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Door to Door With the HP Palmtop

Door to Door With the HP Palmtop

The Palmtop gets a new heft and feel and keeps a Malaysian sales force fully automated.

By Jimmy Tan

 The company I work for believes in doorstep delivery using our own van trucks.

 Typically, a salesman closes a sale and issues the goods on the spot, subject tothe stock in his van. Back in 1988 we equipped our salesmen with handheld computers and they have been using them ever since. In 1995 the rate of breakdowns and scarcity of spare parts became a real issue. The ever-increasing price of the non-standard rechargeable batteries was also driving us crazy.

 When my boss came to me with the task of replacing these handheld computers, I thought it was going to be a piece of cake. A number of established brands were in the market plus a couple of new entrants. Then he dropped the bombshell. The criteria were:

 a. It must be an open technology;

 b. It must cost less than an entry-level PC or laptop.

 Now that was a real challenge because a typical industrial handheld computer had exactly the opposite qualities. They were proprietary in terms of hardware and software, and the prices were plain ridiculous.

 So what could I recommend short of a laptop itself? It didn't take long for my team to realize that a laptop or notebook computer was not the answer. When it comes to portability and usability, such machines are totally unacceptable. We couldn't imagine a salesman lugging it around and waiting for it to boot up every time he turned it on to take a customer's order.

 Next we went shopping for organizer-type devices and tried out various brands such as the Sharp PC 2000, Psion, Poqet PC and the HP 200LX. We put them through their paces with simple prototype programs. No prizes for guessing who won the shootout!

The solution
Having identified the technology, locating a vendor was easy because the 200LX's operating system was industry standard -- I mean who doesn't know DOS? We decided on C as the programming language because of speed and size of the executeables, and selected Linux as the operating system for the PC Server. The server consolidates the sales transactions from the Palmtops at the end of every day through a wired connection. We could handle the connection to remote units with a PC Card modem.

 We designed a custom carrying case to house the Palmtop in its opened state while connected to a battery operated printer (see picture). This ever-ready position plus the instant sleep-and-resume mode of the Palmtop parallels a typical handheld computer although it is comparatively more bulky. We managed to package them all into a portable unit at less than half the price of a handheld computer with comparable specifications.

 The biggest challenge was getting all this off-the-shelf technology to work as a single system. We spent countless hours of trial and error to arrive at this workable solution. To be honest, the journey was as rewarding as the end result itself.

In Use
The advantages of automating the front-end of our business are numerous. First, by entering an order into the Palmtop, the sales people are doing the office a favor: data capture at the source eliminates a separate team of data entry staff at the office and reduces the risk of transcription errors. The information is sent to the back-end system which automatically updates creditor information and inventories -- all done with minimum human intervention.

 Second, because prices are preset in the Palmtop by the PC Server administrator, price manipulations are curbed. Third, the sales staff immediately enjoys tremendous savings in day-end paperwork because the PC Server automatically generates the necessary reports free of arithmetic errors. Fourth, the Sales Manager can monitor the time-efficiency of the sales staff by analyzing the audit trail which time-stamps every single activity that is entered in the Palmtop.

 Of course, we didn't expect the Palmtop to be as durable as an industrial handheld computer, but it was truly a workable solution. So far we have seen worn-out keyboards and broken hinges and, occasionally, accidents like a smashed LCD screen. However, the benefits in terms of time saving and reduced clerical overheads far outweigh the running costs of these Palmtops.

 Some sales people complained about the visibility of the screen under poor lighting conditions, so maybe it's time we introduced backlighting!

Next steps
Once we brought the technology to the front-end, the number of possible applications is virtually limitless. One useful application we are considering is a simple program to allow our sales staff to enter customer feedback regarding our products and services. We could even take it a step further by recording stock levels of our products as well as the competitors' at the customer's premises. All this data would be uploaded into a central server to be analyzed by our strategic planners and decision-makers. So what we will eventually have is an in-house market intelligence system!
How I use my Palmtop
My personal Palmtop is my trusty companion that I carry around in a holster-like leather case. I use the Appointment Book and the Phone Book extensively, and the customizable database to keep useful information like car maintenance records, interesting Web sites to check out, prices of groceries, etc. Sometimes I draft memos and e-mails on my Palmtop and send them up to my PC to finish off.

 I use rechargeable batteries and depend on Power Monitor to help me manage them. In my free time (which is a luxury given my hectic schedule) I pursue my interests with the help of this software: Skyglobe -- an astronomy program; NJ Star -- a Chinese Word Processor; GO -- the ancient game of strategy. Recently I added Project KickStart to my little arsenal of software. All this I keep in my 15MB Sandisk Flash Disk. I just love the ability to work or play at anytime, anywhere with my Palmtop.

Software Mentioned in the Article

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