Cynicism aside, the push to establish handheld technology as the new platform for enterprise computing will affect a dramatic shift in the way organisations view their IT infrastructures.
Evidence of handheld technology's emergence is growing. For many organisations in the US, handheld devices along with laptops have become standard issue for new employees, and it's a trend gaining momentum in Australia.
Unlike many technologies that have hit the wall at the boardroom level over the years, personal digital assistants such as the popular Palm Pilot, Psion handheld and others have had huge support from software developers. Palm, for instance, has the backing of one of the largest and most vibrant developer communities in the industry. The Psion platform is supported by the Symbian developer alliance, which boasts members such as Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola.
Stephen McDonnell, systems development engineer, Palm Sales Australia, says the corporate penetration of handheld devices is gaining speed locally, creating huge opportunities for resellers able to pinpoint the heart of the issue for their clients. "At Palm, we very much depend on the resourcefulness and creativity of our channel partners," he says.
Palm is about to release a new handheld server product designed to handle syncronisation with enterprise applications, and several other technology companies are contemplating similar strategies. Even "big iron" software vendors such as Oracle, IBM, SAP and Sybase, are talking about wireless technologies and attempting to market slimmed-down versions of their enterprise applications.
Enterprise software vendors have made great strides in delivering cross-platform compatibility and easier software configuration while adopting a more open policy towards developers, especially in the case of Oracle. Organisations that accepted the hype of the major enterprise software vendors and invested in sophisticated platforms may now have the opportunity to recoup some of that expense through the deployment of smart wireless solutions.
McDonnell believes, as does every carrier in Australia, that mobile data will be the fastest growing segment of the local communications industry now that handhelds can take information in the virtual world and bring it into the real world. "It is definitely an opportunity for sophisticated channel partners," he says.
Kris Kowalczyk, business development manager with Sydney wireless applications development company Mobilesoft, believes that cynicism about the role of handheld devices in the business environment is more to do with misinformation than actual reality.
Mobilesoft was started in 1993 with venture capital from Telstra, which asked it to build the business case for the introduction of the carrier's mobile data product in Australia. The result was a protocol similar to WAP called advanced data packet transport (ADAPT). Essen-tially it is a middleware product enabling an application on a remote client to talk over a number of different telecommunications platforms.
Mobilesoft already claims to have made great strides in the deployment of real business solutions built on handheld devices and protocols such as WAP (see breakout box, p 62). "We see many customers that are impressed with the technology and are prepared to make an investment to reap the benefits," says Kowalczyk, adding that handheld products are no longer a nightmare for IT managers, thanks to the development of compact Web browsers enabling companies to simply allocate IP addresses on the network.
Meanwhile Macromedia, creator of the popular Dreamweaver Web design program, recently signalled its commitment to handheld computing with the announcement of an alliance with mobile software specialists AvantGo to enable developers to easily build AvantGo channels for Personal PDAs and Internet-enabled phones. The focus of the initiative will be to enable software developers to design intuitive programs to relay content to devices of varying screen size. The result for the collective mobile software development community, according to Joe Marini, global product manager for Macro-media, will be the addition of a million new developers.
The result is that the corporate handheld market is promising to become a high-margin business for resellers. And there are also positive indications that small and medium-sized businesses are ready to invest in handheld solutions, particularly to better equip sales and field staff with better information and overall connectivity to the office.
Geoff Johnson, networking and tele-communications analyst with Gartner-Group, points out that the true value of PDAs to business lies in their ability to deliver sophisticated data applications over wireless networks. "But," he says, "the reality is that proper packet-switched wireless networking is still in the pipeline' and there is a whole swag of early-stage adoption hurdles."
The biggest of these is that existing wireless networks are presently unable to transmit data at reasonable speeds.
Nearly a quarter of a billion people throughout the world use GSM, now the accepted standard for mobile telephony in most countries except the US. For the last two years, GSM phone users have been able to conduct basic wireless data tasks such as short message service (SMS), a feature enormously popular within youth markets. WAP has unfortunately been far less successful, largely because users are unable to go beyond weather reports, news and astrology.
GSM remains a circuit-switched technology, limited until the full deployment of the emerging packet-switched technology, General Packet Radio Services (GPRS). The ability of PDAs to deliver proper Internet access and reliable e-mail communication rests here.
Felix Wong, managing director of Sydney-based wireless solutions distributor Advanced Portable Technologies, admits that today's wireless networks pose certain limitations, but says companies will need to make compromises until the wide deployment of GPRS. He says that the big opportunity for resellers lies in the fact that companies have invested massive amounts of money in their backend applications and collecting corporate data, but don't yet have any real way to keep staff connected once they leave the building. "Make your users more valuable by giving them data in the palm of their hand -- that's the message we're trying to get out there to resellers," he says.
Ubiquity, utility and usefulness
The short-term implications for resellers are that wireless handheld devices will lag behind PCs in terms of functionality, posing certain challenges and obstructing their wide-spread adoption within the corporate world.
Johnson says that in order to establish themselves within this market, resellers must be able to deliver customers the three U's: ubiquity, utility and usefulness. The value of handheld devices to organisations, he believes, lies in their ability to quickly replicate crucial corporate data in the field or in other remote locations as well as meet the increased demand for access to rich HTML content on the Internet. But, he says, users must have "true, always-on connectivity".
While many resellers have done very well from selling handheld devices to individuals, the real money is going to come from the sale of solutions to businesses. This will require, among other things that dealers look more closely at how to go about offering access services.
Johnson also suggests that as PDAs gain acceptance, dealers will be forced to develop a better understanding of the issues of security and digital certification.
"And where resellers in the IT space have been reluctant to sell network services," he adds, "there is now the opportunity to revisit this area and add another revenue stream."
Tech Pacific's Top Handheld Sellers
1 Palm m100
2 Palm Vx
3 IBM WorkPad C3
4 Palm IIIc
5 Compaq iPAQ H3630 Pocket PC
6 Psion Revo
7 HP Jornada 548
8 Psion 5MX
9 HP Jornada 545
10 HP Jornada 680
CCN takes WAP plunge
Wireless solutions company Mobilesoft, partly owned by Telstra, has finalised deployment of a WAP-based courier and dispatch system for PDAs with Combined Communications Network (CNN).
Mobilesoft believes the deal represents one of the most significant corporate deployments of a handheld business solution to date in Australia, and one that will provide a major impetus to the local uptake of similar ideas at the boardroom level.
CNN contracted Sydney-based Mobilesoft earlier in the year to develop technology underpinning a new wireless communications service aimed at the growing number of small to medium-sized Australian courier companies. CCN owns the Taxis Combined cab company and has partial ownership of Cabcharge Australia.
CCN and Mobilesoft configure customers' business systems to syncronise with a broad range of handheld devices, providing access to key data such as booking and billing systems. CCN also operates an extensive call centre facility which its new WAP solution clients will be able to utilise.
The latest offering from Palm rival Psion is the RevoPlus, which runs on the Symbian EPOC 32 handheld operating system and is compatible with key business application suites developed by Microsoft, Lotus WordPerfect and Corel, as well as WAP and Opera secure Internet browsers. The RevoPlus can easily send and receive e-mail through a compatible GSM phone or Psion's own 56K travel modem.
Palm has released a new, more affordable handheld device in the form of the Palm IIIxe, but forfeits little in terms of performance and features. With 8Mb of memory, users can save enough addresses and appointments to qualify for the "seven habits of highly effective people". Storage of 400 e-mails is also possible with more capacity in reserve for other applications.
The IIIxe supports necessary applications, such as date and address book, mail, to-do list, memo pad and expense report templates -- and, of course, Palm's graffiti software.
The iPAQ H3630 Pocket PC is aimed at both the business and consumer markets. It features a 206MHz Intel StrongArm 32-bit RISC processor and is compatible with iMAP4 and POP3.
The product ships with applications such as Microsoft Pocket Word, Excel, Outlook, Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player. Compaq recommends operating the iPAQ H3630 on Windows 2000 Professional for business edition. Modular in design, the iPAQ H3630 comes with slide-on expansion packs, but ships with a USB cradle only.
The Jornada 720 Handheld PC comes with a number of features directed at the high-end business user. It combines the portable form factor, 1/2 VGA display, and comfortable keyboard of the previous 690 model with a 206MHz StrongARM processor, a 51MHz memory data bus, and 2D graphics acceleration designed to provide high-speed access to data. The 720 runs the new Microsoft Windows for Handheld PC 2000 software, which comes with pocket versions of Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint. In addition, Media Player and a stereo audio jack are included for listening to electronic music files in stereo. The unit also comes with a 56K modem and new Microsoft Internet Explorer for H/PC v4.01. The 720 also ships with a smart card reader and separate slots for PC Card and CompactFlash. At about nine hours, battery life extends far beyond average span. HP has not yet set the price for the 720, but it commands a recommended price of $US999 in the US. www.hp.com/jornada