Given the current state of technology, some people need never set foot in an office again. For a broker who can be generating business when with clients but not when performing administration and research tasks at a desk, technology offers the tempting prospect of spending more time developing mutually valuable client relationships and less time pushing paper. Once, when a broker left the office, his or her briefcase would be heavy with paper products; notebook, diary, address book etc. and all the information recorded during the meeting had to be returned to the office and meticulously filed or submitted to an insurer. Today, that briefcase is more likely to contain plastic boxes of technology with which a broker can complete most cases on the spot and use the time saved to meet another client. Given the tightening margins of the business, the opportunity to make more productive use of time must be welcome.

But apart from productivity, what does a broker want to achieve? There will be as many answers to that as there are readers but we might broadly define it as, 'to profitably deliver an appropriate service where, how and when it meets the client's needs and to develop a strong client relationship' from the office or out in the field. So what technology will be useful and how?

Packing PC power
PCs just keep on getting better with a continuity and consistent quality of output that enables even the smallest brokerage to present a public face as good as any corporate giant. While the ability to process vast volumes of data allows a one-man-band to play as many and complex tunes as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. But increasing numbers of brokers are now using portable notebook PCs with power equal to any desktop model, to the extent that many users simply buy the best notebook they can afford and 'dock' it to a desktop keyboard, mouse and monitor when in the office. For a small practice, the additional cost of the notebook and ancillaries may well represent a saving over buying two computers, one for the office and one for the field. Also, the time saving and elimination of any data transfer risks by using just one PC will be appreciated. And the price of notebooks keeps falling with the Toshiba range (winners of the PC World 1999 Service and Reliability survey) starting below £1,500.

However, there are now computers smaller than notebooks. Palm-sized PCs (PPC) and Personal Digital Assistants (PDA) often pack as much power as last year's desktop PC. Having evolved from electronic organisers, they carry diary, 'to-do', address book and database programs. Little bulkier than a pocket diary and a lot less than most address books, they will do all that either of those paper systems can do plus create 'aide memoirs', brief notes or minutes, draft or final copy letters, record and organise expenses, recall details of past discussions or interrogate the database. Current models will even hold speech notes. The spreadsheets provided can handle most tasks including, say, a valuation. Although less powerful than a PC and with limited versions of standard software, these palmtops cost considerably less (£200-500 as opposed to £1,500-4,000 for a notebook) and can easily transfer information and files to or from a PC.

The latest PDA from Psion, the 5MX, really does carry full-function but limited-feature Microsoft-compatible Word Processor and Spreadsheet. This is in addition to all of the functions you would expect of an organiser with a robust build and a keyboard that make it ideal for use in the field. It also boasts an in-built infrared communicator. Lesley Vaughan of Psion believes that the big development of this year will be "the establishment of real-time interactivity enabling professionals such as brokers to gain access to on-line, web-based data stores from anywhere, at any time. Also, the capability to work with a client and then upload the file to the insurer."

New wireless technology
And, as is often the case with technology, there is something new on the horizon. Toshiba UK's marketing manager, Con Mellon, says: "The most important development of the coming year will be Bluetooth, a chip and set of standards developed by a technology consortium including Toshiba. Bluetooth will use radio frequency to enable any device to communicate with any other device. Notebooks, palm-sizes, telephones, printers, faxes even scanners and scanner pens, if equipped with a Bluetooth chip, will be able to communicate not only without wires but also without having to be pointed at each other [as required by infrared]."

Some useful applications will include only having to enter contact details into one device and then sharing it with others, as well as being able to, say, send an e-mail from a PDA through a cellphone without having to take the phone out of a briefcase.

Indeed, perhaps the device that has most revolutionised the use of computers has been the modem, bringing computers and telephones together into the most powerful business utility ever.

But telecommunication itself has also undergone some changes that have moved it as far from the telephone on the table as the CD player is from a 78rpm gramophone. The cellphone is the latest generation of telephone and is already moving from being a mobile phone to an all-purpose communicator. A model currently available for less than £10 to Cellnet customers, the Nokia 5110, is not only tough and practical (no more of those silly thin aerials that used to break at the slightest pressure) but also can store up to 250 names and telephone numbers, can send and receive text messages and will link to a computer (usually via a PCMCIA card or a specialist PDA modem although some new notebooks have them built-in) to put a PDA or PPC user on the net, able to send and receive e-mail.

Virtual office
The model can even double up as a calculator so that, when combined with a notebook or palmtop computer, the whole lot creates a virtual office that can be pocket sized and certainly fits into a briefcase. Nokia actually offers just that, a combined cellphone and palm-size internet phone in the 7110 model. Using WAP (Wireless Applications Protocol) the 7110 will allow users to browse the web, send and receive e-mails, use on-line services such as quotes and all of the other services that the internet can offer.

Brokers can use this type of equipment to deal with any processing or queries, even ones that require reference to an underwriter, right away.

If the underwriter also has some questions, not only can they be answered but visual material can also be made available. A scanning pen, such as the C-Pen 200 (£175), can capture a document and file it for e-mailing or faxing to whoever needs to read it.

The same pen can be used to send images of plans and drawings to an enquirer. And if a sketch diagram or map will help the underwriter better understand the situation, new computers have write-on screens that can be used just like paper, literally 'e-paper', to create a sketch, file it and send it off by e-mail or fax.

In fact, there is very little that could be done face to face or over the Royal Mail that today's IT and CT equipment cannot achieve almost instantly. Its not just speed for speed's sake but, as readers will know, customers expect instant answers even when the broker is standing in the middle of a factory with them. Technology has made that expectation a reality.