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Smartphones make inroads in mobile TMS

Smartphones are emerging as platforms for mobile transportation management system (TMS) software.

The Apple iPhone's viability as an enterprise platform remains to be seen, despite its growing number of business applications. But the popular device has gained a foothold in transportation and logistics, and competitors such as the BlackBerry and Android phones are following suit, thanks to apps that provide shippers and third-party logistics (3PL) providers with a link to transportation management systems (TMS).

In March, Sterling Commerce announced the availability of its TMS Carrier Mobile App for free download from the iPhone App Store. Several customers were already using the software to access Sterling's TMS. Last year, competitor MercuryGate International released iPhone Portal, which provides access to the company's TMS through Apple's Safari Web browser. Elsewhere, one carrier wrote its own iPhone app.

Benefits of mobile TMS

Ryan Laulainen, a transportation broker for Allen Lund Company Inc., a 3PL with offices in 30 U.S. metro areas that specializes in refrigerated and flatbed freight, said roughly half of the company's 310 employees will use Sterling's TMS Carrier Mobile. The company acts as a go-between, tapping its database of 50,000 carriers to arrange shipping for clients, many of them produce growers.

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The app works like Sterling's desktop client, Laulainen said, allowing him to build a load and hire a carrier, set up pickup and delivery appointments, view load tenders, and update shipment status. Billing, however, must be done on the desktop software. Sterling says it will add that feature, he said.

"A lot of these customers only give you 30 to 90 minutes to accept or decline a load," Laulainen said, adding that the ability to execute the decision directly from the phone can determine who gets the job. Once, while waiting for his car to be repaired, he accepted truckloads he might have lost if he had had to go to his office computer.

Time savings and improved customer service are likewise the main benefits of an iPhone app used by John Glandis, logistics manager at MTS Medication Technologies, a manufacturer of medication packaging and equipment. For more than a year, Glandis has used the Mobile Freight Optimizer from BlueGrace Logistics Partners Inc., a third-party logistics (3PL) company.

The software lets Glandis look up prices and shipping times stored in his company's MercuryGate TMS by entering dates, destinations and other criteria. He said the app came with carrier data already entered and is updated automatically whenever the information changes.

"Mostly, I use it when customer service and sales reps call up for quotes," said Glandis, whose company ships 60 to 80 skids of medication per day. "I don't have to go back to my computer." He also uses the app to audit shipping clerks to make sure they are using the lowest-cost carriers.

The software does not let him initiate shipments, but BlueGrace hopes to add that feature. Glandis would also like the ability to track shipments. He said he plans to train sales representatives on the app so they don't have to contact him for carrier information. "They can do it right in front of the customer, which is nice," he said.

BlueGrace said it chose initially to develop on the iPhone because it is better suited than competing platforms to take advantage of the diverse functions of the TMS. Developer Michael Brennan said Mobile Freight Optimizer is an extension of functions that customers already get from the BlueGrace website.

"We used existing servers and APIs that integrated with ease using Apple's development tools and libraries," Brennan said. "Apple provides a mature ecosystem for mobile application development from a mature development system to a very robust application store. Other mobile platforms are still catching up." Brennan added that RIM's BlackBerry and Google's Android are also becoming viable platforms, and BlueGrace promises a BlackBerry TMS app by summer 2010.

Other TMS vendors are following suit. RedPrairie demonstrated an Android prototype app at an early May user conference, and Camelot Software offers BlackBerry and Windows Mobile access to its 3Plink TMS, which is directly integrated with the company's warehouse management system (WMS).

iPhone's TMS durability raises questions

Despite these early successes, the iPhone might not have the durability that truckers need in a mobile device, according to Dwight Klappich, a vice president of research at the analyst firm Gartner Inc.

"These are things that guys are carrying in and out of trucks," Klappich said. "This is not your traveling sales guy who's got a briefcase where everything is organized. These are truck drivers."

He said most carriers choose ruggedized mobile computers or mount them inside trucks, standards the iPhone is unlikely to meet. But he said the iPhone user paradigm could begin to influence the design of ruggedized devices.

Glandis, admittedly not a trucker, disagrees. "I have dropped my phone down the stairs and had no problem," he said. "I have a hard case."

Durability concerns didn't deter at least one company from putting iPhones in drivers' hands. Last year, D.W. Morgan Company Inc., a transportation and logistics service provider for manufacturers such as Cisco and Lockheed Martin, developed ChainLinq Mobile, an iPhone app that dispatchers use to send pickup and delivery instructions to drivers, who can also obtain electronic signatures and file status reports on the phones. The app communicates directly with the company's proprietary TMS and uses the iPhone's GPS feature to pinpoint delivery locations on Google Earth maps that customers can view online along with real-time delivery data.

Less full-featured transportation and shipping applications are also being ported to smartphones. UPS, for example, provides Android, BlackBerry and iPhone apps that provide shipping rates and in-transit times and allow users to book and track shipments.

Apps for linking to other SCM systems, though slow in coming, do exist. For example, in January, SAP announced an iPhone version of its BusinessObjects Explorer, which lets users access data in SAP NetWeaver Business Warehouse Accelerator and analyze the results graphically.

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