From the outside, the van looks much like any other. But the sleek, black exterior actually hides perhaps the world’s most advanced mobile office. The vehicle belongs to Scott A. Jones, chairman, CEO, and president of Escient Technologies, LLC, who uses it to keep in touch and remain productive while he’s traveling. As chairman of the Indiana Technology Partnership, the Gazelle Fund, and GrowIndiana Media Ventures, and a director on the boards of the state-financed 21st Century Fund and the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, Jones is working to establish the state of Indiana as an emerging center of high technology.

Whether he’s traveling for business or pleasure, one thing is certain: Jones has at his fingertips some of the most advanced technologies ever used in a mobile office—an apt marketing tool to promote Indiana’s growing presence as a technology region.

As a mobile office solution, the van may not be cost-effective for most companies. But it’s a shining example of the ingenious use of computer and communications technology to help users take advantage of time that would otherwise be unproductive. Jones’ solution could also be the precursor for other high-tech (and highly mobile) networking solutions, such as mobile health care clinics.

Driving force
Jones is a philanthropist and high-tech entrepreneur whose patented voice messaging technologies were a key element leading to the success of the first company he cofounded, Boston Technology Inc. That company later merged with Comverse Technologies, a multibillion dollar company that continues to use the communications technologies Jones invented. Jones is credited with the invention of mass-user voice mail and holds more than eight patents for voice mail technologies and a total of 14 patents or patents pending for various technologies.

In addition to his work as CEO of Escient, Jones is also on the boards of a number of charitable organizations that make contributions to technology efforts and schools in the Indianapolis area. Jones has been instrumental in helping many technology companies get started, including Bostech Corporation, an Indianapolis-based e-commerce solutions provider.

In 2000, Jones received the INITA Cyberstar award for Outstanding Individual Contribution to the Technology Industry—Private Sector.

All of this means that Jones is a busy man whose time is valuable. Thus, he and his staff developed “Digital Wheels,” as his high-tech van is called, to keep him in touch and productive while commuting between his home in suburban Indianapolis and his Intech Park office, where Escient is headquartered, or while traveling to other engagements.

Cruising with Digital Wheels
Jones’ mobile office is housed in a black Chevrolet Express Extended Van with tinted windows, shown in Figure A. It’s a pretty slick-looking ride, and one that probably elicits some nods of approval from other drivers on the roadways.

Figure A
Jones’ high-tech office is housed in a Chevrolet Express Extended Van.

With most vehicles, you want to look under the hood to see what it’s got, but not this one. Instead, you’ll want to open the back doors to check out the smorgasbord of electronics that power the business conducted inside the van (Figure B).

Figure B
Opening up the back doors reveals the brains of this mobile communications center.

The equipment installed in the van allows Jones to hold meetings, compose e-mails, surf the Web, return phone calls, and view video presentations, all while he’s on the road.

In addition to the high-tech gadgetry, Digital Wheels also boasts some low-tech productivity features, including a conference table and seating for up to eight staff members.

The productivity electronics on board the van include:

  • A Windows 2000 Server with mobile wireless Internet access (while moving).
  • A wireless LAN that connects the various systems and allows them to access the Internet.
  • A color laser printer.
  • A touch-screen system that controls all onboard audio/video devices.
  • Three LCD screens that allow every person seated in the van (including the driver) to view onscreen information.
  • A voice-activated-and-controlled GPS for the driver.
  • A hands-free PCS phone system for the driver and passengers.
  • Three onboard telephones for Jones and his staff to conduct separate conversations simultaneously.

The setup allows Jones to effectively conduct on-the-road meetings and use the communications system to link the staff in the van to the home headquarters or any other location. It’s a great solution that fills in the productivity gap during the commute to and from the office as well as facilitating business trips with destinations that are close enough for driving rather than flying.

Jones conducts business on the road.

Not all business

The electronics installed in the van aren’t just for Jones’ business needs. He also uses the van for family outings with his sons, so it’s also nicely equipped with some entertainment hardware as well, including:

  • Home-theater-quality sound for movies and CD playback.
  • A VCR and a DVD player.
  • TV reception on the go.
  • A rear-mounted radio/CD head unit, so that the driver and rear passengers can listen to different music.

Smoothing the ride
Believe it or not, the most important piece of hardware installed on the van may not be the server or the drives or the communications equipment, but the suspension. Bumps in the road pose a serious threat to connectivity. It took engineers three months to perfect the shocks and suspension to prevent connectivity loss as a result of the van hitting a pothole. Jones has even joked that the suspension is the most sophisticated of Digital Wheels’ technologies.

Physical bumps in the road aren’t the only challenges Jones’ staff and technicians have faced, either. The original Windows 2000 Server installed in the van was a PC with a Sierra Wireless AirCard installed for connectivity, but recurring issues forced repeated replacement of the AirCard until the PC was finally replaced with a laptop. The laptop appears to be more AirCard-friendly; the related connectivity issues disappeared following the switch.

Keeping the server rolling
The server used in the van is now a Dell Latitude C800 laptop with PIII 1-GHz CPU, 256 MB of RAM, a 48-GB hard drive running Win2K Server and equipped with routing and remote access, as well as a Lucent Residential Gateway. Because of the laptop’s better compatibility with the AirCard, Jones has experienced few problems with the new setup.

He can synch up with his office or with his home computer from the comfort of his luxury van. The only issue he faces with his hardware is the relatively slow performance of the AirCard itself, which is comparable to an average 56K dial-up modem.

Regular maintenance checks help head off potential problems to ensure that Jones is connected while on the road. Residence Manager David Moore handles the weekly “tech audits,” during which he checks each piece of functionality on the van to make sure that the operation performs as expected. For example, Moore will connect to the Internet and browse pages to make sure that the Web connection is maintained. If he encounters any problems and finds that repairs or parts are needed, the necessary work is contracted out to IT professionals.

Sticker shock
If you’re thinking about working on a similar setup to create a mobile solution for your company, be advised that customizing the van for this purpose wasn’t easy or cheap, so it might not be the most cost-effective mobile office solution.

Jones has been keeping the actual price tag of the customized van a tight secret, but he says that it cost more than a Rolls-Royce (typically around $250,000) and less than a Lamborghini (usually around $300,000). That’s probably a little steep for most companies’ mobile office budgets, but Jones’ time is obviously valuable, so this was considered a necessary, if expensive, solution. In addition, the van allows him to take a staff of eight with him on the road to conduct and record conferences, so it truly is a mobile office in every sense of the word.

Down the road
Obviously, more economical solutions are available to satisfy the need for mobile communications. Computer users who travel frequently have a number of other communications options, and it could be argued that a staff of several people would rarely need to travel together and hold meetings on the road.

Still, Scott Jones’ Digital Wheels shows us that ingenuity—and a deep wallet—can provide a unique and effective solution to the challenge of keeping in touch with the office while traveling for business or commuting to and from work. With the advance of the 24/7 business environment, many companies, and especially top executives, are looking for ways to stay connected while traveling. Digital Wheels is the solution that works best for Scott Jones and Escient, and this solution may be the sign of greater things to come in terms of mobile commuting, especially as wireless and cellular technologies mature.