A compact operating system offers big benefits for trucking's specialized mobile computers
Smaller, lighter, easier to use, and cheaper - it's an unbeatable combination that's about to transform portable hand-held or palm-sized computers from specialized devices for a limited number of trucking operations to general business tools for drivers of all types of fleets. Advances in hardware technology have helped set the stage, but the real driving force behind this transformation is something we never see or deal with directly.
The operating system, or OS, is the basic software running any computer. Although most people using a computer are blissfully isolated from the OS, it provides the framework or platform that allows them to run the various programs or applications that they do use.
Initially, many of the hand-held and in-cab computers used by the trucking industry ran proprietary operating systems, which meant they were limited to applications specifically written for them.
As personal computers began to gain wide acceptance, specialized devices like hand-helds moved to the PC's common operating system, DOS, which made it easier to integrate them with other business systems.
And when Windows - with its more intuitive interface - became the de facto standard OS for personal computers, many mobile computer makers began adapting their systems to run that platform. This gave fleets access to a much broader range of applications, and made it easier to customize those applications.
The advantages offered by Windows are significant. First, it offers a standard interface that's now familiar to almost anyone who's ever used a computer, which makes it easier to introduce new applications with a minimum of disruption and training time. Second, it provides widely accepted software standards that make it easier to customize applications or to develop new applications that can be integrated with existing ones. And finally, there is an immense pool of developers to build, modify, or integrate any application a fleet might need.
However, Windows has drawbacks that make it difficult to adapt for mobile computers, especially the smaller hand-held units. Even its earliest versions required significant amounts of memory and fairly powerful processors to function properly; subsequent versions like Windows 95 and NT increased memory and processor demands.
More memory and faster processors need more power, making it difficult to achieve acceptable battery life for mobile computers, especially small hand-helds. They also generate more heat, requiring cooling fans, which further reduces battery life while adding vulnerable moving parts to devices that need to survive in a demanding trucking environment.
Recognizing the limitations of Windows, Microsoft has developed an operating system specifically designed for hand-held and other mobile computers. Called Windows CE, it was used initially to develop personal digital assistants (PDAs) for the consumer market to compete with the popular Palm from 3Com.
However, it hasn't taken long for specialized computer makers to identify Windows CE as a good solution for trucking, warehousing, and other mobile business operations.
In the past year, every major supplier of hand-helds has introduced or announced its first CE models. At the same time, the Palm (with its own proprietary, but widely deployed, Palm OS operating system) has also begun showing up in hardened versions for transportation applications.
"Windows CE is very attractive for a number of reasons," says Phillip Shiffrin, a logistics market specialist at Intermec Technologies Corp. While Intermec's Norand division has offered hand-helds running Windows 95 for some time, in early 1999 the company introduced a palm-sized Norand model and a larger mobile device running CE.
"Windows 95 requires a 40 Mb (memory) card to store it in a compressed format and an 85 Mb card uncompressed," says Shiffrin. "Windows CE is probably one-third that size, which lowers costs because you don't need as much memory and the form factor (of the entire device) can be smaller. Not only is the OS slimmer, but it has a lower power requirement. That means batteries last longer, which further reduces cost and weight."
As a consumer product, Windows CE also offers a wide range of off-the-shelf hardware and software components that can be adapted for specialized mobile devices. "That shortens delivery time and lowers prices, making the technology more affordable," says John Dreibelbis, director-marketing for Hand Held Products Inc., which has just introduced a new version of its Dolphin hand-held device for Windows CE.
Even more importantly, CE is an open (nonproprietary) operating system from Microsoft, which means it's relatively easy to port or adapt existing Windows applications for a fleet's mobile computers. And there is already an extensive library of plug-in software components that makes it easy to integrate CE mobile devices into existing wide-area or local-area networks, says Dreibelbis.
The Piranha from Kinetic Computer Corp. is a fixed-mount truck PC designed to run Windows CE. "With CE, we don't need a fan or hard drive, which means better reliability and lower cost," says Jonathan Ball, director-sales & marketing. "But open architecture with standard Windows drivers also makes it much easier to add peripherals (to a mobile device) like scanners and bar code readers. That adds quite a bit of flexibility to modify the computer to meet a user's needs, and that's going to be critical in developing cost-effective systems."
"Right now there are 25,000 Windows CE developers in the U.S.," says Norm Ellis, director of program and product development for Qualcomm Inc. The company's new MVPc is a native Windows CE on-board computer developed by Symbol Technologies for Qualcomm's existing satellite communications service and its new land-based service.
"Even our midsized fleet customers have developers on staff with the Windows language skills to write CE applications," he says. And as part of a seven-city Windows CE tour sponsored by Microsoft, Qualcomm has been talking up opportunities in the transportation industry to the rest of the developer community.
"We're also taking a pretty aggressive approach to support developers and give them tools that will be useful in this open architecture," says Ellis. "We've just released a software developers kit for our customers to help them build or modify applications for the MVPc, and we're establishing a certification process for customers and third-party developers," says Ellis. "All those developers working in CE are bound to come up with some pretty interesting applications."
One final argument for Windows CE in trucking applications is that it was developed from the start with wireless communications in mind. Driven by a consumer market that wants wireless access to e-mail and the Internet, Windows CE not only has software communications modules that adhere to standard Internet protocols, but there are relatively inexpensive wireless modems already available for the operating system - and many more in the development stage.
"It's opening the window to Internet access in the truck," says Mark Woodka, vp-sales and marketing for the software developer TMW Systems Inc. "Once you put a browser in the truck, you're talking about giving drivers their own management systems - with access to customer databases, maps, and whatever else they need to be more productive. You can do that with a widespread, familiar user interface and without having to reinvent applications."
For many fleets, Windows CE's combination of cost, flexibility, power, and ease of use will finally provide the justification for putting productive information technology in the hands of their drivers.