Palm OS vs. Win CE for Business-to-Business

At the risk of promoting two obvious choices -- PocketPC or Palm OS handhelds -- and neglecting other worthy wireless hardware platforms such as Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) devices, this week I'm going to focus on some of the less obvious factors that need to be considered when deploying a wireless component to a business application.

Palm OS handheld vendors include Handspring Inc., Palm Inc., Sony Corp., Symbol, and TRGPro. On the PocketPC side, vendors are Casio, Compaq Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., and Symbol again.

First of all, the word hardware is a misnomer. These devices are not meant to be mishandled in any way. If they do receive rough treatment, they fall apart.

This bit of intelligence comes to me from the IT manager at a winery who gives them to his field staff to check on the progress of the grapes and the condition of the vines. The gathered information is then sent back to headquarters. Because these handhelds are relatively inexpensive, my winery friend says, "when they break, we throw them away and buy another one."

Three cheers for planned obsolescence. By the way, Symbol Technologies makes rugged versions of both PocketPC and Palm units, which increases the price by about 2.5 times.

But here's the point. If capital cost is the overwhelming determinant in the analysis, and $100 has a big impact on decisions, then look to the Palm. A Palm VII with built-in wireless is $449. A Compaq iPAQ PocketPC without wireless is $499, and you'll need to add about $150 for the wireless modem. And now of course there are $149 versions of the Palm and nothing close to that price in a PocketPC, so if you have to put it in the compactor, it will hurt even less.

Alternatively, Rental Service, a billion-dollar construction-equipment company out of Scottsdale, Ariz,. uses the larger Windows CE-enabled Handheld PC because it needs something with more processing power, RAM, and local storage.

Rental Services' 500 person sales force needs to access large amounts of data from the Dodge Report, a database of over 250,000 construction sites worldwide, updated daily, which tracks almost every piece of data some-one in the construction industry would need to know. (See www.construction.com.) Each morning, the sales folks download all the construction sites in their territory and then at the end of the day, upload their rental equipment sales.

If you need to store a great deal of data locally, then the PocketPC or Handheld PC has more versatility. For example, the iPAQ has a Compact Flash II option that will let users plug in IBM's 340MB microdrive. Also, if you are part of a large enterprise and need to deploy a wireless solution over, let's say, four or five different work groups, there are multiple form factors, which all still use a single development environment, available for Win CE. The Palm to date offers one form factor designed for a 160 by 160 pixel display.

And although the initial cost of the units was more expensive for Rental Service, by synching only twice a day the company reduced the time spent connecting and reconnecting to a basically unreliable wireless network, which saved it money in the long run.

Vinny Luciano, vice president of product management for mobile computing systems at Symbol, in Holtsville, N.Y., likes to remind Symbol customers that network availability should be considered a rare resource as opposed to an assumed resource, as it is with hard-wired LANs.

In some instances the resource is so rare it is nonexistent. If you need coverage in Atlanta, don't plan on using CDPD (cellular digital packet data)-based AT&T PocketNet data service, OmniSky service, or Minstrel modems, because that city is dark to CDPD coverage. This from Dale Gonzales, vice president of wireless devices at Air2Web, based in Atlanta, a mobile-commerce platform provider with customers that include UPS and CBS SportsLine.

So if you're a developer, you need to create the work process and the applications to allow for the fact that the network is not going to be accessible all the time.

Also remember that any wireless WAN application chews up batteries. It has to do with how the service constantly polls the device in order to send alerts.

The decision to go with a server-based wireless application vs. one that resides on the client also hinges on the volatility of the data. If information is not so dynamic that it changes by the hour then it doesn't hurt to synch and go. Of course, synching presents its own set of problems. For example, there needs to be a strategy about how to resolve conflicts when there are concurrent users making requests to change the information on the server.

Does the first-in or last-in win? Who gets authority over which changes are made? Real-time updates rather than synching can mean the difference between getting the most accurate information or misinformation.

In general, the many sources I speak with tell me wireless development tools for Palm-type devices are more mature and more plentiful. Palm VII's Web-clipping model and tool kit is 18 months old, has gone through a couple of versions, and has had time to mature.

Wireless WAN support for WinCE is still fairly new. It was only on Aug. 9 that Microsoft announced AirStream, a software platform, targeted at service providers and corporate developers, on which they can create wireless applications. And when asked when AirStream would become available, Microsoft officials remained noncommittal.

In terms of add-ons there are still a lot more available for the Palm platform simply because it has a much larger installed base of users.

Of course, viewing data is less than half the story, and actually, the least interesting component of an enterprise-wide solution. The real challenge is fully integrating handheld data into your enterprise data.

(If you've any successes, or con-versely have a real horror story to relate on this topic, you can drop me an e-mail at ephraim_schwartz@infoworld.com.)

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