DOS lives on in niche mobile products

Handheld computers are not just used by busy executives to check e-mail, update schedules and do word processing.

Often, devices, such as those offered by Intermec Technologies Corp., are used by people in a variety of specialized fields including medicine, transportation, utilities, route delivery, inventory and engine maintenance.

The company has two new devices, the Norand Pen*Key 6212 and 6220, which both feature faster processors and longer battery life, in addition to being able to withstand a four-foot drop onto concrete.

The 6212 comes with a 33MHz 486 processor, 8MB RAM, while the 6220 has a 99MHz processor, 8MB or 16MB RAM and an optional touch screen for signature captures. Both computers run on DOS and are targeted specifically for the route delivery industry, said Steve Hart, sales manager for mobile systems at Intermec.

Drivers can download their daily routes into the handheld computer, deliver products, generate an invoice and get the customer to sign off, and at the end of the day use the device to upload the information to a central computer. Invoices can remain in digital form, or may be printed out on one of several mobile printers offered by Intermec, he said.

“So one of the benefits to the distributors is that it speeds up the invoicing process and starts to lower the days outstanding, because you can present the invoice when you deliver the product.”

The interchange of data can be done via modem or docking stations. Intermec has many different models of mobile computers, because different needs come with every industry, he said.

“The ones that are targeting route delivery quite often are text-based, whereas if you are in the transportation industry you might actually be showing a waybill or capturing a signature. In the utility market you might be mapping hydro lines or describing encroaching vegetation. For those you need a full visual screen, such as on the [Norand Pen*Key] 6620,” Hart said.

Jill House, research analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass., said the use of DOS in mobile devices such as the Pen Keys is “exceedingly typical,” which she says surprises people.

“Part of the reason for that is if you are looking at standard data collection for mission-critical applications, DOS is hard to crash. That’s huge when you are talking about a store’s operations, if you are down for two hours – your clients are going elsewhere,” she said. “So DOS isn’t going away anytime soon.”

Jack Gold, senior program director at Meta Group in Westboro, Mass., said the market for these products is “split between standard, off-the-shelf products — mostly notebooks — and very specialized ruggedized devices that people mount on the dashboards of trucks.”

According to Gold, Intermec’s Norand devices are one the prime players in the latter space. “The problem is that more and more companies are looking at moving away from these devices, which tend to be very expensive, to more standardized arenas,” he said.

“DOS is really a legacy application at this point…any new application that’s going on-line these days is pretty much focused on Windows, unless it’s a really small form factor.”

Year 2000 is another reason people are moving away from these machines, he explained. “I know some organizations that have had them in place seven or eight years [running] old DOS applications, and there’s no way they are Y2K compliant. They will probably move to a Windows environment – because Windows gives you so much more,” Gold said.

“Pole climbers and telephone companies are not going to need word processing, but at least if they are in a Windows environment it gives them the opportunity to move to a variety of different software platforms. Certainly Windows is not as stable as DOS is, but then DOS doesn’t do as much. So it’s a trade-off.”

The Intermec Norand Pen Key 6212 and 6220 mobile computers ( range from $4,500 to $7,500.

Intermec Technologies Canada in Mississauga, Ont., is at 1-800-268-6936.