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Getting a Grip on Hand-Helds

LSJ profiles the rapidly expanding hand-held computer market, and delivers handson advice about what buyers should look for.

By Tony Kryzanowski
Copyright 1998. Contact publisher for permission to use.

The evolution of "ruggedized" hand-held computers for gathering field data in forestry is moving at such a brisk pace that it is difficult to know who will successfully adapt when the industry experiences the inevitable "shake-out" two to three years from now. Ruggedized computers are a relatively new sector of the computer market and are built to withstand the rigours of working in the bush.

Hand-held Computer

There has been a strong trend to using more hand-held computers in the forest industry, from the woods to the sort yard. As with desktop computers, users not only have ot consider the features of the computer itself, but also what software is available.

When such players as Hewlett Packard and Microsoft are involved, you know that the stakes are high and that smaller companies have an interesting future, considering that they are competing with the industry's giants.

The battle for market share and advanced technology has created a buyer's market for users in the forest industry, as each company attempts to keep a leg up on the competition. But with the introduction of software products such as Windows CE software, the battle rages not only in the ruggedized hardware war, but also on a broader scale, as to who will supply the dominant software in the voracious desktop computer market.

The story of what the future holds definitely depends on who you talk to. Given the drastically different predictions, one thing is certain: the market for ruggedized hand-helds, as well as the software that runs them, is uncertain.

So what is new when it comes to advanced computer electronics? That's a tricky question to answer, for it seems as though some electronic equipment becomes obsolete in the blink of an eye.

Another entry into this high-stakes, perpetual game of computer poker is the growing number of new products entering the ruggedized laptop market.

One source of expert opinions regarding the leaders in hand-helds and laptops are software developers, for they have a vested interest in the future of this rapidly developing market. They need tough and reliable hardware for their products to work as advertised.

Windows CE is Microsoft's first entry into the ruggedized hand-held market, and it will only become the dominant platform if software developers elect to write programs for it. Packed with the usual Microsoft hype, Windows CE is still in the "show me" phase with software developers, but there is a general sense that it's not a question of if Windows CE will dominate the market, but when. To date, the software platform of choice has been DOS.

"I think what we are going to see in forestry is that you'll have maybe two types of tools for the forestry guy in the field," says Rich Holmboe, marketing manager for forestry software developer D.R. Systems Inc. in Nanaimo, BC. He has developed software for use in all the big name hand-helds since t983.

"People will have a decision support tool in the cab of a pickup truck, which might be something along the lines of either a laptop, or probably something handier like a pentop that has a Pentium processor and Windows," predicts Holmboe. Pentops are in the medium range of field data gathering technology, existing somewhere between hand-helds and laptops. Rather than using a laptop keyboard or a small hand-held screen, the operator can enter data by touching his pentop to a screen. Holmboe says the futuristic operator's support tool could call up a map of the area that he is about to enter. Or, if there is a Geographic Information System (GIS) map linked to an inventory data base, "he can actually get a pretty good idea of what's out in the woods already."

To complement that laptop or pentop, the operator will likely have a smaller lightweight hand-held for actual data collection. The growing proliferation of advanced hand-held products has created an expanded product basket for distributors to the forestry sector, such as Canadian Forestry Equipment Ltd., with offices located in eastern and western Canada. They are the Canadian distributor of Nikon products through a division of the company called CFE Technology. "All the computer stuff is moving pretty quick," says Burk Urmetzer, inside sales manager for Canadian Forestry Equipment's Edmonton office. Right now, the dominant software platform in forestry hand-helds is DOS-based, but he feels that is about to change.

"I think all the people who write software for hand-helds are now starting to write Windows CE programs," he says. "But that hasn't fully come on stream yet, because first of all they have to write the software, and then there will be a new generation of hand-helds."

One Canadian ruggedized hand-held manufacturer who Urmetzer notes has made an investment in Windows CE is Vanier, Quebec-based DAP Technologies. He says lately DAP has been competing successfully against US-made hand-helds manufactured by Oregon's Corvallis Microtechnologies Inc. (CMT) because of the exchange rate between Canada and the US.

DAP Technologies has also launched a couple of new rugged and power hand-held tools. One is the Microflex PC9800 that has the equivalent speed of a 386 personal computer. While collecting field data usually does not require that much speed, it has come in handy for those using the BC Ministry of Forests "GY Host and Hand" program, which is used to collect field data on growth and yield.

"It takes a lot of memory," says Urmetzer. "if you go to the PC 9800 in the field, you notice the difference in the speed of being able to work the unit."

DAP has recently launched a PC 980OLS model, which, in addition to being rugged, includes a laser bar code scanner with wireless communication capability.

Otherwise, Urmetzer says all of the other major hand-holds manufactured by CMT, Hewlett Packard and Paravant provide adequate speed. He noted that the rugged Paravant model is a bigger unit with a bigger screen. "If there is a lot of information to see all at once on the screen, they are a good choice," he adds.

The CMT PC5L remains a popular ruggedized hand-held model, as is the Hewlett Packard 200 LX. Urmetzer says that D.R. Systems Inc. has developed a speed doubler for the Hewlett Packard unit to compete with the extra speed delivered by the DAP PC 9800.

Still dominating the world market for ruggedized handhelds for use in forestry is Ore-on-based CMT. Marketing manager Eric Gakstatter says the reputation of their ruggedized, waterproof hand-helds means they do not need to offer a warranty with their product.

"We go by our reputation, says Gakstatter "We've got such a good reputation up in Canada now that it sells itself." They don't view DAP, or another competitor from England known as Husky, as an immediate threat to market share.

However, Carolle Nolin, marketing director of DAP Technologies, Canada's only manufacturer of ruggedized hand-helds, responds that DAP has 90 per cent of the forestry market in eastern Canada, and is targeting an aggressive penetration of the western market in the months to come. She says the DAP Microflex has been selected to support the Novatel and Nikon GPS products "because of its excellent battery life and its certified high resistance to harsh environments based on military specifications."

CMT does not feel threatened by Hewlett Packard products, despite their lower price. "You're trying to adapt something to an environment that it is not built for," is Gakstatter's view of the Hewlett Packard LX200. "It's like taking a person and trying to make him live underwater. You can do it. You can give him air tanks and fins and stuff. But, the bottom line is he wasn't built to be there."

But Rich Holmboe from D. R. Systems Inc., a company that aggressively markets their software on Hewlett Packard hand-helds, says the products come with a waterproof case and many bonus features.

Forestry software developer David Bowman, who currently works for California's Sierra Pacific Industries, which owns II sawmills, has developed software for use in hand-helds since the early 1980s. He agrees that mass-market hand-helds such as the Hewlett Packard have limitations.

"The disadvantages are that it isn't necessarily manufactured to work in the temperature ranges or humidity that the custom products would," he says. "A dedicated unit might work at a lower temperature range or have a heater." Both the CMT PC5L and MC5 models come with heaters.

"But mass produced means better engineering and more research and development," he adds. "They have good battery life because they started as calculators. Also, add-ons have come out for them, such as wireless modems and GPS items that will plug into them. I can now get an HP 200 with 64 MB of RAM built into it."

The Hewlett Packard also has a number of programs built into it, compared to dedicated ruggedized hand-helds that sell software separately or as a package.

While they feel comfortable that as a dedicated unit their product line is more reliable than such mass-produced hand-helds as those offered by Hewlett Packard, CMT is not sold on the belief that Windows CE will become the dominant operating software.

"We looked at it pretty seriously," Gakstatter says. "The problem is that it takes a powerful CPU to run it effectively. This drives up the heat, and drives up the battery requirements. There is no benefit from the user interface standpoint. You have such a small screen to begin with, that having it in a Windows environment really doesn't make any sense."

In their opinion, Windows CE has not proven to be the next wave in operating software in a forestry application, as some predict.

Ultimately, the bottom line for forest industry users is to first evaluate their own work environment. How much of a concern are adverse factors such as dust, rain, cold and difficult forest terrain, when it comes to reliable field data recording?

As CMT's Gakstatter says, it doesn't take much to see how a wrong decision could cost you plenty. A purchasing decision could result in as much as $2,000 worth of data collected over just two days lost because the purchaser did not take rain, dust, cold or terrain into consideration.

So the bottom line is shop wisely and keep your ear to the ground as to market dominance regarding operating software. Also, ask questions about who the software developers are mostly writing their software for these days.

First-Hand Experience

By Tony Kryzanowski
Copyright 1998. Contact publisher for permission to use.

When it comes to gathering field data using today's dominant hand-held computer brands, growth and yield specialist Mike Ciccotelli has tried them all, in conditions referred to by some as "life in the bathtub" of a BC winter, as well as in freezing cold and in searing heat.

Logging and Sawmilling Journal caught up with him while he was collecting field data in Quesnel, BC. At present, he works for BC research data gathering firm JS Thrower and Associates.

Ciccotelli has experience using the DAP 9800 and 9500 handhelds, as well as with the Husky FS2, Paravant, Hewlett Packard 200, and CMT PC5L.

For gathering field data@ he is using the large GY Host software prescribed by the BC Ministry of Forests,

"If money is no object, then I'd say the DAP 9800 gives the best results," he says. "It has the speed, it has the power and the memory. It has a lot of easy interfacing between the hand-held and your PC. It is also a well-balanced machine. The keys feel nice on your fingers, and they are easy to access with one hand. I think the layout of it is ideal that way. It is user-friendly."

Ciccotelli says the DAP 9800'sspeed is helpful in the field when operating the GY Host software. "You look at a tree and could have three numbers in your head for things you need to put down in GY Host," he says. "You want to be able to put them down instantly. The DAP 9800 is fast enough to do that."

In terms of being waterproof, he says all the hand-helds he has used performed well. He says it is possible to upgrade speed and memory on a number of hand-helds available on the market. There is a speed doubler available for the Hewlett Packard 200, for example.

The main issues when gathering field data, he says, are that if you drop the hand-held, it is going to survive and retain collected data. The unit must also be light. He says the DAP 9800 unit is more expensive than, for example, the Hewlett Packard 200, so it depends how much you want to spend. He found the HP 200 had a small keypad and the screen was hard to read. Plus, he was not keen on the notion that the HP 200 runs on batteries. He prefers brands that he can plug in to recharge each night. To its credit, the HP 200 can run on rechargeable batteries. Ciccotelli reports that the CMT PC5L has enough battery life for the entire day, while the DAP 9800 lasts for several days in the field.

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