Global CIO: UPS Provides Peek Into Future Of Wireless

Jan 25, 2010 (02:01 PM EST)

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When UPS first started using wireless handheld devices, back in the early 1990s, there wasn't roaming or flat-rate pricing. Instead, there were 200 cellular operators who each wanted to bill the package-delivery giant by the minute for data transfer, like they were doing for people's phone calls.

UPS used its buying clout--and the threat of building its own network, using radio spectrum--to cut a nationwide roaming deal. And ever since, UPS has been pushing and prodding the wireless industry. Ten years ago it wanted real-time data transfers from vehicles; five years it got Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular links in the same device, and made GPS central to the handheld device.

Knowing where UPS is heading with its wireless ambition has been a good indicator for where wireless capability is headed.

So imagine that instead of having just one wireless carrier, which you curse with each dropped call, that your phone would constantly search for the best connection. An algorithm on your smartphone would assess signal strengths, and balance that with roaming costs, and decide when to switch from one carrier to another. It could make that switch regardless of what technology that cellular provider used. That's one example of where UPS is headed with wireless.

At the center of UPS's wireless innovation is a handheld device called the DIAD, that clipboard-sized gadget that UPS's brown-clad drivers around the world carry to get and send package information. UPS has completed the specs for the fifth version of the DIAD, and like past iterations, this device pushes the state of the art on a few levels.

Hyper-Roaming Across Networks

The new device, made by Honeywell, will be able to flip as needed from CDMA to GPRS networks and back, and from carrier to carrier, using a 5-band HSPA/EV-DO cellular modem.

One advantage for UPS is fewer machine types to manage. In the U.S., some areas have better CDMA coverage, and some have better GPRS coverage. So UPS had to assign the right device to the right route, based on the radio type. That meant asset tracking for 60,000-some U.S. drivers. Jackie Woods, the UPS VP of IT who led the DIAD V project, describes that as "not an insurmountable task, but not a fun one." Now, every U.S. driver will have the same device.

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The broader impact, however, is around network reliability and cost. The device will switch over to another network if the signal is lost for a certain amount of time, whether due to poor coverage or an outage. Network switching is a backup, so it doesn't immediately cut over to another carrier. The decision considers connectivity costs, using UPS's customized algorithms that balance key factors. Today, it's hard to imagine consumer devices ever having the same kind of hyper-roaming capabilities, given the carrier-centric state of the wireless world. But it's easy to see some consumers wanting it. The value to a business such as UPS is clear. "It's all about having ubiquitous connections," says Greg Bacinski, a key project manager on the DIAD V effort.

This fifth version of the DIAD is the first that isn't custom built for UPS. UPS picks the features it wants, but the basic device is the same one any company--including delivery rivals--will be able to buy from Honeywell. Past versions were custom-built for UPS, by Motorola. "The time had come where the industry had caught up, and was getting in front of us in terms of their product offerings," Woods says. This model will run on Windows Mobile operating system, migrating off Windows CE.

This speaks to the growing capability and mass-market demand for wireless devices.

Not The Standard Smartphone

However, it also speaks to the notion that standard smartphones, even as they get more powerful, can't meet many mobile needs. UPS tested smartphones such as a BlackBerry and found a lot of reasons they didn't work for drivers. ("Gloves," says Woods.) The DIAD V, at 1.3 pounds and 3.5 inches, is half the size of past devices, but still big enough to have a good sized screen and buttons, be rugged enough, and have a 12-hour battery life drivers need to get through those pre-Christmas shifts. UPS expects the devices to last five to seven years.

UPS CIO Dave Barnes is a big believer in using off-the-shelf IT wherever possible. Even when UPS co-develops technology with vendors, such as a recent wearable printer developed with Hewlett-Packard, it doesn't push for exclusivity. To Barnes, the advantage is in how it's used, not the technology itself.

More Power, Faster Connections

The new DIAD device, while half the size, will have greater CPU capacity and more memory, with 1 GB flash and a memory card. Woods sees that as key to meeting demand for more and more specialized delivery instructions, such as people requesting delivery during certain time windows. "We're knee-deep in that type of feasibility study right now," Woods says. Their expectation is that every package will carry with it some specific delivery data.

In terms of network speed, when the device is at a UPS building at the start of a shift, it will be connected using 802.11n Wi-Fi, providing download speeds up to 600 mbps. That will let all that data be downloaded more quickly, including richer multimedia files. This choice—of whether to use Wi-Fi or cellular for a data dump—will become more important for all mobile users as 802.11n widens the gap between Wi-Fi and cellular speeds, and as people want bigger media files on mobile devices. (See this week's InformationWeek cover story for a deep dive on 802.11n implementation strategies.)


In this area, the DIAD's playing catch-up. This is the first version to have a camera, which drivers might use to show where they left a package, or to document damage. The device gets a high-quality color screen for the first time, which will allow for conveying a lot more information more quickly--think red, yellow, green color-coding, rather than text descriptions. That will allow for better maps, and more engaging training videos. The devices also get a 2-D scanner, which can scan next-generation bar codes that convey much more information.

UPS will deploy more than 100,000 of the Honeywell devices. Woods expects the first beta units in the field in the fourth quarter, with general deployment beginning next year and continuing in a global rollout that will take at least three years.

To Woods and the team, having hardware specs is just the start. Now that UPS plans to have greater CPU and memory, increased bandwidth to the device, and more reliable connectivity, is there any formal effort underway to spur ideas for how to use that capability? Woods just laughs at the idea that she might ever have to ask for ideas. "It's nonstop," she says.

Global CIO small globe Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek.

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