Thomas Lane welcomes you to Techtopia, a world where whole building sites are RFID-tagged, mobiles have more functions than Swiss army knives and Sydney is just a free phone call away …
Rugged Bluetooth headset
Wireless equipment provider Bluetrek has brought out what it says is the world's first water-resistant Bluetooth headset. It is also shockproof, so could be handy for people who are regularly out on site and need to keep in touch while keeping both hands free. Called the X2, it has a rubberised casing and a series of customisable loops and hooks to ensure it will fit into differently shaped ears. The company says the headset weighs 15 g and is good for 14 hours of talk time and 500 hours of standby. The headset has a range of up to 10 m and works with Bluetooth-enabled devices, including mobile phones and PDAs. It retails for £59.
Nokia's electronic Swiss army knives
Proof that mobile phones can do virtually anything except cook breakfast comes in the form of Nokia's latest products. It is set to launch what it describes as three "multimedia computers and experiences" under its Nseries mobile multimedia brand. If you really want to impress your mates down the pub, the one to go for is the N93. Not only does it look very swish, it also has a built-in video camera, which the company says offers DVD-like video quality. Indeed, it looks similar to a dedicated digital video recorder with a flip-out 2.4-inch colour display; the lens is located at the top of the narrowest side of the device. It has 3.2 megapixel resolution, digital image stabilisation and inbuilt memory of 50 MB that can be expanded using a slot-in memory card. Images can be downloaded via a cable or wirelessly using WiFi. Oh, and it also has a (video) phone, a web browser, an MP3 player and a TV.
If you are not a budding movie maker, however, the N73 might be more relevant. It has a 3.2 megapixel still camera complete with autofocus and mechanical shutter. It also has a 2.4-inch screen, a music player, radio and PDA functions including email and organiser. Both phones are expected to be available in July, with prices dependent on the networks.
Free international calls
As Voiceover Internet Protocol telephony really begins to take off, makers are launching products right, left and centre. VoIP uses the internet rather than telephone networks to transmit voice data. The significant advantage is that calls can be free, even to the other side of the world. To do this, computer users download a free program from providers such as Google or Skype, and providing the person being called has the same program, the call is indeed free. Calls can be made to a conventional phone too, although this incurs a small charge. Both companies and individuals are embracing the technology because of the potential savings. The big growth area is in products that digitise speech, dial numbers and generally make it as easy and convenient as possible to talk over the net.
Actiontec has launched a device under its VoSKY brand Call Center that enables users to make or receive calls from anywhere. It plugs into a computer and a conventional phone line and allows users to make calls free via Skype. But the really clever bit is that it will forward calls to any other number, including mobiles, and this also works in reverse, so users can dial up their call centre number, which will then forward the call using the Skype service. This is useful if you don't want to miss any Skype calls, or if you want to avoid hefty international mobile call charges, as you only have to pay for the connection between the mobile and the Call Center. The product can also be set up to notify users remotely when a Skype contact comes online. The Call Center costs £48.
Rough, tough notebook
Rugged computing specialist Terralogic has launched a 15-inch screen version of its Toughnote notebook called M-15. The company says all components in the notebook are ruggedised, and it has sealed drive bays and rubber corners to prevent damage. The hard disc drive is removable to make it easier to upgrade and swap data between notebooks. The basic version includes a 40 GB hard drive, 512 MB of RAM and a 32 MB graphics card, although higher specifications are also available. The company has also added a GPS facility to its Toughnote PDA. The basic M-15 costs £3250 and the PDA costs £758, not including VAT and delivery.
Military-standard DAB handsets
Motorola has developed what it says is Europe's first licence-free two-way digital radio. Digital is said to offer several advantages over analogue, including better coverage and audio quality and longer battery life. The products also include one-to-one calling, enabling someone to privately call another user, and one-to-many, which is a group call. Other features include a messaging service, caller ID, call forwarding and contact list. Motorola says the products meet military standards for durability and resistance - so should be fine on the average site. Two versions are available, the DTR2430 and the DTR2450. The latter allows managers to monitor and programme their team's radios.
Long-distance RFID tags
Symbol Technologies has unveiled a prototype of its first RFID asset tag suitable for use in rough environments. It can be both read and written to by a reader from a distance of up to 15 m and is ideal for facilities management applications where items are likely to be subjected to heavy knocks and blows. Symbol has also launched a second generation tag that can be read from up to 9 m.
First ever Skype mobiles
It might look like a cheap mobile but this phone, when it is released later this year, will be the world's first wireless mobile telephone to use Skype. Made by networking specialist Netgear, it is preloaded with Skype software so it can be used straight out of the box after entering a password to call other Skype users free, or any fixed-line phone in the world for the cost of a local call. The product frees users from having to find a PC when they want to make a call as it will work with a private wireless network or in a public WiFi hotspot. It could save construction companies a packet as increasing numbers of sites have a wireless network, so companies could sign up to Skype en masse, thereby enabling employees to make free calls to each other on site and back to base.
Interestingly, there are signs the mobile networks are beginning to fight this threat. Nokia recently announced the 6136 mobile phone offering access to unlicensed WiFi networks. This means that mobile network providers could offer a combined conventional mobile and internet voice-based phone service on one number with the potential to make mobile calls cheaper when in a WiFi hotspot.
Me and my IT
David MacDonald, director of facilities management for contractor HBG
What do you do?
I run the FM division for HBG and support PFI projects at the procurement, construction and operational phases. My role is overseeing and supporting these three main stages from the FM perspective. I am out of the office a lot – it can be two days a week or the entire week, depending on what support is needed.
What gadgets do you carry?
It’s all about being effective on the move. The main thing is my mobile phone, a Blackberry and a laptop computer. The Blackberry synchronises with the office servers so I can access my email and my diary. It’s fine for messages but not large attachments, so I use the laptop for downloading these wirelessly. I have a 3G connection, which works at broadband-type speeds.
How do these tools help you do you job more effectively?
It means I never have to feel I am out of the loop. I am in touch with things and don’t have to wait until I am back in the office to deal with them. It also reassures the customers and the support teams that they can get hold of me.
What will be the next big thing?
That’s a difficult one to answer. I not sure miniaturisation will go much further – for example, screens need to be a decent size. Better battery life would help, and wireless technology is great – if you have got good bandwidth and a reliable connection.
What’s on your shopping list?
One of the areas we are looking at is using handheld devices to monitor the effectiveness of service delivery. For example, checking work has been carried out according to the task that has been set. We could give people a standard format for tasks, which would allow data to be transferred to the company’s systems without double handling, which would improve accuracy.
Will you ever go paperless?
I don’t think offices will ever be entirely paperless. I don’t print out emails but you do need paper sometimes. It’s all about getting the right information and presenting it in the best way without getting swept along on a tide of electronic gadgetry.