This Q&A originally appeared on TechTarget's Expert Answer Center. Tim Scannell served as the on-demand expert on the Expert Answer Center for two weeks in June 2006, during which he was available to quickly answer questions on mobile computing as well as to write daily blog entries. Keep an eye on the Expert Answer Center for topics that could help your IT shop.
What should you consider when looking at mobile computing for field service? I see a lot of different devices and GPS is often brought up. Are there privacy issues if we use GPS to track our field service?
One of the first things you should consider when looking at systems for field force personnel is how durable and rugged a system is in the hands of your average mobile warrior. Many notebooks come with anti-shock technology that can sense when the system is in an unplanned freefall and instantly lock the hard disk heads into place. This prevents them from skittering across a hard disk surface like a phonograph needle on an old LP. (Yikes! I'm dating myself!) I would also look for systems that include built-in wireless communications capabilities, preferably Wi-Fi and cellular modems that give you the option of hotpots and widely available cell signals for connections.
Finally, I would look for systems that provide a long battery life (minimum four hours and preferably six) for those long, cross-country flights and are equipped with an LCD screen that can be comfortably read in daylight as well as darkened areas.
Also, remember to purchase mobile systems that fit the application. If field service workers are just collecting simple data, then a relatively inexpensive handheld system will do. If, however, that person must also file reports and answer email, then a small notebook is the answer. In both cases, though, don't forget about security and encryption technology that starts at the server level and protects and manages client devices.
GPS and location-tracking technologies are another topic entirely. GPS comes in handy for finding customer locations and charting routes and locations. It can also be used to track workers, which is where we get into the area of personal privacy and such. Legally, a company has the right to track its workers to keep tabs on productivity and provide security. Civil libertarians, however, may argue that it is an invasion of privacy.
About a year ago, snow plow drivers in Massachusetts balked at carrying GPS phones because they did not want to be tracked by supervisors -- at least not when they were plowing the same road 90 times or sitting in a warm and comfortable coffee shop. The state won out by insisting that anyone who would not carry the GPS phone would not work under state contract. That storm has since passed and actually the GPS systems are a good idea, given the hazardous work conditions.
Location tracking technology will eventually revolutionize every business. There is a company in Boston, for example, that can use GPS and any available Wi-Fi signal to track people with even greater accuracy than just GPS. Individuals can also be tracked inside a building, which raises a whole other concern when dealing with people who take frequent and long trips to the rest room or office cafeteria.