Wireless browser enables data access

New technology, when deployed in the field, sometimes doesn’t succeed until users find a simple but powerful reason to embrace it. That’s what William L. Schmitt, director of business enablement at the Dallas-based Celanese Chemicals Ltd. unit of Celanese AG, discovered last year.

Schmitt developed a mobile Web interface for the company’s Hewlett-Packard Co. Pocket PCs that would help its 25 U.S.-based field salespeople – each of whom is responsible for about US$100 million in annual sales and is usually on the road – access shipping and billing data on back-end systems from SAP AG.

With the help of Clarkston Consulting in Durham, N.C., Schmitt developed an easy-to-use, text-based Web browser to access the SAP data. To provide “always-on” and relatively fast data access, Schmitt equipped the Pocket PCs with wireless data cards hooked up to Sprint PCS Group’s nation-wide Code Division Multiple Access 1XRTT data network, which offers average data speeds of 40K to 60K bit/sec. He also outfitted the browser with built-in links designed to make any road warrior’s life more comfortable, including a hotel and restaurant guide and mapping software.

Despite the utility of the new applications on the Celanese platform, called Mobile Chem VIP, Schmitt said the sales force didn’t completely buy in until he devised a way to hook the workers into the company’s Microsoft Exchange mail system using e-mail synchronization software from Synchrologic Inc. in Alpharetta, Ga.

The sales force “is addicted to e-mail,” he said, and relishes the ability to check messages throughout the day on the Pocket PCs.

Alan Reiter, an analyst at Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing in Chevy Chase, Md., said the Celanese project demonstrates that for many mobile workers, e-mail is an essential tool. Companies looking to equip field workers with mobile devices should start with e-mail because “it’s easy to do and enormously useful, and everyone knows how to do it,” Reiter said.

But once a company has experienced the power of wireless e-mail, Reiter adds, it should move on to other applications that further empower mobile workers. Schmitt said that’s exactly what Mobile Chem VIP does for the sales force. For example, it allows a salesperson to quickly locate a railroad tank car with a shipment of chemicals for a customer.

And access to billing information helps the sales force speed up payments, Schmitt said. Mobile Chem VIP allows them to call up and review disputed bills during a sales call and fix errors on the spot, cutting down the payment cycle time.

Twenty-five Celanese non-sales executives in the Dallas office now use Pocket PCs to access their e-mail while on the road, Schmitt said.

He said development costs for Mobile Chem VIP were relatively low – about US$30,000, plus US$1,100 each for the Pocket PCs. Schmitt said he can’t put an exact payback figure on the project, but the system has already paid for itself “with just one incremental order for a tank car [of chemicals].”