Pop quiz: Does your mobile device have some level of security so that if it's lost, it can't be used to make free calls, betray confidential information or provide a back door into your enterprise LAN?
Regardless of whether the answer is yes—and it should be—that question is just one of many that CIOs and IT managers face when they expand their wireless strategy beyond cellphones.
In fact, there are plenty of questions to ask before even talking to a wireless carrier. The first two are:
1. How will hybrid voice-and-data devices make your employees more productive?
2. Which devices are the right ones for your business?
“Define the requirements,” says Bob Egan, president of Mobile Competency, an independent analysis firm. “Look at why you're making this investment. Understand the demographics. Is it salespeople? Marketing people? A few traveling executives? Once you understand the characteristics of the investment, then start making decisions about devices.”
That's a smarter move than starting with the devices and trying to force-fit them into your organization. “Don't pay any attention to what's out there,” says John Voeller, CTO of Black & Veatch, an engineering firm that designs everything from telecom networks to power plants. “Sit down and figure out what you want to do with these things. Stop looking at the vendors.”
Device or Carrier?
Suppose that your group of mobile employees spends most of their workday away from their desks. That narrows the field to devices that provide at least four hours of talk time, maybe longer if they're constantly making voice calls, accessing data services such as e-mail or both.
Here's where the choice of carrier becomes just as important as the choice of device. Device performance can vary significantly depending on the network technology. A prime example is the PalmOne Treo 600. The GSM/GPRS version has a talk time of 6 hours, while the CDMA version musters just 4 hours. The reason? As a rule, CDMA technology saps more battery life than GSM/GPRS. Again, it pays to read each operator's spec carefully because both versions use the same model number.
“In the current marketplace, device decisions also mean network decisions,” Egan says.
The same advice applies even when a family of devices uses the same network technology. Suppose that this group of employees regularly travels abroad. That workstyle makes a GSM/GPRS hybrid device the best choice because the two technologies are available in more than 100 countries.
One option is the RIM BlackBerry 7200 series. The 7210, 7230 and 7280 all run on GSM/GPRS. But unless you do a side-by-side comparison of each, you won't notice that each one uses a slightly different set of frequency bands. Nitpicking? Not if you choose a version that doesn't include the bands used in the countries where your employees travel. Easy access to mission critical applications such as e-mail is only as good as network access.
The Cost of Supporting Data
The shift from voice to voice and data increases the total cost of ownership (TCO). For example, when employees have problems with a basic cellphone, their first call will be to the carrier's customer care center. But with wireless data, there are many more potential points of failure. With a hybrid device, their first call may now be to your company's IT help desk, meaning that the enterprise now has to bear more of the support costs.
One way to reduce that overhead is to support as few platforms as possible. That doesn't necessarily limit overall device selection. For example, the Motorola MPx200 smartphone and the forthcoming Sierra Wireless Voq smartphone both use the Windows Mobile platform. Although they have vastly different form factors and feature sets that appeal to different types of users, the enterprise only has to support a single platform: Windows Mobile.
“The apps on them are, by and large, the same,” says Doug Dedo, marketing manager for enterprise strategy in Microsoft's mobile devices division. “The way you navigate is the same. The platform that you're writing applications for is uniform. So you know that you can write the code once, and it'll run on different devices.”
One caveat: There are slight differences between Windows Mobile-based devices, so the vendor's tweaks can add significant value. Take the Voq, which so far is the only Windows Mobile smartphone to feature a full keyboard. “Windows Mobile doesn't natively support QWERTY input, so we had to write a layer of software that enables it,” says Jason Cohenour, senior VP, worldwide sales and marketing, at Sierra Wireless.
Another way to reduce TCO is to look for a device that's as compatible as possible with existing back-office systems. For example, most wireless e-mail systems use an intermediary server behind the corporate firewall to push the e-mail out to devices. One option is the Voq, which uses a client-only system that runs in the background and periodically reaches through a VPN to grab e-mail, creating the illusion that new e-mail is automatically pushed out to the device.
“It tunnels into the corporate infrastructure like a notebook user dialing in, so it's compatible with 90 percent of corporate VPNs,” Cohenour says. “Make sure that whatever wireless e-mail implementation you put in place is consistent with your existing IT rules for security and compatibility.”
Hybrid devices have come a long way in the past few years, shedding weight and adding processing power to rival that of laptops in the late 1990s. Yet the perfect hybrid device remains as elusive as the unicorn.
“We've been tapping our foot impatiently for a long time and saying, ‘When are you guys going to bring the convergence you keep talking about?'” Voeller says.
One issue is screen size. Designs such as the Voq and the Nokia 6800 are the latest examples of how a hybrid device can feature a QWERTY keyboard without swelling to the size and heft of a brick. But screens large enough to be practical for, say, reading a lengthy PDF attachment remain perpetually just around the corner.
“We're very interested in some stuff we've seen out of Europe that gives us that next step,” Voeller says. “For example, imagine that you've got a PDA, but on it is something that looks like a loupe. You turn it over, hold it up to your eye, and it's a 1024 x 780 screen. Now I can see those things that I really need to be able to look at, the things that there's no way I'm going to be able to look at on any of the mini screens.”
That's a tall order. But if those types of devices are the only practical way to extend desktop applications to a mobile environment, then it may make more sense to wait for the next generation of hybrid devices. Says Egan: “It's a delicate balance between maintaining TCO, gaining optimum ROI and not engendering user frustration.”
• Tim Kridel is a freelance writer based in Kansas.
It Just Plain Works
As a tech journalist, my job is to unearth the most bleeding-edge mobile solutions. So it's refreshing when something just plain works. I recently tried Good Technology's GoodLink software running on PalmOne's Treo 600. GoodLink wirelessly synchronizes corporate Microsoft Outlook data—bidirectionally and in as close to real time as I've ever experienced.
With GoodLink installed behind my corporate firewall, I used the Treo 600 for reading and answering e-mail and updating my calendar on the road. The system worked nearly flawlessly. Good even had the foresight to build in keyboard shortcuts: pressing “r” instantly sets up a reply e-mail for example.
The Treo has been touted as the best hybrid device, which just reminds me how far the industry needs to evolve. The small, convex keys make typing a chore. As a phone, the Treo's mouthpiece and receiver seem too vulnerable to ambient sounds. And to dial you have to fat-finger through the keyboard or pull out the stylus. Fortunately, GoodLink offers another winning feature: the ability to dial by tapping on phone numbers in e-mails and contact. —Matt Purdue
PalmOne Treo 600
- Retail: $449-$499
- Carriers: AT&T Wireless, Cingular, Sprint, T-Mobile
- OS: Palm OS 5.2.1H Processor: 144MHz ARM
- Memory: 32 MB (24 MB available to user)
- Removable Memory: SD/MMC, SDI/O-ready
- Standard E-mail Support: POP3 (GSM/GPRS version)
- Talk Time/Standby Time: 6 hours (GSM/GPRS)/240 hours; 4 hours (CDMA)/240 hours
- Noteworthy: The GSM/GPRS version uses the 850, 900, 1800 and 1900 MHz bands, so it works in more than 179 countries. Built-in 0.3-megapixel camera.
- Retail: $249 (after $49 rebate)
- Carriers: AT&T Wireless, Cingular
- Standard E-mail Support: IMAP4, POP3
- Talk Time/Standby: 4.5 hours/ 240 hours
- Noteworthy: Keypad flips open to reveal QWERTY keyboard. A lawsuit postponed plans for a U.S. version that supports RIM BlackBerry e-mail.
RIM BlackBerry 7200 Series
- Retail: $399-$449
- Carriers: AT&T Wireless, Cingular, T-Mobile
- Standard E-mail Support: BlackBerry Web Client
- Talk Time/Standby Time: 4 hours/240 hours
- Noteworthy: The 7210 uses 900 and 1900 MHz bands. The 7230 version uses the 900, 1800 and 1900 MHz. The 7280 uses 850, 1800 and 1900 MHz.
- Retail: $399 (after rebate)
- Carrier: Verizon Wireless
- OS: Windows Mobile 2003
- Processor: 200MHz Intel PXA250
- Memory: 32 MB Removable Memory: SDI/O Talk Time/Standby Time: 4.2 hours/240 hours
- Noteworthy: 65,000 color display.
Sierra Wireless Voq
- Retail: TBD, but likely $300-$350
- Carriers: TBD, but likely to included AT&T Wireless, Cingular and T-Mobile
- OS: Windows Mobile 2003
- Processor: 200MHz Intel PXA262
- Memory: 32MB (16MB accessible to user)
- Talk Time/Standby Time: 6 hours/100 hours
- Noteworthy: The numeric keypad flips open to reveal a QWERTY keyboard. Uses the 900, 1800 and 1900MHz bands for global roaming. A CDMA version is in the works.