain criteria can order one. The next step is to integrate CRM applications to provide mobile sales staff with access to customer and Canada Post information. Nichols said CP implemented Microsoft ExchangeServer 2003 last year as part of its efforts to modernize its messaging infrastructure.

“We had four or five legacy messaging systems from an old mainframe system to Microsoft mail to some Lotus Notes, and we decided to consolidate on Exchange 2003 for all the reasons you do those kinds of projects — more support, cost savings, etc., and at the same time we had been dabbling a little in mobile messaging,” said Nichols. “We had done a pilot with different devices, some iPaqs and some BlackBerries, and some people started to use text messaging on phones as well so there was clearly a need in the user community.”

Free to work 24×7
According to a recent Ipsos Reid and Microsoft Canada Co. survey, Canada Post employees are hardly unique when it comes to the desire to be free — at least free to work all the time. The survey indicates almost 60 per cent of professionals believe wireless devices enable them to be more productive when they are away from the office. The same percentage believes those devices should provide more than just e-mail functionality, though. Sean Seaton, director, Windows mobile and embedded devices, Microsoft Canada, said IT and procurement managers are under pressure to leverage existing technology and eliminate whatever they don’t needs in terms of infrastructure. Organizations that already have Exchange Server 2003 in place can roll out Windows-based handhelds at a much lower cost, he added.

But while some Canada Post users had clear preferences as to the devices themselves, it quickly became obvious hardware was the least of the issues to be considered.

“A lot of people changed their view once they got into the research because the real cost of these things is in the air time and support models, as opposed to the devices themselves,” Nichols said. When Canada Post put out an RFP, it was actually pretty device-agnostic, he said. “It doesn’t matter to me if the device brand changes over time. What’s important is the service we get. The device at $150 to $500 pales in comparison to the data costs and air-time charges.”

In the end, it went with Telus as a provider, who recommended Audiovox PDAs on Microsoft’s most recent mobile platform. That was important, he said, because it was so simple to set up. “There’s no third-party software or servers you have to add in between your Exchange 2003 environment and your carrier when you’re using a Windows-based device.”

Although Canada Post continues to use a handful of RIM-based devices, mainly for staff who have to travel to Europe, there are more costs involved, he said. “With the BlackBerry you have to use the BlackBerry Enterprise Server in between, and for every device you connect you have to have a client access licence, and that adds incrementally to the cost.”

But if ongoing costs are important for public sector and Crown corporations in choosing a provider and a device, so too is security. And for some IT managers, such as Lorne Seaton, associate director of IT for the City of London, Ont., that was an issue that was too big to ignore.

“We are looking at the iPaqs,” said Lorne Seaton. “But the big thing with the BlackBerry, of course, is the security that you don’t get with Microsoft-based equipment. I know they’re working hard to put security in place but that’s the reason we’re using Blackberries. We know it’s easier to develop for Windows CE than it is for Blackberries.”

According to Microsoft’s Sean Seaton, however, the Mobile 5.0 platform provides the same PIN and password capability offered on desktop PCs. As well, the platform comes with a remote wipe capability so if the device gets lost the data can be deleted remotely.

London now has about 250 Blackberries deployed, thanks to the efforts of a chief administrative officer who was very “pro-BlackBerry,” said Lorne Seaton. Most are being used for e-mail, but the city has been developing applications for the fire department so it can do fire inspections using the handhelds, and by the city clerk’s office to speed up licence applications. It is also looking at an application that would enable access to the city’s GIS system and perform address lookups, get maps and view infrastructure enhancements. As well, it is planning on using an application that would give all emergency-related departments access to the city’s emergency plans and to have two-way communications.

But while public sector IT managers have only recently started to embrace the handheld revolution, their employees, or at least some, have by now moved on to the tablet PC. Persuading them that the PDA serves a greater purpose than checking their e-mail obsessively has been a challenge, admitted London’s Seaton. “While we’re trying to champion BlackBerries and handheld devices for applications, they’re saying ‘No, no, I need a tablet PC with a wireless card,’ and that’s significantly more money than giving someone a BlackBerry or a Microsoft device.”

Microsoft’s Seaton, who says there are about 16 million handheld users in Canada, said part of the enthusiasm for wireless PDAs is driven by the average worker’s desire to not only connect to the office while on the road, but to connect to their personal lives as well. “If you’ve got a mobile device it spans this term we call the prosumer where you blend your personal experience with your day to day business interactions,” he said.

Controlling costs
Some organizations, such as the London police department, have found the solution to the escalating costs associated with wirelessly enabled PDAs to be to simply control the e-mail and cell phone functions. Jeff Craigmile, director of IT at the London police, said his department is working on a spring BlackBerry pilot involving officers who don’t have access to mobile workstations in police cruisers. The London police use Versaterm, an Ottawa-based developer of information systems applications for public safety organizations. “What we’re looking for is places where they don’t have mobile workstations like investigators, police on walking beats, bike officers and motorcycle officers so very quickly they can query by a person’s name or licence plate number, and not only query our local records management system but also the national system,” says Craigmile. “We’re looking at doing that through BlackBerries. In the future what we’d like to see on it would be to allow them to query or bring down mug shots and receive dispatches.” Security is a major issue for the police department, not only due to the sensitivity of its own information, but to the fact it queries the national Canadian Police Information Centre. “That information in the national system could be information that really doesn’t belong to us,” he says.

But while Microsoft’s plan for wireless devices is to unite the business and the personal, RIM’s, it appears, is to continue with its sober focus on all business, all the time. RIM continues to evaluate adding functions such as camera phones and MP3 players as a means to attract a bigger piece of the consumer market, but that’s not necessarily what business users want, said Alan Panezic, director of technical services at RIM. RIM has been successful at tackling the challenging issues of integrating enterprise user applications, and users can expect to see more personal productivity-related applications as the firm’s 300-plus partners roll out more BlackBerry products over the next year or so, he said. RIM sees its greatest opportunities at the moment in state or provincial and local governments, said Panezic. “Where they might have focused on just using it for messaging, now they’re also looking at the BlackBerry for solving other types of application issues.”

Would you recommend this article?


Thanks for taking the time to let us know what you think of this article!
We'd love to hear your opinion about this or any other story you read in our publication.

Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

Featured Download

Featured Story

How the CTO can Maintain Cloud Momentum Across the Enterprise

Embracing cloud is easy for some individuals. But embedding widespread cloud adoption at the enterprise level is...

Related Tech News

Get ITBusiness Delivered

Our experienced team of journalists brings you engaging content targeted to IT professionals and line-of-business executives delivered directly to your inbox.

Featured Tech Jobs