How you can use this hot technology in your operations.

Would you believe that "modern" wireless technology had its debut in the United States almost 100 years ago on Cape Cod, Mass.? On January 18, 1903, inventor Guglielmo Marconi broadcast the first two-way transatlantic communication (by Morse code) between President Theodore Roosevelt and King Edward VII of Britain.

Today you may not be transmitting quite as far, but chances are your communiqu?- e-mails, Web site clippings, cellular phone calls - are just as important to your contemporaries as was that historic first transmission. Wireless technology has the potential to unleash us (pun intended) from our desk-bound PCs and yet keep us well connected to important data points found in our back-offices.

Wireless voice communication is growing at an explosive rate around the world. In the United States, cell phone usage grew tenfold from one million in 1987 to 10 million in 1993. Hundreds of thousands of cell phones are being sold each month, so much so that area codes and local exchanges are changing at a rate that's difficult to keep up with. Now we have to contend with 10-digit dialing just to call our neighbors.

Cellular phones have evolved from heavy automobile installed units to shirt pocket portables weighing less than a wallet. Cell phones are becoming so inexpensive as to replace the once venerable pocket pagers.

Personal digital assistants, also known as PDAs or handhelds, began as personal organizers, complete with a set of applications to make people's lives easier. Today they offer Internet connectivity, as well as a large number of hardware and software choices. A cousin to these units called a "Blackberry" is a hybrid pocket pager with a two- or three-line LCD screen and a miniature full alpha keyboard. These are used for e-mail and paging alerts.

Mobile computers - those used in business applications - can be divided into three groups: keyboard (handheld), pen-based (handheld) and vehicle mount (fork truck). These units can have a variety of features. One of the most common in our industry is the laser-driven bar-code reader.

All of these aforementioned wireless products are gaining a strong foothold among wholesalers today.

But what can it do for me?

Wireless technology offers two major benefits: added mobility and time savings. The mobility from wireless technology is used by businesses to optimize their use of employee time not just in the office, but also in the warehouse and in the field. This added mobility enables better business decisions and provides better customer service. As a result, businesses are incorporating into their operations the hardware and applications required to more effectively take advantage of wireless benefits.

Cutting-edge companies today are realizing that time is a critical component of competitive advantage. The way leading companies manage time in new sales initiatives, product introduction and marketing, as well as in distribution and service, represents a powerful new source of competitive advantage. By reducing the time expended in all aspects of business, wholesalers reduce costs, improve quality and stay close to their customer base.

Before one faucet can move from the warehouse to the customer, a packet of information needs to be generated and routed through the wholesaler's system. Acquiring, storing and moving this data throughout the company is just as important as the physical delivery of the product. Until wireless was available, this critical information could only be transmitted over the wholesaler's wired network. Whether you're researching product specs for a job, transmitting a purchase order to a vendor or entering a sales order, wireless can make the process more efficient. But that's not all; here are some additional tasks that can be handled by wireless:

  • Web browsing;

  • Signature capture on deliveries;

  • Integrated bar-code scanning;

  • Connecting to a portable printer; and

  • GPS and map service for delivery vehicles and field sales persons.

Practically any computer or peripheral can be connected via wireless technology to other computers in your network.

Wireless technology is one of those innovations that we probably can get along without, but it can be readily cost justified with its relatively inexpensive buy-in costs. There are solid arguments to be made that better customer service and lower internal processing costs can be realized by moving these functions closer to where and when they occur, rather than recording information on paper forms, schedules, phone lists, etc.

Next time I'll explain how wireless works in its three most popular forms: cellular, radio frequency and infrared.