Form Meets Function
Posted: 04.04 - By Tim Scannell


When the IT director of a large, multinational advertising and public relations company went shopping last year for an in-building wireless network and devices to help connect workers on multiple floors and provide Internet access to clients, handheld computers were not on his initial list.

The company decided instead to deploy more than 100 wireless-enabled notebook computers, which are not only used internally, but also utilized on the road for client presentations and to remotely tap into the company’s information resources through secure VPNs and public Wi-Fi hot spots. A few handhelds are used, but primarily by the IT and facilities staff for remote service and support, as well as quick messaging.

It was essentially the same situation across town at a local government agency, which was looking to employ a wireless network and portable hardware to speed up access to the volumes of land and real estate records it was charged with maintaining. In this case, wireless desktop PCs were used because they were less likely to “walk away” than notebook computers.

Additionally, the goal of the wireless system was to eliminate the need to drill through the massive stone walls of the old building that housed this government agency. Handheld systems are now being considered, although the ROI of such devices is still questionable. Besides, says the IT manager, “This is such a big project, with literally millions of records” that handhelds are really something that might be considered “down the road…maybe!”

Although the above represent two distinctly different applications, both demonstrate quite clearly the shortcomings of most handhelds and the reluctance of IT executives to commit to using them as anything but low-end support and backup devices. For the most part, these highly mobile computers are locked into that initial design group collectively known as personal digital assistants. As such, most of these devices are primarily used for managing calendar, schedule and contact information, or as a temporary stop for downloaded data.

Changes at Hand

This situation is changing rapidly, however, as newer breeds of devices hit the market. More robust and focused operating environments are becoming available, along with better synchronization technologies, while these small systems take advantage of a variety of personal area networking (PAN) technologies. The development of handhelds equipped with built-in digital cameras and increased capabilities for external storage are also helping to inject life into what has been a relatively depressed market for the past few years.

Mobile Automation, a company that specializes in remote management applications, estimates that about 60 percent of its current business now involves notebook computers, with roughly 10 to 15 percent dedicated to handhelds. But that ratio is changing dramatically, says CEO Doug Neal. “There has been a significant increase in budgeted projects for non-notebook devices,” which he says also includes Tablet PCs. These projects include proposals for 1,000- to 5,000-node client networks, as well as contracts that call strictly for handhelds. In one particular case, he notes, a large Texas company decided to switch its entire 10,000-user installation from notebooks to more cost-effective Pocket PC-based handheld computers.

While worldwide shipments for the last two quarters of 2003 were substantially up over previous quarters, total figures for last year were still down nearly 18 percent from 2002, according to market researcher IDC. What seems to be boosting this sector are sales of lower-end handheld products, such as the popular PalmOne Zire 71, which features a built-in digital camera and other extras that easily catch the eye of consumers, but stir little excitement in the business community.

Taking Care of Business

There are many changes taking place in the enterprise handheld market, where it is definitely a case of form finally meeting function—or at least the evolution of devices that are more targeted and less generic from an applications standpoint. One of the more innovative new devices is the PalmOne Tungsten T3, which offers a unique stretch display offering up to a 50-percent greater viewing area than other handhelds in this camp. Pull the bottom of the unit down and the 320 x 480 display comes to life. The display can also be flipped horizontally with the tap of a stylus to better present spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations and other data that was previously squeezed into a vertical frame. The unit is also equipped with a 400MHz Intel XScale processor and 64 MB of memory, providing more than enough power for such on-board applications as the Adobe Reader, Dataviz Documents To Go and Voice Memo.

The T3 also offers built-in Bluetooth, enabling you to print to a Bluetooth-equipped output device, synchronize your data without having to pop the unit into a cradle and use the handheld to automatically dial from its address book to your Bluetooth-friendly cellphone. I found the Bluetooth function to be a bit quirky when trying to synchronize with Bluetooth devices other than phones, and in my test it wasn’t cooperative when trying to talk with older Bluetooth PC Cards inserted in my notebook PC.

In fact, I had better luck printing to and synchronizing data with devices using good old 802.11b as a wireless bridge (offered with the PalmOne Tungsten C). However, Wi-Fi is a glutton when it comes to battery power. Bluetooth is less demanding, although the T3 won’t last more than two or three days without requiring a power refresh—less if you forget to turn off the Bluetooth sniffer, which is designed to automatically search for compatible signals. In any case, the design and format of the T3 is definitely a step in the right direction.

Keyboard is Key

One thing missing on the T3, which is standard on both the PalmOne Tungsten W and Tungsten C, is a built-in keyboard. Sure these keyboards are too small for any serious data entry or text-intensive work, but they are more than adequate for simple text input and adding quick in-formation to your Memos or Contacts files. Research in Motion and its BlackBerry devices paved the way for on-board mini-keyboards and thumb-typing, and Handspring gave this form factor style with the introduction of non-wireless devices such as the compact Treo 90. Now that Handspring is a part of PalmOne, you can expect more devices from this company to incorporate actual keyboards (as opposed to the software-based virtual ones).

Another device that nicely translates function into a useful form is the Sony PEG-UX50 Personal Entertainment Communicator, which is equipped with both built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. This allows users to easily tap into e-mail or remote information resources, synchronize with a host PC or swap data with other similarly equipped devices. The system also sports a built-in 310,000-pixel digital camera with a 3X digital zoom for quick snapshots (or to add visual data to your Contacts file). The device can also record and play brief snippets of video (MPEG4, 30 fps, 160 x 112).

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the PEG-UX50 is its design, which features a flip-up, 480 x 320 widescreen display that swivels and tilts for optimal viewing of Web pages, photos and other graphics. You can also swivel and fold the screen to hide the keyboard and use the stylus to tap-type information or tap through applications.

This unique design leaves more room for the built-in keyboard, allowing for more comfortable typing. The UX50 and the Wi-Fi–barren UX40 systems are a bit larger and heavier than most PDAs on the market, so they get my vote for “Most Likely to Substitute for a Laptop.” You’ll be tempted to leave your notebook PC at the office or hotel room while you go off and use the Sony device to collect information or showcase your latest product catalog (freshly downloaded from the Web, of course!).

The real applications muscle of handhelds, of course, lies in the operating environment, which in the case of both the Tungsten T3 and Sony UX50/UX40 is the Palm OS. This OS has gone through several iterations over the past few years, with a new version 6—code-named Sahara—just released to developers in early February.

PalmOne is also test-marketing a version of IBM’s WebSphere Micro Environment that includes support for Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME), designed for portable devices. This is a critical move as this capability is expected to attract developers who create Java applications for everything ranging from financial programs to entertainment software. Small samples of these programs, developed by IBM, are included along with the Tungsten T3 device because the programming environment is optimized for ARM processors.

While the Palm OS has managed to maintain its grip on the handheld market, Microsoft’s Pocket PC OS (now under the Windows Mobile umbrella) is quickly gaining ground as more powerful devices enter the market and developers make use of what is generally perceived as a richer and more flexible environment.

One of the leading devices in the hearts and minds of the enterprise is the Pocket PC-driven HP iPAQ. The top-of-the-line business model is the h5550, which features integrated 802.11b and Bluetooth, a fingerprint reader, an SD/IO slot and a basic 128 MB of memory. It is built atop a 400MHz Intel XScale processor, and has a 3.8-inch transflective TFT screen, offering 64,000 colors and a sharp
240 x 320 resolution. Weighing in at approximately 8 ounces, the h5550, along with its h5150 cousin, is a relative lightweight compared with others in the field. Another strong contender in the iPAQ pack is the 4355. It is equipped with an integrated mini-keyboard and a removable, rechargeable battery, which means you can carry along a spare to keep the device pumping along when others are begging for a quick fix in the cradle.

In the enterprise, however, IT managers do not make decisions based only on processing muscle. Support and service are also important, especially because handhelds tend to suffer more abuse on the road than notebook computers. This is a primary reason why Dell has made such an impact on this market. The company has a strong reputation in the enterprise for service and support. It also takes the IBM approach to marketing handhelds: they are primarily sold as extensions to its desktop and notebook systems, and not necessarily positioned as an individual system sale. In fact, they are grouped as peripherals on Dell’s Web site, sharing virtual space with notebook accessories and digital cameras.

Leading Dell’s handheld charge is the 400MHz Dell Axim X3i, which is also based on Intel’s XScale processor and equipped with 64 MB of RAM and integrated Wi-Fi. It also features an integrated SD/IO slot for Bluetooth and memory expansion cards. At presstime, Dell had just received the green light from the Federal Communications Com-
mission to sell an Axim X3 offering both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Back in BlackBerry

As Palm and Pocket PC battle for the enterprise, will the eventual loser in this war be venerable BlackBerry? Granted BlackBerry recently won a 2004 Mobility Award from MobileTrax, an IT analysis firm. Still, many people in the industry see the rising popularity of Pocket PC and the continued enhancement of the Palm OS gradually chipping away at the beachhead created by BlackBerry and its strong wireless e-mail capabilities.

Organizations are making the switch to Palm OS or Pocket PC devices from the Blackberry “because they need the computing capabilities that a Palm or a Pocket PC will give them in terms of third party applications, and they are looking for a heterogeneous device that will eventually offer the same features of the BlackBerry device,” says Martyn Mallick, a senior product manager at iAnywhere Solutions, which just released an updated version of its Pylon AnyWhere handheld synchronization software.

Ultimately the winner in this handheld race won’t be decided by the number of third party applications or by processing speed, but by how well a single device meets multiple enterprise needs. “Companies are saying now that maybe there will be a single voice and computing device,” says Mallick, “where as little as a year ago most companies were hesitant to say that is the direction in which they would move.” •

Tim Scannell is principle of Shoreline Research (www.shorelineresearch.com), a mobile and wireless consulting company based in Quincy, Mass.

 


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