Why field service workers love their iPads

Cornell University's utilities department reminds us why a computer-like mobile device is so useful

Cornell University runs its own water and electrical utility for the campus and student housing, serving as many as 30,000 people when school is in session in the Ithaca, N.Y., campus. As with any utility, it experiences outages -- in this case of power, water, or steam (used for heating). The usual way to deal with that was for phone operators to dial up utility managers and have them come into the office to figure out the issue, then determine the course of action. That meant delays of as much as an hour as people dropped what they were doing (or got dressed, if in the middle of the night) and drove in.

Today, Cornell still calls those managers. But since October, they've been signing into the utility management systems from their cellular-equipped iPads to pinpoint the issues and even remotely fix them when possible. In a pinch, they can also use their iPhones. Mechanics and technicians are issued iPads for the same reason.

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Cornell's utility equipment provider, General Electric's Intelligent Platforms division, has an iOS app for drilling down into the utility management system's current data, and there's a Web app that can control the equipment and get more detailed info than the iOS app provides, notes Bill Richards, a senior network engineer at the Cornell Utilities Department.

It's simple, isn't it? Provide field employees and their managers a device they can keep close at hand so they can investigate and even respond to an emergency from nearly anywhere they are. Provide Web access (protected via VPN) for those who need to go beyond the first-level information offered by the native app, which also lets them work from any computer, so they can coordinate reasonably with the range of tools similar to what they have at the office.

The iPad is the first line of response, but it's part of a broader set of tools.

I asked Richards why have both the Web app and the iOS app. A practical reason is that the Web app came first. But he says his team continues to use it -- even on the iPad -- when they want to go beyond the iOS app's capabilities. He likes the fact that the Web app replicates what the operator sees, giving managers the same view as on-site employees. And he likes that his team can essentially remote-control the utility management system from the browser.

But he also likes that the iOS app is simpler to use, providing drill-down capabilities to more easily discover what's happening -- and helps managers come to decisions more quickly. "The Web app lets you control the equipment and see more detail, such as what percent valves are open. But that's kind of overload for the mobile app."

Cornell's experience shows that native and Web apps are both valuable, and you need not choose between them.

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