Mobile Computing

Mobile computing will continue to incorporate complementary technologies in order to add product functionality and value. This will include many different forms of identification, for products, assets, people, etc. This will make the capturing, moving and managing of information easier than ever before. Major manufacturers are encouraging the trend towards commoditising mobile computing and data capture technologies, through mass distribution.

High capacity barcodes
Barcodes have been used successfully for many years as a simple and reliable method of identifying and tracking. Their low cost and simple implementation maintain their popularity. The main types of barcode reader including linear, multi-row, matrix and composite codes.

In recent years the development of ‘high-capacity’ barcodes, capable of storing thousands of characters, has given this technology a further boost into new applications such as biometrics. There will be a continuing trend towards the use of high capacity barcodes.

Barcode scanners/image capture
Barcode scanners have also developed beyond recognition. The most advanced now utilize solid state video technology to capture an image and find and decode the barcode within it. Multi-functional image scanners are now being use to both capture images and read barcodes. As this technology evolves performance improvements and cost reductions are likely.

RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) is a method of tagging products, using radio waves to read the data. RFID tags have been available for many years. However, it is only recently, with the introduction of standards and a reduction in the cost of the technology, that RFID is being adopted more widely.

The tags can be read-only or read and write. Different standards allow reading from varying distances, depending on the application requirement. There has been considerable media interest in RFID – as – theoretically ‘live’ RFID tags can be used to track a consumer’s movements and transmit information to unwanted recipients.

The biggest potential market is retail, where it has become viable to incorporate a tag at time of manufacture on mid to high priced products and track it from ‘cradle to grave’. This can be used for pricing and warranty information. Even at the end of the product’s life, the tag can be used to incorporate data regarding recycling capabilities.

Wal-Mart has asked its top suppliers to implement RFID tags by 2005. Public transport is already a significant user of RFID tags, which are used in season tickets. Larger organisations incorporate them in identification cards for access control. The healthcare sector will continue to invest in RFID.

Automatic collection of road tolls is now possible – without disrupting the traffic – by utilizing tags that can be read from overhead gantries, whilst the vehicles below travel at the speed limit. RFID has been seen by many as the successor to barcoding, although it has been 50 years in the making! At the business level, it is likely to take years to implement an entire RFID system.
I3watch (the technology watchdog) predicts 3-7 years for a supermarket chain to completely replace data capture devices with RFID systems

Biometric identification
The security market has driven the development of biometric identification technologies to new heights.

Finger scanners are now fast and accurate and can be integrated into small mobile computers.

Facial recognition systems are now reliable and can be implemented with simple video technology.

Iris scanning will continue to rise in popularity, but will generally continue to only be used in static locations.

Different types of data media
The capability of reading and/or writing to different types of data media has become increasingly valuable to users, both large and small. Data orientated media products include smart cards and portable solid state drives (SD, MMC, CF, etc) that are increasingly being used in the mobile computing marketplace to allow storage of databases, GIS data, application programmes and collected data.

Wireless computing
This market is ready to explode – through the combination of wireless technology and mobile computing. Enterprise mobility has become the next big efficiency enhancement, bringing improved customer service and reduced operating expenditure.

Companies realise that field workers need access to the same data as their office colleagues. Wireless mobile computing enables utilisation of email, wireless data transfer, access to the internet, global positioning and voice communication. All of this can be delivered through a handheld (not just through a PC/laptop computer). Wireless printing has been one of the most recent extensions of the benefits of wireless networking.

Wireless Personal Area Network (WPAN)
This is essentially a cable replacement technology. It is a means of linking mobile computers, mobile phones and other portable handheld devices together and to peripherals such as portable printers. Bluetooth is probably the best known example.

Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN)
Offers a similar performance to a wired network without the wires! WLAN networks are normally installed within buildings. It is preferable that the network adheres to networking standards (e.g. IEEE 802.11a,b,g also known as WiFi). Ideally systems should not be proprietary and should promote total inter-operability between products.

Wireless Wide Area Networks (WWAN)
Used to connect remote workers, normally operating in a bigger geographical area than wireless LAN (akin to the mobile phone networks). It is enabled through GPRS, Tetra or private networks. In terms of costs – the users don’t normally pay for the network connection. Instead, they pay each time a packet of data is transmitted. The cost depends on the size of the data being transmitted. However, they also have to have the GSM subscription and a SIM card.

For both GPRS and 3G the cost of transmitting data is currently at least ten times as much as a land line. Costs of hardware are 20-30% greater than a more traditional system. Therefore, I predict that until their price falls, WWANs will continue to have limited growth potential, in specific marketplaces such as field service.

Location, location, location
Many remote workers are completely on their own! This raises numerous issues; for example, how can a service engineer be deployed most efficiently if their location is not accurately known? Health and Safety may be compromised if regular position and status reports are not received from lone remote workers.

These issues can be addressed by utilising GPS (Global Positioning System) to provide accurate location data. When used in conjunction with Wireless WAN, the position can be constantly monitored for efficiency or safety purposes. When used in conjunction with GIS mapping data, then the job scheduler will take the worker to the precise position required (within a few
metres), and then advise what work is required.

GIS (Geographical Information Systems)
This is a mapping system which combines layers of information about a place to give a better understanding of that place. I can see the integration of GIS data and technology with the mobile computing world taking off big time.

Card Technologies
The magnetic stripe (on a magnetic stripe card) is a form of recording data. There are three tracks available – all of which are capable of recording a set amount of data which is regulated by the standards agency. Examples of magnetic stripe cards include ID cards, library cards, and credit cards.

Smart cards incorporate a chip in which data can be written and stored. The chip is more robust, holds more data and is more fraud resistant than magnetic stripe cards. I predict that smart cards will replace magnetic stripe cards. All credit cards in the UK are now moving over to this form technology.

Contact or button memory
In ‘contact’, or ‘button’ memory, data is stored in a memory chip. When there is electrical contact between the i-button and the reader, the data is transferred.

This technology is not yet in widespread use. However, this is certainly one to watch.