Mobile devices ride the wireless wave

Just as companies are beginning to understand the complexities created by the Internet, the emerging wireless technology has gone and invented still more. The convergence of the Web and wireless technology has been touted by some enthusiasts in the IT industry as the "next wave in the coming of the Internet". Computerworld's Ng Wei En takes a look at just how mobile computing, or pervasive computing as it is now commonly referred to, will change the lives of the mobile user.

The convergance is viewed as a dynamic catalyst for people to get on line and to stimulate high Internet commerce and activity.

Already, a legion of terms such as m-commerce, m-investing, and m-banking (to name a few) are popping up with increasing regularity. According to IDC, the number of mobile phone subscribers in the Asia-Pacific region (excluding Japan) has reached 100 million.

The highest penetration level is from Hong Kong (60 per cent), followed by Korea (50 per cent), Taiwan (46 per cent), Singapore (43 per cent), and Australia (38 per cent), revealed Sandra Ng, vice president of communications and peripheral research at IDC Asia-Pacific. At the forefront of these new technologies are WAP (wireless application protocol) and Bluetooth, which should serve as platforms for pervasive wireless connectivity.

WAP especially, is fast becoming the de facto standard, and is widely credited for driving much of the activity in the wireless world. Bluetooth is the other growing standard proliferating mobile services and wireless connectivity. This revolutionary wireless specification allows devices to communicate with each other through secure radio frequencies.

Mobile devices such as personal digital assistants, mobile phones, notebooks and smart handhelds are benefiting users in a way that has not been possible in the past. The wireless architecture lets users retrieve and download time-sensitive information quickly, efficiently and effortlessly - and the benefits are immeasurable.

For mobile professionals, the ability to get and stay connected to the Web - whether to access e-mail or voice messages, conduct business transactions, or access pertinent information - lets them work efficiently and productively.

"For these individuals, a normal lifestyle requires their sources of information, whether from their private network or over the Internet, to be only a button, touch or a stylus pen flick away," said Colin Lee, consumer marketing manager for the personal systems group in ASEAN and South Asia at IBM.

As information flow is no longer restricted to the desktop PC, mobile users are better able to optimise the use of their mobile computing devices. This allows them to better coordinate and integrate their work with their personal lives as they see fit. As for businesses, higher levels of productivity mean higher levels of profitability, he said.

IBM, in a show to support the industry's move towards an interconnected mobile computing world, initiated a direction termed Edge of Network (EoN). This initiative was to extend its e-business solutions to its new NetVista range of PCs. Another initiative is Hewlett-Packard's mobile E-services Bazaar (MEB). The MEB, which was announced earlier this year, is aimed at helping HP claim the leadership position in mobile computing.

According to Boey Chern Yue, business manager of business PCs, commercial customer organisation, at HP, the MEB is a hub for creative, commercial and social activity for its members to gain privileged access to the company's global mobile operator and enterprise customer base. It acts as a trading community as well as a developer's forum for its members to come together to promote commercial and technical collaboration, and to receive technical support and commercial advice.

And industry researcher Gartner said the move to wireless has only just begun and is likely to change dramatically and rapidly. But even with ubiquitous mobile computing fast becoming a norm, and mobile devices increasing in popularity, it still does not sound the death knell for desktop PCs.

"In spite of the growing acceptance of mobile computing as a primary device, and the emerging trend towards portables as the desktop alternative, the rate of desktop replacement will not be aggressive," said Wong Wai Meng, assistant manager of product marketing for Toshiba.

Boey concurs: "Even with the explosive growth of wireless, we believe that there will always be a role for desktops in the computing environment. The desktop PC serves to fulfil a different function and need from mobile appliances. We see the desktop as a workhorse as opposed to the mobile appliance, which usually tends to perform only specific functions very well."

Desktops, for example, have the capability to use a wide variety of applications, as well as a larger screen and keyboard. And while mobile devices are becoming more prevalent than desktop PCs, these devices do not necessarily make for a good Web experience.

According to Steven Chan, director of Internet services and product development for MobileOne Asia, mobile Internet is not created to replace Internet surfing on desktop PCs. Instead, it should be seen as an extension, where users can have access to the type of information and services they need while on the move.

"Web-surfing experiences drawn from using various devices differ according to the size of the screens, as well as their configurations," Chan elaborated.

Furthermore, there are also shortcomings in the Web-based applications, which remain limited to certain geographical areas, as well as a limited set of users - such as those in the financial and health-care industries, IDC's Ng highlighted.

Other limitations include shortage of WAP-enabled phones, lack of content, and lack of knowledge of WAP in the mass market. Chan agrees with Ng's assessment, noting that there are insufficient handset models at the present time.

"WAP technology is still in its infancy stage. Customers have to try it to experience the benefits of the technology, or run the risk of perceiving mobile Internet as the World Wide Web, when it should be seen as an extension of it," he explained.

For now, M1's WAP services, which are offered through its mobile portal called Mi world, offers the maximum data transmission speed of 14.4Kbit/sec. The company expects to roll out GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) technology later this year. However, the GPRS service is expected to cost six times more than an equivalent fixed line, Ng revealed.

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