by Chris S. Thomas
Implementers now widely recognize the reliability increases that are available by enabling workers to work offline when connectivity is not available. The true potential of the Mobilized Software Initiative is now beginning to emerge: that of vastly increasing efficiency through new workflow models. This article uses a few noteworthy solutions as examples of how solutions architects can remove inefficiencies from their users' workflows by means of mobilized software.
The emerging nature of this field means that many potential user scenarios remain as provider opportunities. The large productivity gains that the mobilized software initiative offers translate to great potential for rapid adoption of mobilized solutions. Thus, the opportunity for solution providers in this area is great.
The Opportunity to Increase Productivity through Mobilized Solutions
There is a phenomenon that I refer to as "solutions-induced labor," or work that is required to complete a particular task because of rigid, inappropriate workflow models. For example, consider the case of an insurance agent who records customer information for a new policy on a paper form out in the field and then has to input that same information into a client-server application upon returning to the office. This duplication of effort cuts into productivity in a very direct way, especially when you multiply it by a large number of insurance policies over weeks, months, or years. Such solutions introduce extra labor to the workflow simply by failing to make information systems (in this case, the insurance company's application) available to disconnected end-users (in this case, the insurance agent in the field).
Now consider a mobilized solution that better meets the business needs of our insurance agent. The agent goes out into the field with a laptop computer, on which a mobilized application allows her to gather the customer's information. The laptop also has local copies of marketing presentations, benefit calculators, provider directories, etc., to assist in making sales. Once the agent has gathered that information, the customer's application for a policy is complete. The laptop automatically synchronizes with back-end systems back at the office, and those systems communicate acceptance and policy information to the customer via automated mail and/or e-mail. Additional details on implementing this type of mobile solution can be found in the recently published Mobile Reference Model 1.5 series.
Such reductions in effort correlate to massive productivity gains on the part of users over time.
Agilix Labs Creates Next-Generation eLearning Environment
One response to the rising costs of education is the increasing deployment of eLearning environments, in institutions of higher learning and elsewhere. These environments have proven to be very cost-effective. One challenge to their design is to escape the traditional client-server model that requires the student to have a persistent connection to a Web server while interacting with the eLearning environment. Lack of attention to this issue can cause educational and training institutions to face large peak traffic loads that make poor use of network resources, drive costs up, and negatively impact the students' user experience.
In traditional classroom settings, instructors also rely increasingly on eLearning technology. The vast majority prepare lecture notes and other course materials electronically, although most distribute course handouts to students as hardcopy. The trend toward electronic distribution of these materials gains more currency every year, as does the adoption of electronic textbooks. Similarly, students have begun to adopt Tablet PCs and other ink-enabled devices to bridge the gap between their freehand class notes and the word-processing and other electronic environments where they generate the majority of their work.
Online eLearning, electronic distribution of course materials, and student adoption of electronic handwriting are combining to enable a relatively paper-independent environment for education. This reduction on paper dependence sets the stage for students to obtain significant efficiency gains via information-management systems. The inefficiencies associated with being bound to a busy server for eLearning and correlating handwritten notes with hardcopy syllabuses and research materials are fertile ground for improvement.
Agilix meets those challenges with mobilized eLearning solutions for students and educators. Agilix GoBinder* and Mobilizer* extend Web-based course and learning management systems used by students into offline environments. Both applications integrate with the Blackboard Learning System* learning-management environment. With these solutions, students can download a portable version of course content hosted on university networks, use this content in disconnected or classroom environments, and receive continual updates through occasional network connections.
As a rich-client application, GoBinder gives students a solution to keep them organized and in control of the learning process as they manage assignments, annotate lecture notes, search through resea rch, and share notes with classmates. Agilix Mobilizer extends student use of the Blackboard Learning System into offline-use scenarios so students can access and use Blackboard content in on-campus or off-campus settings where an Internet connection is not available.
Agilix solutions help students organize classes and schedules, manage assignments, take and store notes, search for information, and share notes with their peers. By integrating information sources together in a mobilized solution that also integrates with Microsoft Office* applications, these solutions add a new level of coherence to learning management for students. Further, the efficiencies of the mobilized environment mean that students are not a burden on the University network, cutting infrastructure, maintenance, and support costs for educational institutions.
Pilot programs at higher-learning institutions, including Brigham Young University, are demonstrating early benefits to students and faculty in terms of efficiency and productivity. "BYU is focused on improving the effectiveness of teaching and learning through the integration of appropriate technology," says Jon Mott, Director at the Center for Instructional Design at Brigham Young University. "In particular, we look for technology solutions that leverage our investment in Blackboard. Based on our preliminary use, we are optimistic that Agilix Mobilizer and GoBinder solutions will enhance student and faculty use of Blackboard to produce a richer and more flexible teaching and learning experience."
PeerDirect Provides Key Building Blocks for Mobilized Solutions
A large proportion of business applications depend on persistent network connections. Since those applications do not support offline use in a mobilized scenario, an organization that wants that functionality must purchase an off-the-shelf mobilized solution, if one is available, or they must mobilize the software themselves.
Purchasing a new solution and integrating it with existing systems can be very costly, both in terms of the implementation effort itself and in potential lost production due to problems during that implementation. Developing an in-house mobilized solution from scratch can also be costly, because of the necessity of developing building blocks such as synchronization, power-management, and connectivity-management engines in a platform-independent, secure manner. The PeerDirect Mobilized Enterprise product suite helps software developers to contain the costs of mobilizing software (as well as creating new software that is mobilized starting with version 1.0), by providing core mobilization mechanisms and database replication and abstracting that functionality away from the application logic.
One PeerDirect client, a maker of field-maintenance software, needed to fully mobilize an application for use by one of the world's largest jet-engine manufacturers. The manufacturer's service technicians work in very large areas that include hangars and the surrounding airfields. Within the actual hangars, workers are generally able to access Wi-Fi networks with wireless client devices, but because of the large distances involved, network connectivity is typically unavailable in the airfields outside.
Since the field-service application was not usable when it was not connected, workers did not have access to information such as the maintenance history of individual engines and aircraft when outside the hangar. Because of this limitation, workers faced limitations in making informed service decisions, and they were also unable to enter information into maintenance records while out in the field.
By implementing PeerDirect database replication technology, the independent software vendor mobilized the service application for its client. The new, mobilized version of the application allows service technicians to roam freely from the indoor connected environment to the outdoor unconnected environment, without interruption to the functionality of the service application. A full copy of the service database is stored in each client device, which allows technicians to retrieve and change information from the field, and that information is automatically synchronized when the connection again becomes available. With uninterruptible access to the field service application, PeerDirect reports that the manufacturer's service technicians reduced unnecessary part replacement by nearly 50%.
The PeerDirect Mobilized Enterprise product suite extends applications to support mobilized use by means of the four key elements of the PeerDirect solution stack:
- Management Console provides centralized Web-based administration of users.
- Application Manager handles application deployment and upgrades.
- File Replication Engine synchronizes file updates among multiple users.
- Data Replication Engine synchronizes and maintains database integrity.
PeerDirect distributes a Software Development Kit that enables developers to integrate mobilized functionality into new and existing software applications.
UGS Solution Adds Mobility to Product Lifecycle Management
Highly technical business operations must typically be supported by sophisticated information systems. As the previous example illu strates, mobilizing those systems to ensure that they are available throughout large work areas can improve productivity dramatically. At Tinker Air Force Base, near Oklahoma City, a unit in charge of maintaining heavy military aircraft recently decided to extend its systems with a mobile front-end in order to take advantage of the benfits of wireless technology and mobilized software.
In massive maintenance hangars at Tinker, crews disassemble, inspect, service, and reassemble approximately 75 large military aircraft such as B-1 and B-52 bombers and C-135 transports every year. The process involves a very intricate series of interrelated steps that depend on extensive libraries of reference manuals. Since wireless networks are not practical through the thick walls of heavy military aircraft, maintenance-crew members had to carry around various hardcopy volumes on a regular basis. The bulk of information meant that technicians spent a great deal of time walking back and forth across hangars to retrieve the right manual, causing frequent interruptions to their work.
UGS is a Product Life Cycle Management company with whom the Intel® Software and Solutions Group (Intel® SSG) implemented a mobility-enabled solution in support of Tinker Air Force Base's operations. The solution allows aircraft maintenance mechanics to evaluate parts for repair using electronic forms on a Tablet PC rather than paper forms, submit that information to the digital backbone and to later access technical manuals and specifications to support their maintenance efforts. Since the solution is architected to support data synchronizaton, it works even when there is no network connection and then synchronizes with the server when the connection is re-established. By allowing workers to interact with the digital backbone at the point-of-maintenance, it has introduced significant productivity gains. Workers are no longer required to wait until they return to the workstations on their desks to input and retrieve information.
Tinker deployed this mobilized solution on Intel® Centrino® mobile technology-based Tablet PCs. The integrated wireless capabilities and great battery life afforded by this hardware platform are well suited to the implementation. The mobile client is a browser-based front end that supports the use of freehand text input, as well as graphical information on forms and diagrams. The application is designed to allow rapid drilldown into technical data by means, for example, of allowing the user to access a CAD drawing by clicking a section of a specifications page or accessing a detail diagram by circling a section of the drawing.
UGS summarizes these productivity gains as follows:
"Tinker AFB estimates that an Intel® Centrino® mobile technology-based tablet solution ... will potentially save $2.5M per year in direct maintenance costs as well as reduce aircraft maintenance cycle time by 25%, or six weeks, thereby increasing the time these aircraft are in service, spending more time doing the defense department jobs they were designed to do."
By enabling workflow to support both online and offline environments, this solution reduces the need for crew members to int errupt their work in order to obtain the information they need, significantly improving productivity.
The software industry has begun to enable substantial productivity gains by rethinking workflows using mobilized solutions. The examples introduced in this article are just a small sample to illustrate the benefits that mobilized solutions can engender, eliminating needless effort on the part of users simply by removing solutions' dependence on constant connectivity. Agilix extends the eLearning environment to bring anywhere, anytime access to learning materials. PeerDirect provides software developers with the means to mobilize new and existing software applications efficiently. UGS provides the software intelligence to mobilize solutions at all stages of the product life cycle.
Each of these solutions providers puts the Mobilized Software Initiative into action to reduce the effort required of its users to obtain desired results. This reduction in effort is one clear reason that software providers should move away from developing applications that depend on constant network connectivity. This change benefits users by increasing productivity, and that improvement ultimately makes your solutions more competitive in the marketplace.
About the Author
Considered one of Intel's visionaries, Chris S. Thomas drives key e-Business marketing and architecture activities within Intel's Solutions Market Development Organization and is an active industry spokesperson and organizer. He is also a regular contributor to Intel® Developer Services. He writes often on the evolving compute model and promise of writing software supporting the Mobilized Software Initiative.
Company and Product Information
Additional information is available at the following locations about products and solutions from the companies described in this article:
- Agilix Labs, Inc.* is the maker of Agilix GoBinder*, a mobile content organizer for students, and Agilix Mobilizer*, server-side and client-side software that extends courseware and learning-management systems, including Blackboard*.
- PeerDirect Corporation* provides the PeerDirect Remote Office suite, which allows central management of distributed applications, and the PeerDirect Mobilized Enterprise suite, which mobilizes existing and new applications, providing management, deployment, and synchronization capabilities.
- Siemens PLM Software produces product lifecycle management (PLM) software that coordinates the expertise of everyone in the product lifecycle, maximizing synergies and managing interdependencies among different projects, in order to accelerate product development.
Intel also provides an array of value-added products and information to software developers:
- Intel® Software Partner Home provides software vendors with Intel's latest technologies, helping member companies to improve product lines and grow market share.
- Intel® Developer Zone offers free articles and training to help software developers maximize code performance and minimize time and effort.
- Intel® Software Development Products include Compilers, Performance Analyzers, Performance Libraries and Threading Tools.
- IT@Intel, through a series of white papers, case studies, and other materials, describes the lessons it has learned in identifying, evaluating, and deploying new technologies.