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Global CIO: UPS Provides Peek Into Future Of Wireless

Watching what UPS is doing with its wireless devices has been a good indicator of where the industry is headed
This fifth version of the DIAD is the first that isn't custom built for UPS. UPS picks the features it wants, but the basic device is the same one any company--including delivery rivals--will be able to buy from Honeywell. Past versions were custom-built for UPS, by Motorola. "The time had come where the industry had caught up, and was getting in front of us in terms of their product offerings," Woods says. This model will run on Windows Mobile operating system, migrating off Windows CE.

This speaks to the growing capability and mass-market demand for wireless devices.

Not The Standard Smartphone

However, it also speaks to the notion that standard smartphones, even as they get more powerful, can't meet many mobile needs. UPS tested smartphones such as a BlackBerry and found a lot of reasons they didn't work for drivers. ("Gloves," says Woods.) The DIAD V, at 1.3 pounds and 3.5 inches, is half the size of past devices, but still big enough to have a good sized screen and buttons, be rugged enough, and have a 12-hour battery life drivers need to get through those pre-Christmas shifts. UPS expects the devices to last five to seven years.

UPS CIO Dave Barnes is a big believer in using off-the-shelf IT wherever possible. Even when UPS co-develops technology with vendors, such as a recent wearable printer developed with Hewlett-Packard, it doesn't push for exclusivity. To Barnes, the advantage is in how it's used, not the technology itself.

More Power, Faster Connections

The new DIAD device, while half the size, will have greater CPU capacity and more memory, with 1 GB flash and a memory card. Woods sees that as key to meeting demand for more and more specialized delivery instructions, such as people requesting delivery during certain time windows. "We're knee-deep in that type of feasibility study right now," Woods says. Their expectation is that every package will carry with it some specific delivery data.

In terms of network speed, when the device is at a UPS building at the start of a shift, it will be connected using 802.11n Wi-Fi, providing download speeds up to 600 mbps. That will let all that data be downloaded more quickly, including richer multimedia files. This choice—of whether to use Wi-Fi or cellular for a data dump—will become more important for all mobile users as 802.11n widens the gap between Wi-Fi and cellular speeds, and as people want bigger media files on mobile devices. (See this week's InformationWeek cover story for a deep dive on 802.11n implementation strategies.)

Multimedia

In this area, the DIAD's playing catch-up. This is the first version to have a camera, which drivers might use to show where they left a package, or to document damage. The device gets a high-quality color screen for the first time, which will allow for conveying a lot more information more quickly--think red, yellow, green color-coding, rather than text descriptions. That will allow for better maps, and more engaging training videos. The devices also get a 2-D scanner, which can scan next-generation bar codes that convey much more information.

UPS will deploy more than 100,000 of the Honeywell devices. Woods expects the first beta units in the field in the fourth quarter, with general deployment beginning next year and continuing in a global rollout that will take at least three years.

To Woods and the team, having hardware specs is just the start. Now that UPS plans to have greater CPU and memory, increased bandwidth to the device, and more reliable connectivity, is there any formal effort underway to spur ideas for how to use that capability? Woods just laughs at the idea that she might ever have to ask for ideas. "It's nonstop," she says.

Global CIO small globe Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek.

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