In the last 5 or so years, confusion has developed about what to call portable barcode scanners that have internal memory and wireless connectivity. Although hard to name in the current technological landscape, there is no denying their impact on how we think of and collect data in a mobile environment.
Originally, portable barcode scanners were known as Portable Data Terminals (PDT's). At the time of their introduction, these devices were leading edge technology in mobile data collection. Developed before the first viable laptop, PDT's were the fathers of the modern PDA. Developed to work in an environment where portability and durability were absolute requirements, PDT's pushed the limits of small screen displays, low voltage memory and battery technology. PDT's used proprietary programming tools to develop applications that performed specific and narrow data collection tasks within the enterprise.
With the introduction and popularity of PalmOS PDA's in the late 1990's, mobile data collection in a compact platform became widely available. Mobile data collection took on a broader definition as well, as the user was able to install and run a plethora of applications which were developed by PDA enthusiasts using common programming tools. Where PDT's could only run custom programs for specific tasks developed at high costs, the PDA user could not only run the suite of programs bundled with the PalmOS like Contacts, Calendar and Notes but could augment the capability of the PDA by including other widely available programs with specific functions like worksheet, word processing and e-book readers. The market for mobile computing was expanding from PDT's in the enterprise to personal portable mobile computing. The "instant-on" and "data always in hand" capability of these new devices were an instant hit with general users. Microsoft soon entered the arena with the introduction of the PocketPC operating system. As time and technology progressed, PDA's evolved into mobile computing platforms to include wireless connections, internet browsing capability, terminal emulation and communication using email, SMS text messaging and voice.
PDT's developed and evolved as well, mimicking PDA devices and adopting their operating systems. The first PDT-PDA's, the SPT1500 and SPT1700 series manufactured by Symbol used the same PalmOS as commercial PDA's on the market at the time. Because of the "business" focus of the PDT market, all manufacturers eventually adopted the PocketPC / Windows Mobile operating system for their devices. The term "Portable Data Collector" became obsolete as a descriptive term as the devices were now capable of so many more tasks. The proliferation of cell phones and the ability of Windows Mobile to support cell network communication gave PDT manufacturers the ability to offer "real time" data collection and common data source updates in any environment. From the warehouse to the train yard, this new generation of PDT's could offer solutions to any data collection need using rugged devices with integrated barcode scanners.
The most common term used to describe these devices is Mobile Computer. Although a broad enough term to cover a plethora of devices from laptops to cell phones, Mobile Computers as we've defined them here have several common characteristics:
Mobile Computers can be further divided into 2 categories - those that use the Windows Mobile operating system, and those that use a DOS operating system. The DOS devices, although representing the state of the art 15 years ago, are still viable as mobile computers in more simple applications. Naturally, DOS devices have a significantly lower price point versus those using the Windows Mobile OS.
Mobile Computers are made useful by the programs developed with common tools and takes the data from the scanner or keyboard and accomplishes the data updates to the master data source. On Windows Mobile devices, these programs are most often written using Microsoft Visual Studio's Compact framework. DOS devices usually come with programming IDE's (interactive development environments) that are easy to use and fully capable of generating powerful programs. Mobile Computers can run several programs simultaneously, allowing the operator to switch between programs instantly, with no wait time.
The integrated barcode scanner on Mobile Computers allows the operator to enter data into a query form or directly into a database. Like all barcode scanners, the one in a Mobile Computer operates as an alternate to keypad or touch-screen keyboard entry, eliminating the probability of data entry errors. Depending on the scanner engine, barcode scanners can scan barcodes from a distance of a few inches to over 50 feet. At longer distances, the scanner gives the operator the ability to enter data without reading the actual numbers.
Mobile Computers are distinctive and different from traditional PDA's and cell phones because of their "industrial" toughness. Because these devices may be used in harsh and dirty conditions, they are designed to take abuse. Most often, they can absorb multiple drops of at least 4' to concrete without damage to the device. In addition, most are sealed from dust and water penetration. This toughness often comes with the sacrifice of size and weight. The battery size and technology gives Mobile Computers the ability to operate using wireless connections and barcode scanning for at least a 12-hour shift. They are often 5-10 times bigger and heavier than their cell phone counterparts. Naturally, the engineering involved in making the device durable comes at a price reflected in the final cost to the end-user.
Wireless connectivity gives the Mobile Computer the ability to connect to, query, and update databases that reside on servers within the company network. Using the example of a product ID barcode being scanned, the device can be programmed to query the database and present to the user the quantity of that product in the facility, their locations, and how many are on order. Mobile Computers can also be used as 'green screen' terminals to a mini or mainframe. Using terminal emulation software, Mobile Computers allow employees to enter data directly into their ERP or manufacturing control systems.
Since they are "niche" products, the cost of Mobile Computers are several times that of a comparable cell phone. Although some companies see this cost as prohibitive, in most cases a system allowing portable data collection at the point of data generation have been shown to have a historical ROI (return on investment) of less than 24 months. In fact, the typical mobile data collection implementation will realize ROI within a year.
Because they can be connected to printers via Ethernet, BlueTooth or with a physical cable, Mobile Computers can generate labels and documents. Portable and networked printers make this capability convenient for printing barcode or product labels at the point of use, as well as invoices, manifests, and a variety of other reports. This external connection capability gives the device the ability to use magnetic stripe readers, RFID receivers, automated machine controllers or any other device that can be controlled using an RS-232 serial interface.
Mobile Computers satisfy a niche in the industrial-grade PDA and data collection market place. Their rugged design, long battery life, integrated barcode scanner and ease of use fill a valuable niche in the PDA / Cellphone market where durability and continuous operation are essential. Using common programming tools, applications are developed easily. Easy to use and maintain once deployed, Mobile Computers can be and integral part of any organization's data collection plan.
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