USA - With all of the hoopla surrounding technology and relentless promotion of computer-associated "widgets" in the media, it's easy to lose sight of the original purpose of technology: what management consultants call "mission."
Super Route Manager/i
SPRINGFIELD, IL , Premier Data Software Solutions has released "Super Route Manager/i," a new route management system that reportedly will set benchmarks in user-friendliness, scalability and intuitiveness.
"SRM/i" has been rewritten from the ground up, incorporating 20 years of software development and integration expertise of the programming staff of Premier Data and SieCorp, the software development company that acquired Premier two months ago.
The product is being marketed as a fully integrated business software suite for music and games and vending routes as well as FECs. Its mouse-free design makes collection data entry faster than previous "SRM" versions.
"SRM/i" includes a complete general ledger, including payroll, accounts payable and accounts receivable. It allows multiple windows to open at once. Reports are produced more concisely and accessed easily. Functions for machine rotations, inventory management and scheduling also are more straightforward.
PDSS officials reported that improved technical environments in Microsoft development tools used to create "SRM/i" enabled the company's engineers to create a highly reliable system.
Learning the new software is quick and easy, officials added, with most data entry tasks organized into logically occurring order.
Available software add-on options include "CD Manager" and "Service Manager" for managing music and vehicles and employees, respectively.
"SRM/i" also will integrate with new handheld software that will enable the system to work with most Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). "Super Route Onsite," a "Windows CE"-based handheld system, will be released in early 2001.
Information is available from the company at (800) 720-DATA or at www.premierdatasoftware.com.
Technology, say the experts, when applied to a business enterprise, serves only one purpose: to improve efficiencies in an existing organization. Any new technology, whether it be an electronic data processing or communications device, should be judged on its ability to do something more rapidly, accurately, economically, or all three. Whether these efficiencies are back office or frontline, the goal is the same.
Those old enough to remember the first moon launches will recall that a good deal of NASA's computational work was not done by high-speed supercomputers running at teraflops (billions of floating-point operations a second), but rather on humble slide rules and cumbersome mainframes. The computational power loaded into those early space capsules could be contained in one of today's pocket calculators.
Nothing that can be done on today's top of the line desktop computers cannot be done with pencil, paper, expertise and time. According to the latest government estimates, business and government agencies bought computing technology to the tune of $433 billion in 1999. That's a pretty pricey tune, and perhaps a crescendo to a trillion dollar symphony of technology purchases that has played throughout the 1990s.
The quantifiable and dramatic increases in American productivity have been largely been given credit for the surge of technology into the workplace. However, there is some debate as to just how efficiently these tools are being utilized.
"Is information power? Absolutely," explained the editor of a large technology-oriented magazine. "But does more information , more data , mean more power? That's the billion dollar question, isn't it? Information that can't be applied; information that drowns you in data and hides the facts you need, that's really not power. It's a kind of data fetish. And the software guys, the hardware guys, especially at the retail level. They feed on it. They sell the stuff like car dealers used to sell Corvettes."
The editor, who asked that his name not be used, gave the example of an executive doing a "PowerPoint" presentation. "I've been in meetings where the presenter had spent so much time with the numbers and trying to make the image on the screen look good, that he or she missed the basic analysis. Really, just beautiful graphs and great captions, but all wrong or not useful. And the second somebody said, 'Wait a minute" The presenter just fell apart."
All of this, of course, puts the amusement and music route operator in a bind. With the industry becoming ever more complex and competitive, many operators are finding that operational efficiencies made possible through technology are not a luxury, but a necessity. The survival of the business may depend as much on the computing power in the office as the games on location.
"The industry is so competitive right now, that they [the operators] really have to stay on top of their commission splits, and they have to stay on top of what types of locations and what types of games are producing the most money," said Chad Roggow, director of marketing for Coin ConneXion (Sioux Falls, SD), which produces the "e-Systems" line of hardware and software for the coin-op amusement industry. "They have to stay on top of their depreciation, and their parts and service calls. It's so competitive that you have to be able to control all aspects of expenses in your business." Best known among these is "EzRoute." Like many products on the market, the system includes a core of basic reporting features to which operators can add "modules" for specific applications.
"If you're going to buy a $5,000 or $10,000 machine, you are going to want to know what type of location to put it in," Roggow said. "You're going to want to know what service (you've put into) that machine, and everything that machine has produced."
Coin ConneXion offers software packages , or, in the parlance of the industry, "solutions" , that track inventory, machines, location information, commission arrangements and expense categories, through and including inventory and parts in the warehouse, tracking service calls, managing CD inventory and third-party commission splits.
The company was also one of the first to offer a handheld route data collection unit, in 1997. Since then, the company has advanced, from offering the "Dolphin 7200" wand unit, to offering the "Symbol SPT 1700," which is basically a ruggedized "Palm Pilot"-type device, as well as a software program that works on a standard "Palm Pilot."
"I talk to quite a few smaller operators who still do it manually," said Roggow. "I see small operators getting into computers, because there is less room for error, and it seems like every location is going to have a different commission split. The fact is, they have to retrieve all that data and calculate it accurately."
With operators keeping a close watch on the numbers back at the office, Roggow added, the tolerances for error have been tightened. "The whole issue is accountability for the data and cash collected from the machines; that's where the handhelds come into play," he explained. "Because now the owners can actually control what is going on out in the field."
Two valuable functions, Roggow emphasized, are overlooked by many operators. The first is reporting requirements and the types of reports available. "We've been in business since 1993, and basically, our whole program is continued development based on operator feedback explaining what they want," he said. "And most of that is reporting requirements. We have hundreds of different reports available to the operator from our system. For example, the operator can obtain a return-on-investment type report that shows original cost, all collections detailed, minus service calls, parts and labor and then calculates a true return on investment."
And reports must become increasingly more specific, particularly for larger organizations or for operators dealing with chain locations. In these cases, where a reporting requirement cannot easily be accommodated by the base system, Coin ConneXion will custom-develop one, providing a practical, cost-effective solution to the alternative of an entirely custom-programmed system.
Another key reporting requirement that cuts right to the bottom line, he explained, is depreciation schedules. "Some operators who come off a manual system don't realize how much money they can save," Roggow said. "Then they start doing a depreciation schedule and they see it. We had a client using our program who was not calculating the depreciation schedules on his machines correctly, and it cost him over a million dollars over a period of time."
Another player in the route management software and computer field is Premier Data Software Solutions, a unit of Springfield, IL-based SieCorp. SieCorp acquired Premier Data Corp., which was founded in 1993 by operator Don Waldron. The company markets a program called "Super Route Manager"; the latest version is "Super Route Manager/i."
"The ones who have the most success with technology are the ones who really understand it," said Rob Mayes, Premier Data's president. He explained that successful integration of management software into a route operation requires a willingness to change.
"We find that sometimes people become blind to what the purpose of technology really is," he said, "and they get more into the particular things they are sold on. We see a lot of people buying software because of the sales pitch, not really evaluating what it does. One of the real pitfalls for people making software-buying decision is that once they spend the time and effort to get it up and running, they are trapped in it, even if they find a better package. The people who have success have the ability to change; if something comes along, they investigate it, and they support that change. That's probably the key to any successful manager."
This constant evaluation and re-evaluation is key, said Mayes. Excuses for not changing, including "because that's the way it's always been done around here," are no longer valid.
"As our name implies, our system is integrated," Mayes explained. "You have to have a base package on a desktop or server that satisfies all business management requirements. If you have a core server package or core desktop package and they integrate with handheld and remote or Internet connections, you're going to have a system."
An integrated system is roughly defined as providing a single entry point for data that can then be accessed by authorized users from many points. Raw data entered into a handheld in the field, and uploaded into the system, can be used to create a wide range of reports. A fully-integrated system provides one-stop data shopping.
Like virtually everyone in the coin-op software field, Mayes attributes the adoption of the technology to an increasing complex industry. One of the reasons he gives for this complexity is the increasingly complex nature of an operator's own equipment portfolio. Not only is there a wider range of equipment, but the cost of equipment has necessitated some creative financing arrangements.
And, he pointed out, localities are imposing more complex licensing fees on operators. "There are more and more gambling and amusement game laws and taxes," he said. "The tax structure is increasingly complex. That drives it, too. So does competition; it's getting more and more competitive out there. If one person has a better-oiled organization, he can offer better splits, more expensive machines, because he has more of a revenue base that he has control over."
IN THE BEGINNING
Industry pioneer Len Smikun, of Silent Partner, programmed what many in the coin-op business hail as the first , and certainly most effective , computer management system for route-based coin-operated amusements.
He's been at it since 1984 , though a better frame of reference might be the technical stats. The first "Silent Partner" edition ran not on 486 or 386 machines, but on the older 286 units, antiques by today's standards. The original program occupied just 180 kilobytes in order to fit on the memory-deficient machines. This was pre-"Windows" technology, and only a few forward thinking operators adopted the system.
"Back then, the early core version was very, very limited and a very small part of what we now call the 'Amusement Module,'" explained Smikun. "At that time there was no parts inventory, no return on investment, no CD inventory, no redemption cranes, and no vending applications. And it had very few management functions. Nothing sophisticated. The big breakthrough was in 1997, when we switched from 'MS-DOS' to 'Windows.' That was a major transformation. But for the first six or seven years, 'Silent Partner' was the only program on the market."
A major transformation, indeed. While Silent Partner is still trim by today's standards ,under 10 megs , it has grown enormously. The current version includes sophisticated office and route management modules. These enhancements, explained Smikun, were prompted primarily by operator queries and requests dating back to the first years of the program.
"Basically the way 'Silent Partner' started to develop is we started selling a few products, and people would say to us, 'This is what we really need,'" remembered Smikun. "And we would write an update."
The process, he explained, was almost entirely operator driven, and updates continued to be issued by the company almost monthly.
SILENT GETS LOUDER
Another update of sorts for "Silent Partner" occurred this summer when game developer Incredible Technologies acquired the small programming firm. Best known for its innovative game design and aggressive move to networking games through the Internet, Incredible Technologies provided Silent Partner with the corporate muscle needed to compete.
"When Incredible Technologies bought us at the end of August, it eliminated one of our worst problems," said Smikun. "Silent Partner was always viewed as a small company. The most common question was, 'What if Len is hit by a truck?' Now, we like to say, 'The truck is gone.'"
Not only is the truck gone, but the innovative game developer brings to Silent Partner the capital needed to advance and promote the system, as well as additional skills. "There is a lot of technical expertise, Internet and website expertise now," explained Smikun. "There is a whole programming and debugging team, and a support team."
And, while he has been in the industry since the so-called dawn of its computer age, he does see a slow move toward automation. "I would say, to the best of my guessing abilities, no more than a third of the companies are computer based," he said. "There are still a lot of operators who don't even use computers, and it takes a lot of effort to explain to them how doing so would be to their benefit."
The advantage of computers, Smikun suggested, is more than an efficiency edge on the competition. "At the present time, the operator can no longer operate the way he did 15 or 20 years ago, basically using 'hard files' and small notepads, simply because the market got much tighter," he explained. "The machines have gotten more expensive; the demand for changing machines is much higher. Rotation has accelerated. There used to be a time when 'Space Invaders' or 'Galaga' would sit in the same location for years, earning very good money. That's no longer the case. Not only are the machines in a five-digit price range, but locations are much more demanding and the players are, too, because of competition from home games and the Internet. That imposes more decisions on the operator about how to make his business run more efficiently. That is something he can no longer do from memory, no matter how good his memory is."
It is one of the ironies of the industry that purchases of computers and the accompanying software responsible for the most fundamental tasks are frequently not given as much scrutiny as a new, low-level employee. Nor are they "auditioned" by the people who will use them on a daily basis.
With three major players in the route management field, it is fair to say that at least one of the products and its available modules will meet most operator needs, in terms of features and ease of use. Finding the one that is right for a particular company is the trick.
"The problems that most businesses encounter in buying technology is that they find they've under-thought and over-bought," said the anonymous editor. "This is mostly a hardware problem. If you go out tomorrow and buy a truck or forklift and then a desktop or laptop on the way home, I promise you, you'll have that truck or forklift long after the computer , the hardware, anyway , is in the trash."
The editor, of course, is referring to an inevitable result of Moore's Law, which loosely stated, has computer power doubling every 18 months. First introduced in the early 1970s with flippant optimism, Moore's Law has held true for nearly 30 years.
That is not to say that a doubling of power immediately obsoletes a system, but rather, that within relatively few years, certainly no more than five, any hardware package may not be able to handle software updates or available features offered.
"Your requirements are very important, and to identify those requirements is important," said Mayes. "And to successfully identify your requirements, you need to look at more than the annual report. Management usually buys software, so they focus on only one thing , data retrieval, queries and reports. That's what they see. But they have to keep in mind how much it costs to handle transactions, at what rate of errors, and what kind of payroll is associated with that. If they look only at output and ignore input, they usually get a lot of disgruntled employees."
An analogy can be found in the dictation-and-transcription field. When pocket-sized tape recorders became popular with executives, they often purchased the most up-to-date models, while either neglecting to update the secretary's transcription machine or purchasing the least expensive model. The result was that whatever efficiency gains resulted from adopting the new pocket-sized technology were lost as secretaries struggled with outdated or inadequate systems.
The same holds true with handheld units and other input devices. "If you upgrade, adopt new technology, you have to do it across the board," said the editor. "Otherwise you'll get bottlenecks in the data flow, all kinds of problems, and blame it on the new equipment."
Secondly, according to Mayes, operators should look at their budgets. "You have to figure out what you need for sure, then do a feasibility study and see if you can afford it."
Another key issue often neglected by operators seeking to move up to a more capable system is how much existing data can be transported from the old system to the new one. "Not all data will convert," he explained. "However, if you can get your machines, locations and collection transactions converted, that's 95 percent of the battle. You can always re-enter collection schedules," he explained.
Lastly, Mayes cautioned operators to investigate a supplier's warranty and support capabilities.
One option that many operators are currently adopting is server-based local area networks. A relatively new development in business computing for small to medium-sized companies, a centralized server allows access to data from several points around the office. The popularity of networks in firms is directly related to the decreasing price of servers, which now cost approximately the same as a desktop PC and can be wired fairly inexpensively as well.
Unlike stand-alone desktops, which can be installed by taking them out of a box and plugging them in, servers require more expertise. However, in all but a few cases, servers no longer require the tender loving care of a full-time "network administrator," which was standard only a few years ago.
"For larger companies, going to server-based systems makes sense," said Mayes. "In companies where you have eight or 10 route people and two or three people in administration, they make sense. The problem is, most people don't have the technical expertise to set them up. But if you don't put on a lot of stuff, they are not that hard. You can put an "Access" database on the server and log on from any node. It gives you much more flexibility for what little it costs a year."
Two more trends currently on the horizon are "Application Service Providers" (ASP) who offer software to a website that operators use for a fee, without purchasing it. The software stays on the ASP's site and processes the data sent to it. Another option making gains is leased software. Operators don't own the software, just the data they generate themselves. Lease arrangements provide operators with more flexibility to change software, should it not meet their needs.
One of the more controversial elements of computerization in route management is access to equipment. With wireless communications over the Internet an inexpensive inevitability, the question remains open as to what role it will play in coin-operated amusements. Real time, that is instantaneous, readings from far flung equipment will soon be possible. Likewise, remotely programming a game from across town or across country will also be feasible. The real question is the value of having this option.
"I watched my Internet stocks tank in real time on my 'Palm Pilot' in April," said the editor. "That's one thing; but does an operator need to see kids pumping quarters into a machine? I don't know."
A few machines, primarily jukeboxes, already can provide information, such as operation status, over phone lines. However, with the advent of inexpensive wireless communications, the quantity of real time information could increase greatly. If linked to a server at the office, such a system could provide detailed information during scheduled downloads that would be impractical to store on location, or offer play information that could be reconciled with collection data. Take, for example, data on the average length of play for a given player; length of play related to time of day or day of week; or a hundred other types of data sets could be collected. In short, each game could potentially drown a data-hungry operator in information, for a very reasonable price.
According to Roggow, Coin ConneXion is close to providing operators with a real-time data option. "Right now we have operators who can take a week or two to assemble all collection data, input it, proof it and report it to upper management," he said. "With real time, the data can be transferred back to the system; someone administers the data, and reports as soon as they get it. That's why we've chosen 'Java' for our language.
"Eventually," Roggow added, "each operator will have the option of logging onto a secure site, be it his client server, or his system at the office, and be able to access any of his information, no matter where he is; and have real-time collection data. When the guy is out with the handheld in the field gathering all his data and making collections, information can be transmitted immediately back to the office. We're pretty close to that. No more downloading at the end of route collection."
The consequences of real-time data collection are almost limitless in their potential for both management efficiencies and befuddlement. The acceleration of data through an organization may mean mercilessly efficient book keeping, rotation functions and equipment acquisition decisions. It could also mean information overload on a monumental scale.
It's the smart operator who will continuously upgrade , not his hardware or software, but his own ability to prioritize and analyze an ever increasing flow of data.