Talking to the office and to our computers

Increasingly, contractors are using computers as a communications tool. Punch List is a construction-specific combination Palm-based and PC-based task list manager ($299 per Palm user, www.PunchList.com, 888-336-3652) designed for communication between management in the office and superintendents and technicians in the field. The PC- and PDA-compatible software integrates with popular desktop scheduling

Increasingly, contractors are using computers as a communications tool.

Punch List is a construction-specific combination Palm-based and PC-based task list manager ($299 per Palm user, www.PunchList.com, 888-336-3652) designed for communication between management in the office and superintendents and technicians in the field. The PC- and PDA-compatible software integrates with popular desktop scheduling and project management systems.

All information is synchronized and maintained on the desktop PC, which accepts updated data three ways: from PDAs brought into the office at the end of the day and placed in the cradle wired to the PC specifically for hot syncing of updated data; by plugging the PDA into a hardwired phone line and remote hot syncing the data over a modem; or by using the latest technology - a wireless phone and Palm combination (such as the Handspring Treo 300, which combines a Sprint wireless telephone and a Palm device) which can hot sync at the press of a button.

The program consists of a series of pull-down menus. Users pick a menu and then drill down to select a brief pre-formatted description of a task or tasks that need to be done. For items not covered by the Category and Item lists, the user can leave those fields blank and enter any specifics in the Notes field. Punch List will automatically recognize what has happened and will enter “General” for the Category and “See Note” for the Item. Typically, the company explains, the person in the office who monitors Punch List will gradually evolve the drop lists so that in a short time they are complete for the company’s specific needs.

At-a-glance screens show item status, or users can sort by keyword across any Punch List field. The software also permits selection of the recipient of the message, how the message should be transmitted (email, fax or printed copy), and the start and completion dates of the task.

At the end of the workday, or at any other time, each PDA user who is tracking a specific activity sends the latest task data back to the office over the Internet. Once the updated data is on the office PC, the software combines all the information for unified reporting. Working with the updated data, Punch List Desktop, either at a pre-determined time or periodically, sends by fax or email, updates and task assignments to designated recipients, who can either use the information themselves or distribute it to their crews.

As a job progresses, collected data can show trends, planned schedules vs. actual dates, and actual performance data, for review on screen or in printouts.

Wireless Networking

Cabled networking within an office is old hat, enabling users of multiple computers to share Internet access, printers, scanners, drives and other peripherals. But, if you are working in your office with a laptop, you can do the same without being tethered at one end of a wire by taking advantage of wireless networking.

Short-range wireless networking is commonly achieved by radio-based technology, IEEE802.11b, which, over recent years, has become the de facto standard for wireless networks. Newer standards have emerged (802.11a and 802.11g) that are much faster but so far they have not usurped the standing of 802.11b.

Wireless networking, AKA Wi-Fi for wireless fidelity, requires an internal or external wireless network card (also referred to as a wireless network adapter) built into or plugged into each computer, laptop or PDA and an access point (a base station) for transmitting and receiving data to and from a wireless device and to communicate from a wireless to a wired device, and to connect to the Internet. Some laptops and PDAs now come with Wi-Fi capability already built in. Typically, a wireless network card can communicate to about 100 to 150 feet. (External antennas can boost the distances.)

Wi-Fi affords users Internet access in the office and any place that wireless Internet access available for public access, including airports, sports arenas, some city parks, hotels, trade shows, and other “hot spots.” (While 802.11g is compatible with 802.11b hotspots, 802.11a is not.)

Two education-oriented websites that offer a wealth of reading on wireless networking are:

www.linksys.com/edu (from Linksys, a company that sells wireless and wired networking products and solutions), which features plain-English information on how to network, wireless or otherwise, and derivable benefits;

www.mobileinfo.com/education, which offers an online mobile computing glossary, links to dozens of free white papers on wireless networking and mobile computing, and an online self-based course in wireless networking ($60).

For a hardcopy introduction to wireless networking, “The Wireless Networking Starter Kit” (Adam Engst and Glenn Fleishman, Peachpit Press, 2003, paperback $29.99) imparts practical advice and step-by-step instructions. Geared to small business and home users, the graphics-rich book is a thorough primer on the underpinnings of wireless technology and network basics and describes how to set up, configure, and maintain a wireless network. It includes a chapter on troubleshooting that covers networking problems and possible solutions.

William and Patti Feldman provide Web content for companies and write for magazines, trade associations, building product manufacturers and other companies on a broad range of topics. They can be reached at [email protected].