It’s gadget heaven. Anyone interested in mobile technology of any kind found what they were looking for somewhere within the 1.4 million square feet of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). One of the nation’s largest tradeshows, CES is held each January in Las Vegas, and I recently returned from the event with my head spinning.
I was most interested in what’s new in mobile for enterprises and business users. It is becoming more clear that developers of mobile technology finally realize business users are also consumers. Remember the evolution of the Palm PDA? Although the original Palm Pilot was aimed at consumers and, in fact, was initially purchased only by individual users, they in turn began taking them to the office and using them to get and stay organized. Although it took some time, the PDA has now been embraced by IT departments and for use within key vertical business applications.
The same goes for the Apple 2. It began its life in the consumer arena, but with the introduction of VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet, the Apple 2 moved from its humble consumer beginnings to the office. With this in mind, I went hunting for products clearly aimed at the consumer that, in time, could have serious impacts on business and enterprise markets.
The first one I found was at the Sirius satellite radio booth. Although their prime market is consumer audio, they showed off the ability of their satellite technology to also send data and video signals to a car or mobile device that is connected to their Sirius Satellite network.
The folks from Sirius have come to realize that their technology has potential far beyond the audiophile markets and are demonstrating business applications. This might eventually lead to some type of mobile satellite modem that would let mobile professionals stream high-speed data to a laptop just about anywhere in the U.S. This would be a major advantage over GPRS and CDMA wireless data systems that cover only about 75 percent of the country.
Although spokespeople from Sirius would not commit to a schedule for this, there are signs that they see mobile data as a serious opportunity for them.
Personal Media Player
Another product that could move from mainstream consumer to business quickly is called the Personal Media Player (PMP). There are various products that fit in this category, such as those coming from Archos and RCA’s Lyra. I often think of a PMP as a “video Walkman”: it has a hard disk and can play music, and it also has a video screen so you can also view images and full-motion video.
PMPs are a bit pricey, especially as consumer devices, and it will take time before they reach broad consumer acceptability. But Archos is already positioning its product for business vertical markets with an eye on just-in-time training. In this scenario, workers could take the Archos player to a job site or factory floor and get video instructions on how to fix a particular mechanical problem.
Interestingly, about 10 years ago one of the major airlines looked into this concept and, with a technology partner, created a device that a jet mechanic could take with him while working on an engine to jog their memory on how a particular part needed to be repaired. But at the time the technology was not available to make products feasible for this application.
Microsoft and its OEM partners are also working on a PMP called the Portable Media Center, which is tied specifically to Microsoft’s Media Center PC program. This, too, could target business applications in the very near future.
A third hot sector is VoIP and the various services around Internet telephony. One offering that caught my eye was a USB phone handset from Clarisys that looks like a normal handset but plugs into a computer USB port. When used with a VoIP service like SKYPE, you can call another SKYPE user anywhere in the world for free. It can also be used to call any phone in the world via services like Vonage. (These calls are charged by the minute, but for much less than a standard phone call.) As call centers shift their entire telecom networks to VoIP-based services, I would not be surprised to see field forces given phones like the one from Clarisys to help drive down communications costs.
A tangent of the VoIP buzz was the appearance of Wi-Fi in next generation PDAs. Behind the scenes I saw one PDA that supports Bluetooth, GPRS and Wi-Fi. Although you could use the GPRS link to make a cellular call over the mainstream network, it also gives a user the option to use a Wi-Fi-based VOIP service as well.
Obviously CES hinges upon the word consumer and all the gadgets and gizmos would put a Star Trek convention to shame. While many of the wares radiate with a science fiction edge, finding practical enterprise uses for some of these new technologies will prove quite interesting in the not-too-distant future.
Tim Bajarin is president of Creative Strategies, a Campbell, Calif.-based consultancy.