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17 July 2014

Show me the proof

Signature capture and proof of delivery are stock in trade for the e-commerce market, and suppliers of specialist POD systems are getting increasingly sophisticated in what they can offer. Peter Rowlands reports

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Typically at least half of home shopping consignments have to be signed for by the recipient. Some retailers and carriers insist on a signature for all their deliveries.

Whether or not it’s strictly necessary to require a signature so frequently is a debate in itself. Waiving the requirement for proof of delivery can certainly improve first-time delivery success dramatically, especially if the item will fit through a letterbox; but it might also increase the potential for theft or fraud. Often the decision to demand a POD is a judgement call.

Let’s assume you’ve decided you must have a POD for your deliveries. The question then is how to provide it. Presumably as a retailer or carrier, you use some kind of despatch management and journey planning software, and you might expect that this would incorporate the means to collect a digital signature from the recipient. Job done.

But if that’s the case, why is there such a proliferation of separate proof-of-delivery suites in the multi-channel IT market? Literally dozens of systems suppliers now offer stand-alone POD products, and some specialise in them. What’s going on here?

David Cook, managing director of software house TranSend, which has a strong presence in this market, has a simple explanation. "It’s because POD is a complex subject," he says. "It’s not a natural extension of a typical enterprise resource planning suite."

Paul Ridden

Paul Ridden, managing director of Skillweb, another POD specialist, fleshes out some of this complexity. "Collecting the POD is only part of the challenge," he points out. "You also have to feed the information back into your business systems in an intelligent way that makes the best use of it."

He adds: "You can put in a simple system and gain a short-term benefit, or you can look for a supplier with the right industry skills who offers you much greater functional reach."

In other words, using a specialist POD suite is taking a best-of-breed approach to the requirement, rather than simply accepting a module of some broader system.

Indeed, in some cases specialist POD systems have emerged from larger fulfilment suites, but have since gained a life of their own. A good example is seen in the fleXipod system from Axida, a specialist in e-fulfilment (and especially two-man home delivery). Developed initially to meet a perceived customer need, it soon gained a life of its own.

"Many of our fleXipod customers come to us just for this product," says director Wayne Holgate. "We are very happy to integrate with other systems. There’s certainly no pressure on users to adopt other Axida components."

Another such product is Calidus ePOD from OBS Logistics. The Calidus suite originally focused on warehouse management, but there’s no suggestion from OBS that ePOD users need to adopt the full Calidus suite in order to gain the benefits of the POD solution.

A typical POD system will offer a range of functions, but all will have the basic ability to capture a signature from a delivery recipient on a handheld computer or tablet, and deliver it back to the host system via a GPRS or 3/4G data network, often in real or near-real time.

They will usually also offer scanning capability to match the consignment and delivery with a barcode, and will usually also offer date- and time-stamping and a location fix (derived from a GPS module in the handheld terminal).

Increasingly they can also make use of the device’s inbuilt camera to allow the driver to take photographs that are linked to the delivery location. Carrier DPD is just one that regards a photograph of a front door as effective confirmation that a delivery was attempted, though Skillweb’s Paul Ridden argues: "A GPS fix at the location is the most powerful evidence of attendance at the location." He adds, though, that his system allows photographs when required.

Not every POD suite, however, provides all this functionality. David Cook of TranSend warns: "Too many POD systems just amount to a list of call points thrown on to a smartphone. They don’t take account of actual customer demands."

He says users nowadays want integration. "A successful POD system is not just software on a mobile device; you’ve also got to be able to use the data in context."

Android – game changer in the ePOD world?

Until lately, if you wanted to introduce a mobile business application such as electronic proof of delivery, you would almost certainly have expected to install it on portable devices running a mobile version of the Windows operating system.

With remarkable rapidity Android has changed the rules. It has matured quickly, and is now regarded as a serious alternative to Windows in the mobile world for professional applications. It’s cheap, it’s stable, and it’s already familiar to millions of users with smartphones running essentially the same operating system.

It appears that the slow roll-out of Microsoft’s latest mobile operating system has contributed to this change of focus. As David Cook of TranSend Solutions puts it: "Some operators have delayed deciding on their mobile platform until Microsoft’s road map for mobile devices becomes clear, but they simply can’t wait any longer."

Both TranSend and Skillweb, two suppliers to whom we spoke extensively for this article, have majored on Android, though both say they are still happy to support Windows Mobile for those customers who require it.

Paul Ridden of Skillweb admits that in the early days there were challenges in developing for Android. "There were version differences to deal with and networking issues to address, but we’ve come through that process."

Android offers many attractions – not least the fact that it allows ordinary smartphones to be used for data capture. Admittedly they are more fragile than industrial handheld terminals, which can be dropped many times without damage. "But drivers take more care if they’re using their own phone," Cook argues. "And they’ll rarely let their own phone’s battery run flat."

He also points out that many smartphone screens are larger than those of typical handheld terminals. "So there’s more space for people to write a legible signature."

In any case, more and more mobile computer manufacturers are now offering fully-featured rugged models that are designed from the outset to run Android, so at the hardware level the distinction is rapidly disappearing. And some of those devices have large, consumer-style screens that make them look remarkably similar to mobile phones.

The drift towards Android is now having an impact on the way users run their information technology departments. Developing applications for Windows Mobile was a well established discipline, and some users did it in-house or used their favourite developers; but introducing Android changed the landscape.

"Should users acquire the ability to do their own Android development, or take the opportunity to go to a specialist?" Paul Ridden asks. "Many are choosing the latter route."

One of the practical attractions of Android in the POD world is that it helps transport operators who regularly make use of subcontracted drivers. In the past, it was unlikely that those drivers would have had a mobile device capable of running the same software as the company’s in-house devices – which meant they couldn’t provide the same POD capability.

Android solves this. Subcontracted drivers can download an app to their own smartphones that will link them into the same POD system as the company itself. In TranSend’s case, the company handles the downloading process itself, rather than via a marketplace such as Google Play. Cook says it would be possible to support Apple’s iOS in the same way, "but we haven’t had much demand so far."

In some cases the POD suppliers offer capabilities that might seem to belong more naturally to a third-party host suite. TranSend, for instance, offers a route editing and vehicle loading module. However, most tend to assume that they will form a part of a larger suite provided by other suppliers.

David Cook says there is a particularly strong symbiotic relationship with routing and scheduling software. "While some scheduling suppliers take a ‘black box’ approach to POD gathering, the better ones provide full integration."

Skillweb’s Ridden agrees. "We’ve integrated with various suppliers, including ALK for satellite navigation and TruckStops for routing and scheduling, though we like to keep an open mind about partnerships."

Looking at the subject from the other side, suppliers in fields such as routing and scheduling and vehicle tracking have also recognised the importance of POD to their offer. Paragon and Isotrak are among many that specifically support specialist POD systems such as Skillweb’s and TranSend’s.

Confirmation of delivery in real time is in fact an essential element in the "plan versus actual" reporting that has become a key feature for scheduling suppliers such as Paragon and MapMechanics (the TruckStops developer). It enables delivery companies to advise recipients of delays, reschedule problematic deliveries, and even initiate billing.

According to David cook of TranSend: "Many of the credit notes issued by delivery companies arise because they have charged for a delivery that failed. A real-time POD system can cut credit notes cases by half."

If POD represents a relatively recent extension in the territory addressed by fulfilment and warehouse management suites, it has occupied a more central role in another kind of software suite – despatch and delivery management. Suppliers such as Blackbay and DA Systems, who have provided major systems to carriers and couriers in Britain and abroad, have long included electronic PODs in their suites as a matter of course.

Some are now trying to extend the scope of their offerings; for instance, Blackbay is promoting the idea of enabling drivers to conduct a very brief doorstep survey after each delivery, or even to do a bit of upselling.

The humble POD has truly entered a new era, and arguably found a life of its own.

Microsoft’s mobile operating systems: back in contention?

With all the attention garnered by Android in the past couple of years, you might think Microsoft’s long-standing presence in the industrial mobile computing market was seriously on the wane. But if so, maybe you need to think again.

Admittedly, its long-running operating system for rugged mobile devices has come to the end of the line with Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5, an updated version of the familiar and stable Windows Mobile 6.5.

This OS has historically been used in a wide variety of mobile applications, including electronic POD, and is still available. However, although it will be supported until January 2020, it won’t be developed further.

Instead, Microsoft would like users to migrate to Windows Embedded 8 Handheld. Although that sounds confusingly like a new version of the same thing, it’s actually a completely different operating system based closely on Windows Phone 8. At least one developer claims that porting applications from Embedded Handheld 6.5 to Embedded 8 Handheld is almost impossible.

While that may seem worrying, you might take some comfort from Microsoft’s recent launch of the concept of the "universal app". The idea is that you develop once, and your application can be output in versions that will work on any current Microsoft operating system, from desktop to mobile. It sounds beguiling, providing you’re starting from scratch rather than trying to migrate existing software.

Meanwhile, even more intriguing is news that Microsoft plans to make its Windows Mobile operating system available free – yes, free – for use on mobile phones and other portable devices with a screen size of up to 9in. Clearly it has realised this is the only way it is ever going to claw back any reasonable market share from Android and Apple’s iOS.

Since Windows Embedded 8 Handheld is closely compatible with Windows Phone 8, arguably Embedded 8 could and perhaps should be offered free as well. There is no indication yet that it will be, but if Microsoft wants to retain a presence in rugged business computing and to deflect the rise and rise of Android, that may be its only option. And if this doesn’t happen, maybe you could get away with running Phone 8 on your mobile device instead.

Much remains to be resolved, but don’t discount Microsoft in the mobile business market yet.





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