Taking Advantage of Wireless Multimedia Technology

Tuesday Jan 27th 2004 by Gerry Blackwell
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Many small businesses recognize the importance of making company data and services available to employees wherever they go. It's crucial for making employees more efficient and helping them serve customers more effectively.

Poll a random sample of big enterprise chief information officers (CIOs) about their top priorities and wirelessly enabling field workers and traveling executives is almost certain to come near the top of the list.

More and more firms are recognizing the importance of making company data and services — e-mail and intranets — available to employees wherever they go. It's crucial both to making them more efficient and helping them serve customers more effectively.

Small businesses need to follow their lead. A few, as we discovered, already are.

At the very leading edge of the boomlet in mobile wireless data applications are those that involve sending multimedia data — images, and eventually even video — over cellular networks.

This was unthinkable even a few years ago. Data rates over cellular networks were woefully slow — 19 kilobits per second (Kbps) at the most. But new faster 2.5G cellular networks based on global systems for cellular communications/general packet radio service (GSM/GPRS) and code-division multiple access (CDMA) 1x radio transmission technology (1xRTT) now provide three or more times the data throughput.

Some wireless data applications require extensive work to integrate existing computer systems with the wireless networks — work that may be beyond the budgets and skill sets of many small firms — but others require only simple tools.

Some small businesses are taking advantage of this technology. We spoke to two in Canada, both in the real estate industry, both using cellular to send and receive digital images.

Home Inspection
Ken Shaw is owner and president of All Canadian Inspection & Safety Services (ACISS) of Toronto. Home buyers hire his firm to do engineering inspections of houses they're thinking of purchasing. It's Shaw's job to tell them if the house is sound, or needs work.

He has for some time captured images of houses he inspects using a digital camera to show clients who can't attend the inspection. Now Shaw and some of his subcontractors are using $300 camera phones from LG Electronics — phones with digital cameras built in — to take the pictures. Then they e-mail images over cellular provider Telus's 1X network to the client. It can be a deal saver.

Shaw recently inspected a $580,000 home for a Southeast Asian immigrant moving to Toronto from India. The deal was down to the wire and Shaw had discovered the house needed repair work on the windows that reduced its value. He e-mailed the pictures to his client in India to illustrate the point.

"I had an hour to let him know if the home was in good condition," Shaw says. "I sent the photos while onsite. Time was really of the essence. Without the phone, I never could have done that — it would have taken too long to go back to the office. In that hour, my client renegotiated his deal."

He admits it's a situation that doesn't crop up every day, but the realtor who recommended Shaw for this job does have other overseas buyers. And even when the client is in town, sending images from the phone is often the easiest way.

It doesn't cost that much either. Shaw paid less for his camera phone than he did for his last cellular phone. He says it only costs about 20 cents in airtime charges per image sent. He typically takes 15 shots or fewer at each property.

Sending pictures to clients is one of three ways Shaw and his inspectors are getting benefit from the camera phones. Shaw also runs a training school, and often recruits the trainees to work for ACISS.

They're usually still learning when they start working, and need to be able to consult with experienced inspectors. If they're uncertain about what they see when they're on a job, they can now e-mail a picture back to the office or to one of the other inspectors' phones.

"If they can't figure out why a foundation is leaking, for example, they'll take a few pictures and send them to one of us," Shaw says. "Or they'll take a picture of the roof. A really new guy may not have mastered estimating the life of a roof. It's critical when we're writing up our reports that we're very specific."

Home inspectors who make mistakes and pass houses that turn out to need expensive repairs can be and have been sued by their clients. It has happened to competitors but never to ACISS, and Shaw wants to keep it that way.

He also uses the camera phone as a teaching aid. If he's on an inspection while class is in session, he sometimes sends pictures back to the school of things he finds to illustrate what the students are learning in the classroom.

"If I can send them pictures, it gets them more motivated," he says. "It's like a doctor with interns doing rounds."

Virtual Realty
Real estate agents in boards across North America have been using wireless PDAs and laptops to access Multiple Listing Service (MLS) databases for a few years. Executive Wireless of Vancouver, Canada, now lets them retrieve pictures and maps along with the text on each property.

"Realtors tell us they have to have the data, but they also say, 'We're visual people, we want to see it too,'" says Michael Grabham, the company's president and CEO. "It's also sometimes important to be able to see [a property] because the script may say one thing while the picture shows something different. Seeing is believing."

George Gomory is a realtor with Remax Central Realty in Burnaby B.C. near Vancouver. He now carries an SX56 Pocket PC phone from Siemens AG. He uses it to access the Executive Wireless service, which is provided by his board, and receive MLS text, pictures and maps. Gomory admits the picture is not vital, but it helps.

It sometimes come in handy, for example, when he goes to visit a client to gather information for a new listing. He always takes MLS data on a few similar properties, for price comparison purposes. But it often happens that the clients have seen a property they think is similar and want him to consider it too.

Now he can use the Pocket PC to access the MLS listing from the car or the client's home. He clicks a button to display the picture and passes the unit to the customer: 'Is this it?'

The picture is also useful for similar reasons when he's out with buying clients who ask about new listings they've seen. He shows them the picture to be sure he's zeroed in on the right MLS record.

"Wireless is not the fastest," Gomory notes. "But everybody can wait a few seconds for a picture to see what the property looks like."

Grabham says it takes 12 seconds on average to download a property listing, complete with picture and map, over 1X and GPRS networks. There's just one picture for each property and the pictures are only about 50 to 75KB each.

Receiving pictures with the text adds nothing to the cost of the service, Grabham notes. But subscribers can only access pictures with notebooks and more expensive colour-screen PDAs such as Gomory's $900 SX56.

Subscribers pay a fee of $42 to $229 (depending on the device) for the software, plus $10 to $18 a month (depending on the real estate board) for the service. Boards pay nothing.

When compared to commissions on the homes he sells, Gomory says, the costs are not very significant. "It's more, if you're not using it, you'll never know when you're missing out on a sale for that reason."

He says he will probably upgrade to a camera phone the next time he buys. That way he could also take pictures of new properties and e-mail them to clients. "Which would make a stronger selling point."

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