Path of progress

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There can be little doubt that a number of major sea changes have taken place over the past decade in terms of data capture technology and its application. As part of ITR Portals 10th Anniversary celebrations this year, a number of leading distributors and solutions providers offer their views and observations on some of the key developments.

The past decade has certainly seen a number of major advances in the technological development of automatic data capture (ADC) solutions. Arguably, the fundamental driver for this is increased market competition and the resultant desire on the part of end users to be able to transfer, manage and share information with their supply chain partners and end customers as quickly and efficiently as possible. If this has been the motivation for improvements in such technology, the user has little reason to feel disappointed with the results. We now have the ability to integrate multiple forms of communication in a single device, enhancing its flexibility, with some solutions offering five forms of communications in one device, as Ryzexs Adrian Lawson pointed out.

Also, as Raymond Wolfert, sales & marketing manager at Unitech, explains, the past few years have seen a move from primarily warehouse based, short range mobility applications to more long range mobility outdoor applications. And, as Intermecs EMEA channel director Adrian Segens observes, the degree to which modern ruggedised hand held data capture terminals in the field are now deeply integrated into back end systems is way in advance of the 1990s. With this change, systems integrators have been able to add much higher levels of value into systems, he said.
 

Wireless adoption

One of the great enablers of this elevation in freedom of movement and enhanced communication is the widespread adoption of a number of wireless technologies: Cordless scanners liberate cashiers from the till, while in the mobile computer market, theres voice communication for everyone on the move, said Robert Hurt, EMEA marketing director at Metrologic, adding that radio technologies have brought productivity and mobility, as well as freedom from the inconvenience of downloading every piece of captured data via a cradle.

Sukh Rayat, vice president EMEA, Avnet, also cites developments in wireless technology as the catalyst that has changed the environment technology operates in, allowing seamless connectivity: Nowadays, people walk around with mobile devices and people dont even blink an eyelid; its just accepted as the norm now. Compared with a few years ago, this has been a huge paradigm shift.

For CipherLab managing director Altaf Sadique, the biggest technological improvement over the past decade has been the development of high power, low weight/size batteries: Although largely driven by the mobile phone industry, this has lead to the development of wireless mobility devices that are now able to support power hungry functionality, such as Bluetooth and WiFi radios and GPS, he said. Without this development we wouldnt be seeing huge growth in the field force automation sector or in mobile printing, as the devices would be far too heavy and would require frequent battery changes. Hurt also recognises the advances in processor power, memory and battery technology as a key development that has enabled a rich diversity of applications and communications, 24 hours a day: Miniaturisation of these core building blocks has enabled significantly enhanced design ergonomics, making devices lighter, smaller and generally easier to use, he said.

In the view of distributor ScanSource Europes managing director Xavier Cartiaux, the capabilities offered by GSM (Global Positioning System technology) and GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), mean that a greater number of functionalities are opening up to more and more applications. Duncan Smillie, managing director of Psion Teklogix, agrees, adding: This has allowed us to take mobile technology into places where it was never possible before. Andy Haworth, sales director at ToughStar Technologies, is also enthused by the technology, pointing out that it is now possible with a GPS enabled device to run navigation solutions natively on the mobile computer: The driver can be presented with information on best route to the next customer and then receive turn by turn instructions during the trip the device will also constantly update the expected time of arrival, he said.

 

Open standards

According to Smillie, one of the biggest technological developments has been the switch from proprietary to open systems: This has allowed users to be more flexible in the selection of equipment from multi-vendors, he said. Cartiaux also recognises the move from proprietary operating systems to open Windows based systems as one of the decades major advantage shifts. Indeed, as Hurt points out, the development of open standards has led to a reduction in the number of proprietary technology developments, giving users much greater flexibility to mix and match solutions from different suppliers.

Terran Churcher managing director at Codegate, also champions the move to a Windows environment which, he points out, is easy to use and far simpler to integrate with. Similarly, Andrew Donn, regional sales director Northern Europe at Hand Held Products, remarked that the technology had advanced a great deal: instead of bespoke software, the platforms are now open, for example, to development tools. Hurt notes that the market has started to see the widespread adoption of 2D barcodes in a variety of new applications, many of which are security related: This has helped to drive significant investment in the development of imaging technology, bringing the price down and the performance up, he said. Donn also points out that promoting the advantages and possibilities that image scanning and 2D barcodes can offer has been one of Hand Helds key pushes over the past few years.

 

Value added

In terms of value added service, what is now largely recognised as derigeur in the marketplace in order to attract the reseller, and how has this changed over the past decade? Segens observes that a decade ago the delineation between technology vendors and systems integrators was much less clear than it is currently: Today manufacturers like Intermec are concentrating on their core competence of manufacturing hardware, while a new breed of integrators and resellers has emerged that focuses on technologies and customer service.

Paradigm Distribution managing director, Ralph Donohue, believes demand has risen for services such as wireless network site surveys, installation and support. In addition, he recognises an increase in end users seeking one stop shops: ... so resellers are having to forge partnerships to deliver end to end solutions, including airtime, managed services, etc., he said. What resellers seek from hardware distributors remains essentially unchanged, according to Donohue: speed and accuracy of response, technical knowledge, reliable pre- and post-sales support, and so on. He also believes large projects can present credit challenges, resulting in resellers having to work closely with distributors and hardware vendors to find solutions.

 

On line

According to Blackroc Technology CEO Tony Jephcott, probably the biggest value add from vendors to resellers compared to ten years ago is the provision of on line services and information: This includes marketing tools, sales tools, product video streams, presentations, whitepapers etc., he said. In a similar vein, he believes most distributors have, or are about to launch, on line ordering and inventory availability systems: They have added value by speeding up product delivery, providing more creative credit solutions and one stop shopping to the reseller base, he pointed out. In addition certain specialist distributors offer a deep level of technical support both at software and hardware level, which is often more effective and responsive than the vendors themselves. Cartiaux also observes the benefits of online tools offered by the vendors, which makes our lives easier and make business more efficient.

 

Complete solutions

In addition, Cartiaux maintains that it is important for distributors to be able to sell complete solutions to resellers, pointing out that this is playing a major role in the education of resellers. What this all boils down to is that vendors can extend their reach without the risk of losing customer satisfaction, he said. Cartiaux also argues that it was important for the distributor to be in a position to provide finance to the channel when required. According to Sadique, the most important value add being offered today is warranty and competitively priced service level agreements: Five year warranties on scanners, and two to three year warranties on terminals is now pretty much the industry standard, which was unheard of just a few years ago, he pointed out. This improves the value of the product and safeguards the end users investment, making the sale easier for the reseller.

In Churchers view, the market has seen a change in the way that the vendors want to work with resellers, as competition has increased and product differentiation has disappeared: They are now forming close partnerships, offering pricing and servicing concessions, and are bringing their own opportunities requiring specific software solutions to the table, he said. The most successful resellers have transitioned to become solution providers, offering the vendor solutions that become part of their route to a specific market or application. The solution providers offer a comprehensive range of value adds, such as professional services, software development and integration, internal and external sales, marketing, first line support and even repairs.

According to Donn, vendors in general now offer distributors and resellers a broader portfolio of products to suit various applications and vertical markets. He also cites improved shipping times and extra marketing support to partners. The main value add that distributors and resellers offer to vendors is naturally the thorough knowledge of the market and applications, their close relationship with the customer and providing them with a total solution, he added.

In Hurts view, vendors are offering their distributors and resellers a more versatile profile of devices to reduce stock holding and increase stock flexibility. He also points out that loyalty programmes have become more comprehensive, and that online documentation, ordering and trouble shooting is now common. The manufacturers are also providing extensive sales, service and support training, frequently free of charge, to ensure that resellers are fully equipped to deliver their products to market in a highly professional manner, added Hurt. In return, he continued, distributors and resellers are investing time and money to build their knowledge base about specific vendors products. They are also investing to establish local repair centres providing qualified technical support and are presenting themselves to the market in a more collaborative way with their chosen vendors.

 

Integration

For Smillie, when it comes to value add and the success of a business relationship,  integration is the key: Its ok saying that we have open systems, but vendors and resellers have to be able to glue all this together and make it work, he said. Contrary to the perceptions of some IT people it doesnt always work; if you are not an expert in the integration of mobile systems then there will be a competitor of yours that is, and I know who I would buy from. Lawson agrees. In his view, one of the most powerful value adds from the vendor is the development of integrated service solutions, such as Psion Teklogix three year solution that includes physical damage: These add real value to the solution provider as they can guarantee the cost of ownership of a device. It also makes the products more accessible to businesses previously put off by high repair costs due to the environment they would have to operate in.

Lawson adds that, with the move to two tier distribution, the resellers and distributors are helping the vendors to lower the cost of sale and to increase their feet on the street. Resellers also provide the vendors with an effective way to provide quality support and service for the end user, he said. In Wolferts view, developments on the worldwide web makes information flow between vendors and partners much easier, and has enabled manufacturers to offer services such as online ordering and online stock checking, as well as tracking of repairs and servicing: Because of this improved visibility of information throughout the supply chain, resellers and distributors are now more able to optimise their ordering processes and better manage their relationships with manufacturers, he said.

 

Looking ahead

With a view to the next ten years, what are likely to be the key developments with regard to technology or vendor/distributor/reseller relationships? Smillie believes that, technology wise, RFID is going to have a major impact on all our lives, both at a consumer and business level: It has been the next big thing for some time now but its in the post, he said. Jephcott agrees: As standards and their adoption continues, and vendors continue to develop more out of the box hardware, volumes will go up and prices will begin to drop, he said. Jephcott also believes consulting and integration opportunities will be at high levels. In addition, from a channel viewpoint, he maintains it is likely that the role of the smaller and specialist local distributor will begin to be revived and be valued higher by the vendor community, as the limitations of mass market global distribution in terms of market development are realised.

Rayat also cites RFID as something that is going to enjoy major market uptake in the future: Consider the whole scenario whereby you would walk to the supermarket, buy your products and not have to take the goods out of the trolley whilst everything is scanned and a bill is produced. Some say there has been a slow take up of RFID over the past few years, but the same could be said of the Internet and wireless and so many other technologies that we now take for granted. We are talking about a major paradigm shift, but companies such as Walmart in the US are already using it on the good in side of their operations. They dont have to scan the pallets, they just walk them into the goods in warehouse and the data gets loaded into Walmarts system.

 

Transformational technology

From Segens perspective, RFID will be a transformational technology in automated data capture. That said, he believes there is still life in the old bar code yet and greater use of 2D barcodes will offer enriched automated data capture applications alongside wider scale adoption of RFID, in his view. Hurt also believes that, whilst RFID adoption continues, barcoding remains compelling as an identification technology because of its extremely low per-label price: The laser technology used for reading the barcodes has likewise achieved a price point now that has made it pervasive, but imaging is heading the same way and becomes increasingly popular because of its ability to read all 1D and 2D variants, enabling many new solutions, he said.

Donn also believes the market will see more uses for imaging technology and 2D codes in more applications: We believe it will become mainstream and that more markets will adopt it as a standard, he said, adding: There is a lot of hype around RFID, and it will probably enable some exciting opportunities in certain applications. However, imaging and RFID will co-exist as technologies, as well as voice picking for example. From Sadiques perspective, RFID is still waiting to happen: Until we see complete standardisation it is not likely to take off.

Regarding the future, Wolfert sees further integration of more technologies into mobile devices, as well as merging traditional auto ID equipment with mainstream mobile phone equipment: This will enable the traditional auto ID channel to enter the very large mobile phone communities and it will offer mobile phone operators the opportunity to wrap additional auto ID applications around their airtime, he said. Sadique believes the market will see a complete convergence between mobile phone, data and entertainment platforms (high resolution video streaming). He also anticipates a convergence between wired and wireless broadband bandwidth at lower costs leading to applications being designed to toggle between both mediums. Cross border applications will flourish as the price of voice and data becomes cheaper, and the AIDC industry will change to be based around higher specified commercial devices developed specifically for more niche applications and the mobility space, he said.

 

Miniaturisation and convergence

In Hurts view, advancements in technology and miniaturisation are sure to continue: These will enable smaller and more convenient form factors for our data collection devices, he said. Advances in wireless technologies will allow users to capture data in truly mobile environments, with almost full office functionality on the move. Expect to see further consolidation of functionality currently contained in multiple devices and exciting new form factors for these information devices. In terms of continued technological convergence, Lawson anticipates that more of the consumer PDA manufacturers will improve their smart phone products by taking them into the traditional barcode space. This is already quite evident with the takeover of Symbol by Motorola, he pointed out.

Also with regard to greater convergence, Donn adds that data collection devices will be used for much more than scanning, and there will be more emphasis on GSM/GPRS/GPS capabilities in the devices that are being built: The devices are truly multifunctional, for example when it comes to mobile applications and workforce automation, he said. In Haworths view, there are still some advances to be made with GPS in terms of the quality of the mapping data, but he believes that, in the near future, it will be possible for navigation systems to include information on road type; for example, to avoid a low bridge or narrow road but we are not quite there yet, he said.

 

Secure relationships

So, there has been considerable positive change in the data capture arena over the past decade. But however far the technology progresses, personal relationships between ADC supply chain companies will always be critical, according to Hurt: Understanding and staying in touch with the market and your partners needs remains vital to long lasting and successful vendor-reseller relationships. Better communication and understanding certainly appears to be something that is already in place and set to improve further in the future.

From a distributor perspective, Donohue points out that the relationship between the manufacturer, distributor and reseller has changed, in that there is now greater mutual trust than before, together with a closer working relationship. This has been driven largely by vendors such as Motorola (Symbols PartnerSelect programme) and Zebra (PartnersFirst), he said. They are investing in the business development of key resellers, enabling them to enter new markets and win incremental sales.  Its good to talk.

 

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