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What's the best computer mix for your farm?
Though it may be tough to resist the latest new piece of communication technology to roll off the line, you’re better off with a good laptop or netbook computer and a smartphone for your farm.
With a solid web connection, these devices can turn a truck, tractor or even a four-wheeler into a mobile business office, for less money and more benefit than higher-profile consumer interactive gadgets.
Farmers are starting to take both computers and smartphones to the field. Choosing a smartphone for the farm increases the monthly bill for mobile phone service, but provides a huge boost in productivity and efficiency.
“While they’re in the field, they can conduct business,” says David Krueger, owner/founder of FieldRecon software company, AgRenaissance Software.
“They can place an order or be selling things while they’re in the cab. That’s given a lot more power to the grower,” Krueger says. ”The grower can be in the tractor with his Blackberry. He receives an e-mail with his consultant’s recommendations for a field. If he agrees, he can forward that to his applicator or his retailer."
Consultants who carry FieldRecon on a portable computer, can scout a field, produce a PDF report in the truck office, and email it to the smartphone used by a client.
Krueger’s popular farm software won’t work yet on Apple products like the iPad or iPhone. He says, “I don’t know (if we’ll see the iPad in the truck). Not a lot of agricultural software is written for the Apple operating system; nearly everything is Windows-based.”
That’s an important point. The PDA tree has many manufacturers, but only a few operating systems.
PocketRecon, a data-collection portion of FieldRecon, uses the Windows Mobile platform for handheld devices. It is working on handheld PDAs from smartphones to outdoor rugged computers provided by companies like Panasonic and Trimble.
Apps for scouting
Agri ImaGIS Technologies, Fargo, North Dakota, now is developing software for smartphones, notebooks and even the iPad. It has worldwide sales through www.satshot.com, and still operates as a family business.
“We’re seeing farmers getting more smartphones. They run the Web through the phone. Lots have map storage and applications,” says Nathan Faleide, spokesperson and son of founder, Lanny Faleide.
“Some new smartphones are in the order of 10 times more powerful than the controller in the tractor cab. Any tablet computer that uses an app could run all the controls of your tractor through your smartphone, in theory.”
Given time, he believes the tablet computer may become more powerful and be a better device than a notebook or netbook because of the built-in GPS, web connectivity and size.
“We actually can run our program now on the iPad, and other tablets, through the web browsers. Anything with web connectivity can access our data and mapping program now. Everyone else is Windows-based and can’t run on the tablets, yet.”
Agri ImaGIS is working on new apps (software applications) for the field.
For instance, Agri ImaGIS is getting ready to release a low-cost field scouting application for Android smartphones in Spring 2011.
The new application will be able to bring up a field map or satellite photo of a field, pinpoint locations while in the field, then attach text, photos or perhaps voice messages to those GPS points. The digital field notes can be forwarded for consultation.
Later versions are planned for Apple’s mobile operating system.
“We’re doing lots of work with mobile devices. They’re powerful, and they’re in everybody’s hands,” Faleide says.
Things are changing quickly.
At press time, Faleide added, “Until now, AT&T didn't cover much of the Midwest. Now with its acquisition of Alltel in the Midwest, the iPhone and iPad connectivity will come to most ag areas. In the coming months, and almost everywhere (in the Midwest), service will be available soon for either Android or Apple phones.”
Delta Ag Services
The smartphone and laptop have been primary field tools since Doug Pryor and partner Barry Friesen co-founded Delta Ag Services in southern Manitoba in 2004. They focus on soil management and are ‘totally digital’ now for field scouting. About two years ago, when they could integrate the smartphone and laptop with wireless communication, the truck became their office on wheels.
“We email our scouting reports to the growers from the truck. A big portion of them get it on their Blackberry, read it, and deal with it in the tractor,” Pryor says.
Pryor estimates half his clients already have matching tools in the truck or cab, and the changeover is continuing.
“They’ve got their information instantaneously,” he says.” They can manage it better because it’s right there, on the phone, in front of them. Text messaging is fast becoming the norm for information transfer. If clients want to know something, they need a rate on something, they tell me to send it in a text message. They don’t have to try to remember, they don’t have to write it down. They just flip back (through messages), and it’s right there.”
Whatever is sent on the mobile network also goes to the farm office computer as email. The messages are in two places; the business is backed up, safe and filed.
Getting into this the first time, Pryor advises clients to start by learning who’s providing what digital service in the area. A subscription to cellular service is the starting point. Right now, only one company (MTS Wireless) blankets Manitoba’s farming region. MTS retails and supports only two smartphones, RIM’s Blackberry and the HTC Android.
“The iPhone has some unique features which may make it better than the Blackberry we are using, but it’s not compatible with the network giving us our service,” Pryor says.
For instance, iPhone users can choose from a quarter-million applications; many apps are underway for the iPad.
Android smartphones, from several makers, now rank first in sales in the U.S. , followed by the Blackberry and Apple systems. Applications for the Android system are numerous, giving it more functionality than RIM’s Blackberry which has focused on business uses until recently.
Still, iPad will function in the truck as a tablet computer, as a music player, as storage for addresses, photos and software from Apple. It can provide GPS-based guidance on streets and highways and map the way to a machinery dealer.
To receive email or use the Internet, it needs a local network connection. It also needs clean fingers, because the touchscreen can’t respond to a stylus or non-conducting gloves.
On the other hand, iPad is only one of several ‘tablet’ computers. The display is a little smaller than a laptop, but larger than a netbook. Tablet computers range from less than $500 to more than $3,000 for sealed, rugged versions.
Pryor’s farm clients are finding netbooks make the best investment right now.
Typical netbook computers have a 10” screen and a price tagged at $250 to $400. There’s a full keyboard and a glide pad for navigation. The netbook and smartphone can be ‘tethered’ together, providing the netbook with high speed wireless Internet.
“We bought a couple netbooks today for our soil sampling trucks,” Pryor says. “The netbook lets guys do basically whatever they want -- email, messaging, Internet. The majority will record field operations or monitor irrigation systems. It’s a good unit for collecting field elevations or for running prescriptions. It can actually run the fertilizer applicator and tell it what to put where.”
Pryor believes that, at half the cost of an iPad, his clients will buy the netbook as a business tool and not worry.
“If we spend $250 to $300 on a netbook and it only lasts a season before it gets full of dust or dirt and quits, we’re not out a whole lot. We can afford to replace more frequently.
Editors' Note: John Dietz is a Contributing Editor for Successful Farming magazine.