January 12, 2006

Ordering 50,000 Salami with a Cell Phone

By Evan Schuman, Ziff Davis Internet

In the middle of last year, Joe Chiavetta was facing a potentially huge hardware purchase to keep his always-on-the-road sales force current with pricing, orders and customer backgrounds. It's not what a food distribution company's chief financial officer likes to think about.

"Our salesmen, who are really out in the field all the time, we were looking for a way to get them information on a daily basis. We wanted them to start submitting their orders to us on a daily basis," Musco Food Corp. CFO Chiavetta said, adding that the sales force was then checking into voice mail to hear about price changes or other crucial matters.

It then struck Chiavetta that the device the reps were already using to check voicemail—their cell phones—could also include small customer databases for the 200 or so prospects that each rep works.

Chiavetta worked with one of the company's software providers—SCO—and the Palm Treo 650s were customized.

"We now use these devices as kind of an electronic catalog, possibly as a price list and with some customer information, such as the last time the customer paid and what they bought the last time," Chiavetta said.

The rep "also has the ability to go back in and put the order into the handheld and get it to us live."

Before the modified Treos were deployed, "we needed a ready operator on our end here, to take the order. Now it's sent right into our server." Musco's orders move wirelessly and drop into an HP server running SCO Unix, networked to about 18 Dell PCs.

The data all sits on the handheld Treos, with each sales rep retaining only his or her slice of customers (about 200).

One of the biggest advantages Chiavetta talks about is the ease of getting price changes announced.

"It's not unusual that, perhaps once a week, we'll be sending a voice mail telling our sales people about price changes with different products," he said.

The old system prompted a lot of errors, with some reps placing orders with old pricing. "Now, when they try and place an order, that updated price is going to be right there. That's been a tremendous savings right there," Chiavetta said.

Before the Treo possibility was developed, the CFO's plan was to purchase a bunch of Windows laptops that the sales reps would have to carry around.

"We're paying about $300 for the average Treo, and we were looking at more than double that, with a laptop costing about $700-$800," Chiavetta said, adding that the Treos delivered real-time data and the laptops would have likely not.

One possibility for the future is equipping the sales reps with tiny portable printers so customers can be given hard-copy receipts to immediately confirm orders placed in the field.

For the moment, though, Chiavetta said, the record being in the handheld is sufficient.

"It's not really necessary to give them an order confirmation on the spot," he said.

Almost all of the data resides on the PDA, other than the price list that sits only on the server at headquarters in Maspeth, N.Y.

This is one of the first deliverables from a relatively new unit of SCO called Me Inc., which was introduced last September at the Demo conference.

Its goal is to deliver feature-rich consumer and business digital services for smart phones and other intelligent mobile devices, regardless of the presence of an SCO operating system.

Bruce Grant, the division's senior director for research and development, said he sees Musco's situation as a good example of the potential of handheld-phone hybrids, leveraging their communications and computer capabilities.

"We're seeing a growing capability of smart phones that seems to outpace the applications available for them," Grant said.

Programming for such small devices, though, requires a very different approach.

The Treo 650 that Musco is using, for example, ships with only 32MB of memory, with only 22 to 23MB available for use. (Palm officially says 23MB available, but it doesn't recommend using more than 22MB of that because the Palm becomes highly unstable when available memory approaches 800KB.)

Even much of that is locked by core applications (such as e-mail), giving programmers very little room to create advanced applications, especially if the user has several productivity apps installed.

Grant's testing suggests that the truly available memory is actually much less. Although Palm says the unit should remain stable until available memory approaches 800KB, Grant found that problems began much sooner.

"Within about 1.5 to 2.5MB of filling, it's a bad thing. It gets unstable," Grant said.

But if apps are kept tight enough to avoid using that much of the memory, he said, it works quite well.

"There are obvious limitations, but it performs better than what people realize," Grant said, adding that they tried placing the information for all customers (as opposed to just that sales rep's slice) on each PDA.

"When we took the entire snapshot of the database with all of the customers, it fit. Just barely, but it fit."

"It forces us to stop thinking in the paradigm of XML" and to program in the much more limited Palm Database language [PDB]. PDB handles and compresses data very differently from its Windows counterparts.

"It's very compact and executes very quickly on the Palm, but this is not yet a full-blown operating system such as what it is on our desktops," Grant said.

Given that all of the data records—other than the price list—reside on each phone, steps have to be taken to keep the database within the small memory footprint of the smart phone.

An extra memory card is one option to help, but Grant didn't want to force customers to have to buy one for their app to function properly.