Every time I think of offline capability in field service, my mind goes back to the television ads where the guy is standing on top of a fence yelling into his cellphone, “Can you hear me now?”
When you have technical or sales staff in the field, you have two priorities regarding their interaction with your accounting or ERP system. The first is to enter the data only once, which avoids mistakes during data entry and speeds up data processing necessary for invoice and payroll processes. The second priority is to have access to real-time information, both for the office user and the field technician or salesperson.
The requirement for offline capability has changed significantly over the last two to three years as cellular technology has improved and Wi-Fi has become available in virtually any public place. It is hard to come up with an exact number but our experience would say – with a few exceptions, such as oilfield service with so many remote locations – around 90% of users have access to satisfactory cellular or Wi-Fi service during the day.
Offline systems are complex
Do we still need offline capability in case the user can’t get a connection? I would say that most companies don’t and shouldn’t try to implement such a system. Offline systems are an incredibly more complex option than using an online client with a laptop, smartphone, or tablet. If the user can’t get a connection in the field, they generally can connect later that day when they return home, to the office, or to their hotel.
Offline systems typically involve a custom built application with a mobile database on the device, which needs to be synchronized periodically with the master database. The system has to handle a number of error conditions including dropped connections during a synchronization, data errors, etc. Either internal or external resources are necessary to ensure the system keeps running smoothly. Changes to an offline mobile solution can take a great deal of time and are typically very expensive. In contrast, changes to the online field application are rolled out as soon as the remote user opens up the user session.
Obviously, there are situations when offline capability is required and those shouldn’t be ignored. The rest of us, though, need to carefully think through whether offline capability is worth the extra cost and complexity.
Power Apps are an excellent solution
Microsoft’s Power Apps are an excellent choice for rapidly developing online service applications. Two options are available. Template-driven applications can be created from Model templates, whereas Canvas applications offer almost unlimited flexibility. These solutions will run on virtually any mobile system and are automatically scaled to fit the device.
Microsoft Power Apps offers a simplified interface, access to mobile printing, the ability to capture pictures and signatures, and applications that can be designed without a programmer. This means unlimited flexibility. For more information on Microsoft Power Apps and the mobile options it could offer your business, please contact us.