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So: 6,500 Win 8 laptops later, how are BT's field engineers coping?

Life on the go with Redmond's fondle-tech

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Going native

Norton states that at this stage the thinking is based around the different level of capability and functionality that’s offered from a native versus a non-native application:

"What we’ve seen on the journey we’ve been on so far is that building in a native application on the iPhone has been easier to integrate with some of the built-in capabilities of the phone, such as taking images, the GPS etc. It’s not quite as easy to leverage those capabilities when we’re building in a non-native form. That’s something that our design teams within the technology organisation at BT are helping us to solve."

Panasonic Toughbook CF-C1

Network Records works well with touchscreen navigation. This essential resource details every line and socket in the country

While Openreach strives for a fast and flexible response to a changing workflow and product portfolio in software, it still has to shop around for hardware. This involved more than a flick through the Argos catalogue. Tablets were considered in quite some depth but at the time, the spec didn’t match requirements. Indeed, the decision making process took on board the views on the engineers who’d be using them.

“We ran a series of market stall events,” explains Norton. “We invited a whole range of vendors to bring a selection of devices to those events and we took our engineers and got their feedback around what worked best for them. We then followed that up with a survey that went out to over 5,000 engineers, once we got down to a shortlist of devices.”

That’s a lot of viewpoints to consider and although tablets were in that debate, at the time there wasn’t a Win 8 rugged tablet available with the spec they were looking for. That said, recent tablet hardware suggests the situation many change to meet the needs of the Openreach field surveyors who expressed a preference for tablets.

Done deals

Now, 5,900 Toughbooks at a streetprice of around £2k apiece is getting on for £11.8m. Needless to say, a deal was done. The CF-C1 isn't the latest model, it runs a 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-2520M Sandy Bridge CPU which first appeared back in 2011, but having an SSD on-board too keeps things nifty. However, the fleet is not 100 per cent Panasonic: in addition, there are 600 Lenovo X230Ts deployed too – ruggedised, convertible laptops with a more recent Ivy Bridge CPU compared to the Toughbook CF-C1. Besides having an alternative device that could be assessed properly, at scale, in the field, using Lenovo convertibles would also galvanise minds at Panasonic over price. Openreach has been a Panasonic customer for many years, but business is business.

Openreach is involved in Microsoft’s First Wave programme, and was given access to Windows 8 in the latter part of 2011. The team properly got going with work required to bring the legacy apps on board in March-April 2012 with three or four months development effort and testing. The first pilot uses began, June-July last summer with the scaled roll out starting in August and completed in December 2012.

“The transition and the testing and development work to get our legacy stack running on Windows 8 was nowhere near as painful as I’d envisaged it being,” says Norton. “In terms of the volume of defects we had to work through or the issues we had to engage Microsoft on before we were ready to launch, they were minimal, they really were minimal.”

However he admits there were concerns.

“We feared the worst in terms of how long it would take engineers up to speed and get comfortable with the devices. But actually, as soon as they started to hit the field the feedback was very, very strong right from the beginning, with people talking about it changing their lives in terms of performance, particularly resuming from sleep which is exceptionally good and the start up times are substantially better than previous kit.”

This will be a factor that the on-board SSD makes a large contribution to.

Welcome to the machine

Openreach Panasonic Toughbook CF-C1

The BT Openreach Tools Transformation programme sounds impressive given the numbers involved – 6500 laptops and 6600 iPhones and that's just for starters – but when you talk to an actual field engineer, this deployment is put in perspective. Barry Hawkes was among the first in the fleet to have a new CF-C1 Toughbook and took part in iPhone trials for the company.

Until recently, he’d been running BT apps on a Panasonic CF-29 - a Windows XP laptop he’d been working on for around six years which he describes as “woefully underpowered”. Yet there are 22,000 Openreach field engineers out there and if Hawkes’ experience is anything to go by, the tools transformation can’t come soon enough.

“At first, like every big company, there were a load trials that most engineers didn’t even know about. So we’re all sitting there, still with our old laptops thinking: is this ever going to change?”

For some engineers with old kit, the Network Records database is accessed from CD, which is sluggish - rather than wirelessly from the Openreach portal. Also casting a long shadow over the Openreach estate is the need to run TaskForce. With its 20-odd years of updates, the application's demands have steadily increased, impacting on the performance of the ageing field equipment.

“In the end the laptop sits there and says no. I might have been rebooting for up to 90 minutes a day [in total] probably rebooting five or six times just to send a job back and pick another job up.”

Panasonic Toughbook CF-C1

Network Records drills down into the details
Click for larger image

He describes the scenario of walking into customer’s home with a seven year old laptop and they’re on the new fibre broadband expecting 80Mb/s downloads which his equipment can’t even handle. The Wi-Fi on the CF-29 was “pretty poor” and it could take 25mins to reboot the machine to demonstrate the connection was OK.

“Understandably, customers lose confidence and since I’ve had this [CF-C1], I don’t feel embarrassed as before, saying: sorry about the laptop but it does work... They see Windows 8 too, which not many have come across and my life has been made massively easier, as it’s now four minutes instead of forty to send a job back.”

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The line of least resistance The field engineers get half a day’s training on Windows 8 and Hawkes has not been involved in the testing of any of the new apps in development for the platform. He looks forward to using them, as his iPhone experience has made him very aware of how long-winded tasks can be condensed and simplified with bespoke apps. Currently, he's still working on the old Openreach suite of software and, consequently, Desktop mode is where he and colleagues stay.
BT Openreach iPhone with Griffin Saviour case

iPhone apps are sorted but new
Win8 software is still being tested
Click for a larger image

For him, the Metro tiles offer neat shortcuts for tests such as running the BBC iPlayer in HD to demonstrate line integrity to customers. He admits Windows 8 was “extremely frustrating at first” experiencing difficulties in killing off programs and resorting to ALT F4 when swipes wouldn’t appear to deliver. He likes the Metro Media player, but not the Back button.

“You can be in it for work – some kind of training video – and then you press the back button thinking that’s going to take you back out to the display listing all the other videos but it takes you to another section that’s got XBox Live and the like and you think: I don’t know how to get out of here now. So you have to close the program down and start over again. I’ve not experienced a newly developed system that’s that difficult to watch a video and then go back and watch others.”

No doubt there are tricks to learn, but surely the thinking behind of Windows 8 was to be intuitive. Until the new apps appear, he says that most engineers just go back to what they know. Windows 8 may have potential in the field, which is work in progress for Openreach, but for now, a substantial number of its engineers are feeling the benefit of nifty new PC hardware rather than touchy feely software.

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