Not too long ago, building service contractors found themselves chained to their desks for many hours of the day, returning phone calls and letters, clipping photographs to inspection reports to be filed, and so on.

“I don’t think you did your job completely,”says Paul Condie, vice president of GMI Building Service in San Diego. “Lack of tools handicapped the industry and kept companies from growing. You pretty much had to go into the office all the time.”

Cell phones, pagers, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and laptop computers have all helped BSCs cut the cord between office and away. But a new generation of portable tech tools is enabling contractors to carry a virtual office away from the office, in much smaller packaging than ever.

Perhaps the best known of these devices is the BlackBerry, from Research In Motion Inc. BlackBerries are small enough to fit on a belt hook or in a purse — some people say they look similar to a scientific calculator — yet they feature e-mail and Internet capability, can synchronize with desktop computers back in the office, and act as cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs).

“We’ve used the BlackBerry quite extensively,”says Condie. ”It’s a nice thing for productivity — when you’re out on the field, you send a message and it’s immediately copied on to your desktop.”

Joseph Jenkins, president of Salt Lake City-based BearCom, uses another device, from Samsung, that also offers phone, PDA (on the Microsoft PocketPC operating system) and Internet capabilities, but also includes a digital camera. While Jenkins says the camera comes in handy, he most appreciates the quick Internet access the unit provides.

“We use the Thunderhawk browser, which enables us to access the Internet at dial-up speeds. It’s graphical browser, so it looks just like regular Internet access,” he explains. Most previous wireless Internet devices were much slower, he adds. Also, most wireless devices use text-based browsers, which can make navigation difficult.

Customer service representatives, upper management and sales all receive the Samsung devices. BearCom uses a software product that allows everyone instant communication with a client — in fact, if a customer communicates with a company representative, everyone else responsible for that account receives a page as well.

“With Thunderhawk, if I get an e-mail, I can get right back on the Internet to respond,” Jenkins adds. “I don’t have to interrupt what I’m doing.”

Seeking solutions
Although Condie likes the BlackBerry, he is examining other devices to see which provides the best fit for his department.

“We’re making a decision based on how the device interacts between the office and the field, as we move toward a paperless office,” he explains. The ability for a device to synchronize with computers back at the office is paramount, he says; what isn’t necessary is a camera.

“Cameras, frankly, we don’t have as much use for,” says Condie. “We need cameras for some kinds of reports or files, but the need isn’t quite as urgent. What will come in handy is a camera phone that can record a few seconds of video, as the quality starts to improve.”

Some BSCs may have a problem accepting the cost of these units (BlackBerries start at more than $300, plus the monthly service fees), but both Condie and Jenkins say the increased productivity and improved customer service is worth it.

“We’re saving $48,000 a year; our Samsung devices have enabled us to [cut] two customer service representatives,” Jenkins says. “It pays for itself quickly.”

Google Offers Desktop Searching
Web giant Google Inc. is branching beyond its Internet applications and setting its sights on the individual desktop computer. The company now offers a free search program, available at, that allows users to sort through the thousands of documents, e-mails and other files stored on their hard drives.

The program is designed to be used both online and off — the program features a “desktop” tab, but can also search the Internet through Google’s flagship search engine. Privacy experts are concerned, however, that the integration will eventually allow Google to keep tabs on what’s on individual users’ hard drives; Google has denied this capability in media reports.

The program currently is available only for Windows operating systems, and can search through Microsoft Office applications, as well as several e-mail and instant-messaging programs. It isn’t yet compatible with Google’s own e-mail program, Gmail.

Black-box driving? Contractors may soon be able to outfit their vehicle fleets with data-collecting devices, similar to those found in airplanes, to see whether their drivers speed, brake suddenly or veer off course. Such devices may help save on auto insurance as well.


According to a report on, insurer Progressive is piloting a program in which drivers receive a stipend and a discount on their insurance if they install the devices (and drive safely). There is no word on whether this will become industry-wide practice anytime soon.