UP UNTIL NOW, I'VE BEEN LUKEWARM ABOUT Tablet PCs. Not because a “digital clipboard” wouldn't make sense for a home builder, but because there hadn't been any applications for the Tablet PC that made it any better than a regular laptop—or, for that matter, an inexpensive PDA.

That's no longer the case. Field2Base has developed ConstructConnect software that may speed up the home building industry's use of wireless computing for field communications and managing documents.

ConstructConnect is two applications in one: Project Communications and Forms Engine. Using Project Communications, project managers can snap photos, make notes, execute some sketches, and mark up a drawing—just like they would on an old-fashioned clipboard. Say there's a big problem on the jobsite, and nothing else can happen until it's fixed. The application lets users generate a “digital envelope” that can contain digital photos taken with the Tablet PC's built-in digital camera, sketches of the problem—or of the fix—drawn right on the Tablet PC screen, and copies of the CAD drawings. The CAD files can be viewed, zoomed, and marked up using Field2Base's built-in drawing and handwriting recognition tools. Except now, instead of running back to the office to find a printer and the FedEx person, the project manager can just tap “Send” and the information gets delivered to a coworker, subcontractor, or architect electronically, via fax or e-mail.

Forms Engine is equally impressive. Back at the office, an administrator scans and uploads all of the company's paper forms to the Field2Base servers using the software's “Form Designer” application, which runs on a PC. Field2Base accepts change orders, purchase orders, time cards, job logs, and punch lists—pretty much anything that can be scanned with an inexpensive scanner can become part of the system. Once tweaked and uploaded, digital forms look exactly like the paper originals, and they're instantly available to users in the field from a simple menu on their wireless Tablet PCs.

Michael Vuytecki, president of Legacy Builders, a high-end custom home builder in Durham, N.C., says the software makes Legacy more efficient.

“If we had $1,000 worth of trim that we didn't need, we worked through our office, call the supplier, schedule a pickup, and hopefully get a credit,” he says. “Now, we issue a return request from the field, and with a digital audit trail, ConstructConnect expedites the credit-back process, saving us from costs incurred through loss, damage, or theft.”

What makes ConstructConnect revolutionary is how it removes the two biggest hurdles builders face when trying to make use of new technology.

Users don't have to know how to use Windows or understand file managers. “Our office people are computer-savvy, but not every field worker has skills with Word or Excel,” says Vuytecki. “ConstructConnect solves that because it's tablet-based and works with just a touch of the Tablet PC pen.”

ConstructConnect eliminates the usual PDA hot sync hassles, as well as the need for mobile users to constantly hunt for a way to get online. Instead, the system queues up all incoming and outgoing digital documents and messages and waits until the user drives into a cellular signal or walks into a WiFi hot spot. Then everything is automatically sent and received in the background. All the user has to do is remember to keep the Tablet PC turned on.

ConstructConnect includes the Tablet PC equipped with 802.11b wireless, a digital camera, a rugged case, a Sierra Wireless cellular modem card, theft and loss insurance, and all necessary software and server access. Pricing starts at $299 per single user per month.Volume pricing also is available.

Joe Stoddard is a process/technology consultant to the home building industry. Visit his Web site at www. mountainconsulting.com.