Is an e-mail in the handheld worth two in the pipeline?

Clever gadgets are no good for keeping in touch with a mobile workforce unless you have clever software to make sure you can get...

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Clever gadgets are no good for keeping in touch with a mobile workforce unless you have clever software to make sure you can get the best out of them. Liz Warren reports on how a software publishing company got to grips with its handheld devices.

One of the biggest challenges for companies with a mobile workforce is how to make sure they can keep in touch with the office and with one another. Mobile phones, personal digital assistants with network connections and e-mail can all help, but logging in from a remote site to the e-mail system can be a tortuous process and a mobile phone that rings in the middle of an important meeting can be inconvenient and distracting.

With 15 consultants working on client sites, this was a pressing problem for software publisher ncSoft. "We do like to keep in touch with our consultants," says Chris Smith, the company's managing director. "There is also a lot of cross-traffic between consultants specialising in different areas. In the past, that contact would have been through phone calls, but that is relatively expensive and also intrusive when we phone our consultants or they have to phone us when they are out at a client's site."

The company therefore chose to give its consultants XDA devices supplied by telecoms company O2. These combine a PDA with a GPRS mobile phone, allowing users to access the internet and pick up e-mails. Switching from phone calls to e-mail contacts allows consultants to deal with contacts when they choose, rather than having their time with clients interrupted. They can still respond relatively quickly because they do not have to wait until they get home in the evenings to log on to e-mail accounts. "Many support issues need to be resolved more quickly," Smith says, "which was why people often resorted to phone calls."

The XDAs gave access to e-mail but they were not easy to use. John Phythian, ncSoft's business development director, explains, "I had configured all manner of ways of redirecting my mail to my XDA, but the hoops I had to go through to get even basic access to my messages meant the service was unreliable, lacked functionality and was difficult to use." Even worse, Smith says, consultants were ending up with half their messages on the mobile device and the other half on their PCs.

Pythian found the solution to these headaches when he was investigating how ncSoft might use mobile telephony in its own products. At the Source o2 Developers conference in 2002 he learned about Smartner Duality, an application which pushes e-mails out to PDAs automatically: users do not have to go through complex download processes but simply find all their e-mails waiting for them when they fire up their XDAs.

In addition, Duality synchronises the mobile device with the user's desktop machine, so that e-mails sent from the PDA also appear on the PC.

Smith says ncSoft did look at whether there were other solutions which would provide similar functions, but could only identify the Blackberry, a wireless device from Research in Motion, which was not available in the UK at that time.

He preferred to stick with the software-only Duality because it can run on a variety of PDA devices. This means ncSoft is not locked into a particular piece of hardware, and because Duality runs on standard PDA hardware, it works alongside familiar Microsoft applications, including Outlook running on the PDA's PocketPC 2000 operating system.

Smith says getting Duality into place was extremely quick - it took just half a day to set up the first few machines and less than a week to roll it out to 10 consultants. "We needed to do some tweaking to Exchange and our mail server and set up a dedicated PC attached to the network to run the server software, but that was it," he says. "We have found it to be reliable and easy to maintain. It does exactly what it is supposed to do, with very little in the way of problems."

The upshot, Smith says, is that ncSoft now has better yet less intrusive contact with its staff and consultants can make more effective use of otherwise wasted time. Smith personally believes he gains half an hour a day that would otherwise be lost, "Because if I am on a train or waiting in reception for a meeting, I can receive and respond to e-mails immediately."

With 15 staff now using Duality and the XDAs, given that consultants' time is billed at £1,000 a day, Smith points out, "that represents a significant amount of money when you add it up over the year."

The company plans to roll XDAs running Duality out to more employees, including all of its sales force. "Anyone who is out and about should have one," Smith says.

"Apart from giving them access to e-mail, the XDAs give people all their contacts and diary information in one place. It has certainly moved our business along and it is a great thing, as a technology business, to be using technology to become more effective ourselves."

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