Pocket PCs On A Mission

Best Buy's Geek Squad agents patrol the streets in search of problematic PCs, using mobile devices to pinpoint locations, take notes, and process payments

Elena Malykhina, Technology Journalist

February 18, 2006

5 Min Read

Double agent 340 patrols Yonkers, N.Y., and surrounding areas looking for spyware-infected PCs and crashed hard drives. Within close reach rests his indispensable weapon, a Pocket PC phone that serves up a wealth of information and connects him wirelessly to the headquarters' IT systems.

The agent is Cristian Luzbet, dressed in a black-and-white ensemble with a matching breakaway tie, and he works for the Geek Squad, a 24-hour response unit that offers computer and network support for home PC users or businesses without an on-site IT staff. Luzbet has worked two years for the Geek Squad, a division of electronics retailer Best Buy, earning him a silver badge that he proudly displays over his belt buckle.

The Geek Mobile is loaded with hard drives, wireless cards, routers, and the occasional candy bar wrapper.Photo by Zuma Press

Luzbet drives one of the Geek Squad's signature black-and-white Volkswagen Beetles. His Geek Mobile, as they're called, is loaded with hard drives, wireless cards, routers, and an occasional Snickers candy bar wrapper. But you won't find street-map books, computer manuals, or paper stacks of customer orders. All the information Luzbet needs he can get with his Sprint PPC-6700 Smart Device running Windows Mobile 5.0, which retails for about $450. Using Internet Explorer, Luzbet can link directly to Best Buy's order system.

Best Buy has about 12,000 agents like Luzbet nationwide driving Geek Mobiles and answering service calls every day. (Those who also help customers with computer problems from Geek Squad units within Best Buy stores, like Luzbet, are called double agents.) Using mobile devices from either Sprint or Verizon Wireless, they log on to the order system, where they can adjust price quotes if necessary, enter credit-card information, compose payment receipts, and complete the transaction on the spot.

Agents connect wirelessly through Sprint's EV-DO third-generation cellular network, one of the fastest available, and have complete Web browsing capabilities. "That sure beats asking the agents to carry laptops just for Web access," says Best Buy senior VP Sean Skelley.

Most agents service about three customers a day, with distances that can run 40 miles or so between customers. Luzbet accesses Google and Yahoo maps on the Web with his Pocket PC to look up directions to customers' homes. "It wasn't always this easy," he says, referring to the days when the agents had to call Best Buy's dispatchers on a cell phone to get step-by-step directions.

Many other mobile-device users would agree with Luzbet. Using cell phones and PDAs to look up maps, get directions, and find the specific location of restaurants, stores, and other destinations is growing in popularity among both consumers and businesspeople. The global market for location-based services on cell phones, including mapping, is $1 billion today, but it's expected to pass $8.5 billion by the end of 2010, according to Juniper Research.

Small Challenges

But for the Geek Squad, mobile devices present some challenges. "Typing on a small keyboard isn't as easy as on a full-size keyboard," Luzbet says. That's why the agents often use handwriting-recognition software to take notes, such as the type of services they perform at each customer site. The agents then input the notes directly into Best Buy's order system, so the next time an agent gets a service call from a customer, he or she can refer to notes from previous visits and review past problems. In the past, agents had to wait until after the service call to type up their notes. "That's 10 to 15 extra minutes that could have otherwise been used to help the customer," Luzbet says.

On one recent service call to Manhattan, a customer had trouble viewing Web pages on his laptop and couldn't get rid of a screen saver that came on every few minutes. Luzbet used his Pocket PC phone to log on to Best Buy's system and look up the customer's previous service calls, and discovered he was using an outdated version of Windows. Luzbet spent about 25 minutes with the laptop, adding and removing programs and accessing Best Buy's order system to enter his notes. He then adjusted the price quote, processed the order, and E-mailed the customer a copy of the receipt, with enough time to spare for some lunch before his next service call.

Microsoft says Windows Mobile 5.0 will support close to 20,000 off-the-shelf applications, but many businesses such as Best Buy that provide or manage employees' mobile devices for accessing company information find that it's worth incurring the cost and time it takes to develop software that specifically supports their business. "An application to open and close orders sounds simple," Best Buy's Skelley says, "but you won't believe how much more efficient it makes the Geek Squad." The .Net framework in Windows Mobile 5.0 lets developers extend applications sitting on servers to mobile devices using Web services.

While Best Buy has found a way to sidestep the problem of tiny keyboards, it isn't content to stop at handwriting-recognition software. The Geek Squad is testing voice-recognition software that lets agents open and close orders and auto-dial phone contacts through voice commands. If the test is completed with flying colors, Luzbet will have an easier time keeping orders flowing and his hands on the Geek Mobile. That is, except when sneaking in a few bites of a Snickers bar.

About the Author(s)

Elena Malykhina

Technology Journalist

Elena Malykhina began her career at The Wall Street Journal, and her writing has appeared in various news media outlets, including Scientific American, Newsday, and the Associated Press. For several years, she was the online editor at Brandweek and later Adweek, where she followed the world of advertising. Having earned the nickname of "gadget girl," she is excited to be writing about technology again for InformationWeek, where she worked in the past as an associate editor covering the mobile and wireless space. She now writes about the federal government and NASA’s space missions on occasion.

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