Interview: Cell phone, PDA makers don boxing gloves

The PDA has redefined mobile computing, but cell phone manufacturers are fighting back, funneling millions of dollars into extending phones' data and application functionality. Executive News Editor Mark Jones and Editor at Large Ephraim Schwartz pitted a PDA proponent, Hewlett-Packard's Ted Clark, against a cell phone advocate, Nokia's Randy Roberts. At stake: the future of handheld devices. The encounter was civil until the subject turned to operating systems.

Q: Randy, what's your vision for how the cell phone will evolve in light of the PDA's corporate popularity?

Randy: We absolutely believe that there's going to be even more segmentation in these areas, meaning that there is no right answer -- there is no one right product or answer for every consumer.

Ted: We (also) believe there's not a one-size-fits-all strategy here. There's one set of customers who are maybe more e-mail-centric, and they want to be doing maybe more high-powered e-mail and occasionally talk on the phone. I would call those (customers) more data-centric people. There is another set of people who are more voice-centric.

Q: Ted, let's say you are a data-centric person. Do you think you would want a data-centric handheld (rather than) a cell phone?

Ted: Yes, you're going to want a little bit bigger screen to get more data and more interaction. You might want a little bit more flexibility in your input device, so you might want a full keyboard as opposed to, perhaps, a 12-key pad.

Q: Randy, how will converged voice and data devices affect mobile-device usage?

Randy: I think as a consumer you're going to get to the point very, very soon -- if not already -- where you walk into a big-box retail store and you've got all these wonderful devices in front of you and you're going to have to figure out which applications carry more weight for you.

Q: So how will the purchasing model change as these devices become corporate IT decisions?

Ted: I think that is going to be a fundamental shift in business, (where the) IT department has a much broader reach when it comes to devices like that. When these devices start to touch the data networks, then the IT departments have all of the concerns about manageability and security. It means that standards are going to have to be set. You're going to look more than beyond just the device, you're going to look at the whole end-to-end solution you need to make sure that the data gets from point A to point B.

Q: Are IT departments starting to specify what mobile devices employees can use based on corporate requirements?

Randy: Yes, absolutely. But to be honest, for the most part that's happening with the idea that voice is the application that people are going to be using. The larger companies are just now beginning to ask questions around what's underneath (the surface) -- the operating system, the connectivity, the security layers, and those kinds of things. So when we think about enterprise applications and connecting to enterprise networks, I agree it is about the end-to-end solution. What's really important is what's underneath, whether it's Pocket PC, if it's Palm, or even if it's a Symbian operating system, which is what Nokia is using.

Q: Do you think Symbian compares favorably to, say, Pocket PC when it comes to working with enterprise data?

Randy: Yes. We've already got the 9210, 9290 devices, for example, out there that customers tell us connect and synchronize with (enterprise data) and exchange and back up data as well as any other operating system does. You have to be able to support all the existing applications.

Ted: I guess that's probably a place where we would disagree. It seems to us that (one operating system) end-to-end is part of the requirement. As the technology matures, you've got the same platform on your server, on your desktop, on your notebook, on your handheld, and maybe eventually on your phone. There certainly is reason to believe -- and, I think, demonstrated reality -- that (a common) platform does help IT managers deploy and deal with things like synchronization and data integrity. I would say that our view is that a Microsoft platform would probably be superior.

Randy: But I would just say there are plenty of corporations that have deployed other operating systems on devices that haven't had any problem with that whatsoever. What's important is the back-end systems have to be supported in order to have any sort of success in the enterprise world. And the good news is there's plenty of selection of different kinds of products that can connect to those networks and bring different kinds of advantages.

Q: What's your take on the notion of converged devices?

Randy: Clearly, there's a market for laptops, for PDAs, and for cell phones. (But) for people who really take their data with them wherever they are, it's got to be pocketable. It's got to be something that's not obtrusive. Clearly, notebooks, subnotebooks, laptops don't fit into that.

Q: Randy, where does 3G fit in terms of the cell-phone evolution? Does it level the playing field in terms of providing better data access to compete with the high-bandwidth data available for handhelds over Wi-Fi?

Randy: The answer is, frankly, both, because they actually (provide) different kinds of services and (have) different advantages and disadvantages. The idea of a wireless LAN, obviously, is that it gives you the higher speeds and, for the most part, frankly, it's less expensive to use, especially if you look at the price per megabit. But then again, if you're not in a hot spot -- you need that, what the wireless network is good for.

Ted: Right. It really is all about coverage. It's about being able to have intelligent devices and networks that -- when you're in proximity of high-speed, low-cost data -- you use that, and as you move and migrate outside of that, that your devices and your networks and your intelligence can follow you around. Or you (have) to have access in the best combination of either price or bandwidth or both.

Q: When will we get to a situation where mobile devices and back-end billing systems and transport systems can manage and account for one device and one user who moves seamlessly between different networks?

Randy: That's clearly the goal for T-Mobile. Since they operate both networks, they're trying to get to the point where they do provide one bill and make it easy. On the device side, for example, today the technology already exists that allows you to seamlessly go between a wireless LAN and a GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications). For example, Nokia has a PC Card that slides into a laptop or any other Type II slot. That is a single card that gives you wireless LAN and GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) data capability on one card. And what you do is, you take out our SIM card from your GSM phone, you pop it into this PC Card and put it into your laptop, and now you can seamlessly go between wireless LAN and GPRS network. And the minutes that you use and the data that you use ends up going back to one single bill. So that capability's here today. It hasn't yet made its way into being integrated into a smaller device like a PDA or a cell phone, but very soon now, that will happen. It's not a matter of years but a matter of months where that same sort of technology and seamless integration for the consumer's going to get into these smaller devices.

Q: Ted, is that something HP is thinking about?

Ted: Of course. It goes back to the scenario that I described of your handheld device that you use on a wireless LAN network to do e-mail and talk on the phone. You can certainly imagine that kind of a device with a wide-area radio and a wireless-LAN radio and using those for both for voice and data as we move to voice over IP. There's certainly a scenario with voice over IP that would say that that becomes your office phone and all of your voice mail flows into that phone -- or at least the acknowledgement of the voice mail. You know what came in; it's attached to your network. You go outside of your campus, and now you have both wireless wide-area phone and voice at the same time. So this idea that you are going to be able to fit one radio to solve all problems is probably not the case and one that, I think, as these devices do converge, you'll see more and more. And I think it is a matter of a year, 18 months where these devices and the networks to utilize the device capabilities are really starting to show up.

Q: Randy, what do you think will be the top three decision-making requirements enterprises will have when it comes equipping a mobile work force?

Randy: I guess the first thing would be coverage. So, if you've got a national sales force, obviously coverage has got to be a big part of that. Secondly, I would say the ability to integrate with existing systems is really important. And as I said, I think that's probably the focus of the three big operating systems that are out there today. The third one I would say is, What does the developer community look like? If you're going to adopt a certain end-to-end solution on a device, is there support out there from an application development standpoint to develop what you might need?

Q: And what's the biggest challenge that cell phone devices face in terms of enterprise adoption?

Randy: To be honest, I think probably the biggest challenge is getting the networks in shape to handle the throughput, the data for some of these applications. And I think that's been a challenge for (a long time). But we're now actually in pretty good shape in terms of coverage and throughput in the wireless networks where we can actually build and implement some credible end-to-end solutions out there off these wireless networks.

Q: Ted, what's your top three decision-making requirements?

Ted: If these devices start touching the corporate networks, IT departments want security and manageability for the devices. It's exactly the same thing they want on notebooks and desktops. The other thing I would say is application compatibility -- that the applications that they want to deploy or they've deployed across their work force in certain areas that they could take a piece of that or some of that application and put it on a handheld and make it as seamless and as easy as they possibly can. And then I would say long product life cycles like we've done with our 3600 series from the beginning all the way through to our current 5400 series. That's a platform that is moving into its fourth year of longevity. It makes their lives more predictable, it makes their applications more stable, and it allows them to manage their business on their (own) cycles as opposed to on certain technology cycles that we may impose upon them.

Q: And the challenge?

Ted: I think the challenge is keeping up with all of the demand, actually. All of these devices are coming in the back door. They have incredible functionality, and people want to take this mobile technology -- it becomes very personal. (Upgrading) puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the IT departments. Just providing a device is not the end all. ... You've got to fit them into the corporate infrastructure.

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