How can the Internet be a business advantage when most of your business is done outside of your office?

Most industries have found adapting to the Internet as simple as keying in a Web address. Existing networks have provided the perfect platform for companies in the retail, banking and healthcare industries to easily extend their services into cyberspace.

In the plumbing trade, contractors were the first in the industry to recognize wireless as a useful project collaboration and management tool via a cell phone or pager. However, as noted in last month's column, most of a contractor's time is spent traveling to and from job sites, and on the phone with builders and other subcontractors, communicating with suppliers and distributors. It seems that the Internet needs to be traveling alongside a contractor during the day.

Wireless technology is what makes the Internet portable for the onsite plumbing contractor. Wireless can even take the information you know is kept on your hard drive back at the office and pop up on a screen in the palm of your hand. It can also be a good way of organizing your paperwork and post-it notes.

Some wireless solutions can cost up to $20,000 to integrate all your employees' gadgets into one wireless solution. But many plumbers need the wireless advantage on a smaller scale and at a more cost-effective price. Let's talk about the way the Internet is becoming mobile and start with the basics:

What's the difference between the wireless
solutions available?

PDA: One type of wireless device is usually referred to as a handheld, palmtop computer or PDA (personal digital assistant). Smaller than a laptop but more sophisticated than a personal organizer, PDAs scale the power of your personal computer to the palm of your hand. These machines function primarily as a personal organizer. Now, with the presence of the Internet, many PDAs have networking features that enable access to email and the Web. Apple Computers pioneered the PDA field in 1993 but has since been dominated by Palm Pilot, HandSpring, Hewlett-Packard, and RIM's BlackBerry. PDAs usually cost in the range from $150-$500.

Mobile Phones: Mobile phones, which many professionals feel a necessity, not a luxury, have shrunk in size as they've grown in capability. What used to be transported in a bag hanging off your shoulder, is now the size of a cigarette box. Today, phones are connected with cellular and digital technology. The location of whomever you are calling isn't a limitation any more because service providers, like Sprint PCS, have area networks all over the United States, making anywhere, anytime availability and access possible.

While mobile phones are available in analog and digital modes, digital is gradually becoming preferred - because sound quality is clearer and the transmission is more secure. Analog and digital phones are the most common forms of wireless solutions for business. Many wireless phones have Internet capabilities and can receive email and voice mail. Nextel has had a special niche in the construction and trade industries with their line of phones that include a cell phone, pager and a two-way radio all in one package. A typical cell phone can range in price from $50-$250, depending on functionality, and packages vary based upon monthly service plans.

The Pager: Your old friend is still around even though its height of popularity hit before mobile phones became equipped with voice mail and caller ID.

While the pager is still in use, sales have declined over the past years due to a couple factors such as the cell phone's popularity and expanded email capability. The pager gave users the ability to prioritize incoming calls without having to pay per message.

Economically, a pager is still a better deal; however it lacks the instant availability and messaging businesses have come to expect through cellular technology. Pagers do offer the ability to send short, limited text messages to other cell phones and paging devices. By shopping around, activation costs are waived when you purchase a pager, which is usually under $30.

I already have a lot of
wireless devices on my belt.
Why do I need anything else?

Your mobile phone allows you to make and receive calls with someone through a phone line whenever you need to - no technology can replace a human voice. A majority of wireless telephones do have Web access and also allow you to send and receive email. However, typing on a phone's keypad can be frustrating because of its limited keypad.

But as technology advances the way the plumbing industry manages projects and contractors collaborate, how will your mobile technology advance also?

For example, many contractors today are using project platforms that schedule job calendar work time lines with complete subcontractor contact information as a more efficient way to conduct business. If these systems and software are based in your office or on the Internet, how will you work outside the office? You will need "convergence," or the joining together, of disparate technologies.

The fax machine, for example, was the convergence of telecommunications technology, optical scanning and printing. Convergence of your wireless technologies will ultimately merge your pager, your office organizer, and your laptop or PC - all in the mobility of your cell phone. Many of today's handheld devices make convergence a reality.

True convergence may be a perk primarily for the corporate professional now, but it will become a necessity for the plumbing contractor over the next several years. You will not be adding to the number of gadgets you must carry - rather merging the key features of several products into one.

Convergence of wireless into a device, like the PDA, makes applications once available only on a PC or land-based network portable and accessible for your on-the-go needs. In addition, even if you do not have a laptop or a PC to run your project platform or management software, your personal digital assistant has the ability to act as your home base. If you need to update a project schedule, there's no need to phone it in or write it down, simply enter the change into your schedule or update it in the software itself through your PDA.

But not everything can be done via a cell phone. Surfing the Web, for instance, has its disadvantages. Many times cell phones' display screens are inadequate. This leaves users feeling frustrated with current features.

PDAs are much more wireless Internet friendly with larger screens and navigation tools. Some companies in the construction industry have Web sites coordinated with wireless software packages that integrate the hardware, software and Internet seamlessly.

Buildscape and BuildNet offer wireless packages that make this integration of a handheld device and the Internet possible. BuildNet Express allows contractors the ability to access the Internet for collaboration scheduling and procurement such as receiving email through RIM's BlackBerry. Buildscape's wireless business applications are powered by AvantGo's mobile software infrastructure. These solutions offer builders the ability to conduct high-level transactions and project management onsite and 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Handheld devices also offer messaging capabilities beyond what mobile phones provide such as instant messaging, real-time scheduling and contact information. Many PDAs, like RIM's BlackBerry, have specialized email solutions and Internet access. Email solutions allow users to check email instantly without dialing in. Wireless email solutions also feature end-to-end security systems where all email is encrypted between your desktop PC and your handheld. Beyond email advantages, handhelds have optional keyboards that allow you to type text for email messages simpler than a cell phone or pager.

Are all PDAs the same?

Yes and no. Most personal digital assistants offer similar features: calendars, tasks lists, contact databases, the ability to add on applications, with various sizes of memory (this affects the speed of the programs you are running). Other PDAs offer email and Web access.

The easiest way to compare PDAs is price and memory. Memory is a key issue when looking at PDAs because this is what will give your device the ability to run the most software and store the most files. Each handheld usually offers different versions:

    Palm - Palm has four basic models. The most economical version is the Palm100m, which has the least amount of memory but is the most inexpensive. The Palm Series VII is the wireless Palm model and has built-in email capabilities.

    RIM's BlackBerry - BlackBerry's line of products varies by its email and Internet access. There are two different models of BlackBerry, the Exchange Edition and the Internet Edition.

    Hewlett Packard - The Hewlett Packard line of PDA's differs by category with its Jornada pocket PC (similar in design to Palm Pilot's models) and the Jornada Handheld PC (similar in design to BlackBerry's models with full keyboard).

If I choose to get a PDA, what kind of
software do I need to buy?

All PDAs are sold with basic applications. In addition, many models have preloaded pocket versions of applications like Microsoft Office installed.

Others do not have preloaded software, but downloading can be as easy as installing programs or downloading applications from the Internet. In fact, most wireless applications are available through a wireless server (not exactly like the Internet, but we will explain in the next question) which allows memory to be freed up for other tasks.

Is the wireless connection for a
cell phone and other wireless solutions the same?

Not exactly. Cellular phone networks often provide rate plans for varying amount of time spent on calls. There are different rate plans for different users: long distance, local calls, Internet minutes, etc.

Since PDAs offer an array of applications not available on cell phones and pagers, they have to be supported by a different type of wireless network called a packet network, which allows for efficient data transmission. You can access this through a wireless ISP (Internet Service Provider), such as or GoAmerica.

Are PDAs a fad, or are they here to stay?

PDAs are much like any new technology. I am sure we all know several contractors who refused to let go of their pager despite years of advances in mobile phones.

To see what might happen in the future, let's compare the durability of the PC to the PDA. The PC of the 1980s and early-1990s changed a lot in size, dimensions and aesthetic style very rapidly. Until memory became the over-ruling factor to a PC's ability, people would sometimes be tempted to buy an entire new system unit and monitor every couple years.

The PC trend today is to upgrade the software (for example Windows 95 to Windows 2000), until they invent faster microprocessors. Microprocessing chips like the Pentium or Intel affect your computer's speed and memory.

Since noticeable upgrades in microprocessors are less frequent, consumers rarely buy a new computer but every four to six years. Because of this reason, the PC has been standard over the last three to four years for home and commercial computer use.

So will the PDA be replaced in several years with another wireless device? Probably. That is the age we are living in. Technology is changing the industry in ways we never thought would happen.

The key issue with the PDA is its ability to run applications that help manage project platforms. If it is helping us handle materials, scheduling, and delivery changes quicker, better and faster it is not a fad.

Meeting your customer's needs and enhancing your skills as a plumbing contractor is something that will never go out of style, it will just become more technology friendly.