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Last Updated
16 February, 2003



M-commerce and data collection

The birth of mobile computing data collection


Good data collection via mobile computing and WAP devices means applying lessons learned on paper

We are all witnessing the more obvious ways that the Internet and mobile computing devices are revolutionising personal and corporate communications, sales and marketing, entertainment and many other activities and industries. What isn't as obvious is the important role that data collection must play in these revolutions and the challenges of implementing successful data collection via mobile devices, argues Mike Gray, Managing Director, Top Image Systems UK.

The mobile computing revolution
The drive for information technology during the last 25 years has become a permanent necessity for all companies and enterprises throughout the world. We have seen software suppliers provide the world with applications on every work desk, computers decrease from the size of a room to pocket size, new computer languages are a constant and the world has become ever more connected via the Internet. The information society is a reality; an everyday fact we all recognise. Electronic information in digital form is apart of life today; we simply cannot work or perform effectively without it.

The growth of mobile commerce or m-Commerce has already begun as users start to use mobile hand held sets to conduct e-commerce activities. These activities can be divided into three distinct types:

n Business processes; those that related to the extension of the corporate intranet with which business is conducted based on a defined business process

n Transaction oriented processes such as entering banking details

n Information based such as obtaining information on events for example

For the purposes of this article we will be focusing on the growth of m-commerce applications and their impact on business processes, and how in turn those business processes have impacted data collection technologies and applications in a wireless world.


Today forms written in the Internet standard Hypertext Mark Up language (HTML) are ubiquitous on Intranets and the Internet and are at the heart of nearly every mobile computing based initiative. Users fill them out to make purchases, register products, record deliveries and orders, request more information, forming the core of an electronic Customer Relationship Mana- gement; or e-CRM; strategy. In some cases these forms work very well. When users enter the required information, the data is sent to a Web server where it is usually forwarded via e-mail to an appropriate destination for handling.

In most cases, however, especially in high volume, lead collection environments, current implementations are simply insufficient. Automated form capture systems not only scan paper and fax for data, but automatically validate that the entered data is correct. When the data is questionable, the suspect form is routed to verification stations for post processing. All of this can be done before the data is placed in a database; ensuring accuracy rates as high as 98%. However mobile, web based forms do little real field validation and processing is limited to dumping the questionable results into a database.

When implementing high volume paper or fax form processing systems, the requirement is to achieve high accuracy in a cost-effective process. The requirement must be the same for mobile computing Internet based systems. To accomplish this data capture professionals must demand the following for all mobile computing Internet based form implementations.

An Internet based mobile computing data collection environment must be easily integrated into existing information processing solutions. Currently, mobile computing form processing is disconnected from other data collection systems. The solutions now in place to process paper and faxed forms come complete with sophisticated sub routines for applying business rules: validating and verifying data, indexing and routing forms and exporting data to databases and archiving systems.

The data collected from Internet based forms, however, has not been integrated into these solutions. Internet form data is submitted to the Web server via hand held mobile computing devices such as Palm Pilots and other PDA's, which is capable of only the crudest forms of validation, usually limited to checking whether or not anything was entered into a required field. More sophisticated actions than this require Java scripts, which do not run consistently on the various browsers such as Netscape.

Once the data is collected, it resides on the Web server as text. It can be easily e-mailed or appended to a text file, but integrating the data into the same workflow developed for paper or fax requires expensive programming that is then hard to maintain and update.

However in integrating mobile computing form data into existing data processing workflows, all the intelligent business rules built into paper and faxed based collection systems should be made available. This can be accomplished most effectively by having existing data collection systems communicate directly with Web servers, or Web server plugins.

In this scenario, once the Web form is submitted to the Web server, it is automatically passed onto the data collection server. A tag in the form definition identifies the form type and so that data can be passed accurately and proper validation and validation rules can apply. From there, the data can be exported directly to a database for archiving and retrieval purposes. The data can be used to populate an electronic version of the paper form, so that an image of the data resides in the archive along with its paper-based version.

A critical characteristic of the relationship between the data collection server and the Web server is that the configuration must be easily maintained and updated and that new applications can be easily developed.

An Internet form creation environment must allow users to add intelligence, such as data entry aids and point of entry rules, with drag and drop ease.

Without a significant customisation effort, existing Internet forms have only a limited ability to check information entered by the user. The result is that most Internet based data collection initiatives result in poor quality data.

However it is possible to create intelligent forms of mobile computing business applications based on:

n Easier to complete forms with the use of data entry aids such as automatic field completion

n Provision of immediate feedback to users in the form of order confirmation numbers, field sensitive help and the like

n Detection of incomplete, invalid or erroneous data such as non-existent streets

This intelligent software exists today in programmes such as those available from Top Image Systems and its application to mobile computing environments is easy to conceive and configure.

A vision of a total data collection environment is driving the data capture industry to incorporate mobile computing or Internet based forms. From seamlessly integrated, easily implemented, back office systems to form development environments that allow Internet forms to retain the look and structure of paper forms, new products and solutions will fulfil the promise of the Internet as a major data collection pathway.

Mobile software solution for the distributor of illy coffee products in Israel
Normat, the distributor of illy coffee products in Israel, has installed e-Mobilis' Mobility Solution for its deliverymen. This is the first customer in production for e-Mobilis, a subsidiary of Top Image Systems Ltd., which develops and sells software solutions for mobile business applications for the B2E, Business to Employee market.

Normat has provided its deliverymen with wireless handheld devices that have a client application. e-Mobilis' Mobility Solution interfaces the mobile device to Normat's enterprise applications. Normat's deliverymen in the field log onto the MobiliServer to access their daily customer orders.

"The deliverymen receive their customer orders on their Symbol PDAs when they connect to our application server. When they make deliveries, the customer signs the invoice on the Symbol PDA," explained Normat's VP Marketing Udi Klier. "The customer can change the order and the new orders are also filled out on the PDA and sent to the server. Once the delivery order is received the MobiliServer automatically faxes a signed copy to the customer.

The deliverymen do not have to be online all the time. ThePDAs are automatically synchronised in the background increasing the deliverymen productivity. This ensures that all orders and signatures have been uploaded to Normat's servers. We have completely replaced our old method of paper orders."

The MobiliServer is an application server that seamlessly connects to corporate information systems while automatically managing multi clients and multi platforms over wireless communications. The MobiliServer ensures accelerated operation of mobile applications regardless of the quality of communication and provides an uninterrupted working environment for agents in the field minimises the bandwidth required, provides complete security and reliability challenges of today's wireless networks.

Mike Gray
Managing Director
Top Image Systems




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