When enterprises develop mobile and wireless applications for internal or customer use, keeping the applications simple and small is usually the best route to take. That can mean ignoring some tempting features and sticking with stuff you know will work.

Text for technicians
Although mobile devices can mimic most of the capabilities of a desktop computer, such as handling attachments and rich-text documents, Ralph Nichols, service program manager at Pitney Bowes in Stamford, Connecticut, said plain text is usually a better choice for sending data. He developed a purely text-based system for the company's 3,500 field service technicians, made it both easy to use and easy to understand, and yet integrated it with the company's field service management system from Siebel Systems.

To make the system easy for any technician to use, Nichols insisted it should only use plain text, avoiding the use of abbreviations that could lead to confusion. The result is a system based on plain-text fields and "pick lists" designed to make it easy to dispatch repair calls and report results.

The fields on each technician's mobile device provide customer name, machine type and problem, such as "machine vibration," that mirror the fields in the Siebel system. If the technician uses a part for a repair, he clicks in another field that lists repair parts, sending a message to back-end systems that automatically update parts inventories.

SMS for travellers
Travel Inc, a corporate travel firm based in Duluth, Georgia, had a much bigger user base to link to: 100,000 business travellers from 1,000 client companies. Keeping that simple could have been a daunting task, according to Linwood Hayes, the company's chief technology officer.

Travel Inc wanted to allow its customer base to access itineraries and US Homeland Security alerts while on the road. But since the company has no control over what mobile devices this pool of customers has, it had to work with a myriad of mobile devices with multiple operating systems. Hayes was stumped about how the service could work - until he hooked up with developer Air2Web. in Atlanta. Air2Web helped him design a system simple enough to send information to any mobile device operating on any wireless standard anywhere in the world.

The m-Itinerary service, which Travel Inc. launched early last year, tapped the power of the simplest mobile data interface - Short Message Service texting - to push airline flight information as well as car and hotel information to customers, Hayes said. While simple and lacking the flash of a more complex message format, Hayes said this approach provided the company's road warrior customers with exactly what they needed: the ability to get "itinerary information in real time".

Hayes said Travel Inc. also uses the service to push out security alerts in real time, so business travellers, can use this information to adjust travel plans, or leave early to get to the airport with extra time to make it through heightened security.

The Web is not as universal as SMS, but broad enough to make a premium, Web-based service valuable to customers, said Hayes. Travel Inc also offers a Web-based service for customers to actively check and pull itinerary information. That system still uses a simple text-based interface that works on any device and with any carrier, anywhere, said Hayes.

Nichols and Hayes spoke at Computerworld's Mobile & Wireless World conference last week.