Arming the road warrior

Copyright David Lawson - Property Week 2004


What is the most common English phrase? A - ‘Do you want fries with that? B - ‘Are we nearly there?’ or C - ‘Not tonight, I’ve got a headache.’

  None of the above. Soaring into the lead nowadays is: ‘I’m on the train.’  You wonder how anyone existed before mobile phones. Or hand-held PCs. It can’t be long before prodding a palmtop screen while blindly barging other pedestrians off pavements becomes a hanging offence.  Given that we are trapped in a world of perpetual connection, how do you chose from the bewildering varieties of pocket-bursting equipment. Thankfully, there are people like Richard Coleman around. He has spent the last couple of years  as a technological tailor, creating made-to-measure kit for several hundred road [and rail] warriors at FPDSavills.

  As director of IT, he sees his job as matching use to user. That might seem simple when suppliers have crammed every conceivable use onto the newest mobiles.  Phones double up to receive email and triple up as cameras. Pocket PCs have screens big enough for writing documents and spreadsheets while listening to a Wagner symphony or Radiohead album.

  But just as travellers don’t really need to inform partners [and the rest of the carriage] which station is approaching, many users can do without Cinemascope and controls that could fly a Jumbo jet. Standard issue at Savills is the Orange SPVE200 mobile phone. But trials showed that not everyone was happy. They wanted something with fewer buttons, so tailor Coleman picked out a natty outfit called the Blackberry.

  This is basically a ‘mobile for dummies’: a phone, screen, two buttons and a keyboard. When mail arrives, the  SPVE receives a text message via Microsoft Exchange 2003 in the office. The Blackberry is ‘always on’, so mail appears immediately. It  suits those who want something simple and automatic. Fans also praise the way the diary and contacts list constantly interface with those on the office PC rather than generating curses when they clash with changes made by a secretary while you are away.

   Blackberries come in two flavours.  The corporate version needs a special computer server in the office while the cheaper individual service can link via an internet service provider. Like most mobiles, costs vary according to provider, so it is worth scouring services like Vodafone, T-Mobile and BT for the most appropriate deal. Savills chose Orange and the SPVE because it wanted the continuity of using Microsoft. One other critical factor to consider is that instant email can be a disaster if every message gets through. Make sure it comes via a good spam filter.

  Many users want more than messaging, however. Anyone reliant on writing reports or spreadsheets and browsing web pages will be better suited to the large screen of  a true pocket PC. The property industry is heavy with HP iPAQs which make no pretention to doubling as a phone. Some users prefer both phone and a palmtop, says Coleman. They  just find it awkward talking to a PA while co-ordinating diary or document on the same thing. A Bluetooth headset could be a compromise, as this saves the embarrassment of holding a great lump to your ear. But like any master tailor, Colemen insists comfort is paramount rather than picking something off the peg, and some people just can’t get on with headsets.

  Even a palmtop screen can be restrictive, which is when laptops take over. Many use nothing but a notebook but this can be hairy. What if it is broken or stolen?  Savills uses Citrix software which enables roamers to phone in via a card inserted in the notebook and access all the corporate data they might need. This also ‘mirrors’ their machine on a desktop in the office so nothing can go astray. Be careful about security, however. Wireless connections can be picked up by scanners. Password login and encryption software are essential.

  The tablet PC is a newish alternative, combining the advantages of  a laptop and a large version of a palmtop screen. These are useful for presentations, as they handle handwritten diagrams and notes. Most new mobiles can record speech as well. But Coleman warns that Windows-based systems do not allow for pauses, so a single session can end up split into multiple sound files. Integrated cameras are also too basic for brochure-style pictures. So the all-in-one idea may fail at several levels, requiring an additional  camera, Dictaphone and mobile phone. Matching kit to need is the solution.

Property consultancy Spring 4 chose an email system called OpenHand running on Sony Ericsson P900 smartphones. Cost was an important factor. There is no monthly tariff – only the initial price plus call charges, says operations director Richard Peperell.  But flexibility and security were also vital.  OpenHand is not tied to a network or appliance, so Spring 4 could stay with its carrier and negotiate a separate rate for data transfer. Wireless connection means staff are not restricted to countries that support the choice of mobile email. Transmissions are heavily encrypted and information is stored on a server behind a firewall.  No data is stored on the mobile,  eliminating risks if it is lost or stolen.