M-tech: The Mobility Merger

Is it phone, is it computer? Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it’s not – quite often that miniature-sized device is both PC and communicator, and more!

Welcome to the astounding world of mobile technology, one in which products can become obsolete virtually overnight. Never before have there been so many options for mobile business people.

For the more conservative amongst us, there is the usual line-up of notebooks – faster, lighter, with more options, wireless capability, longer battery life, and brighter screens. “You pays your money and takes your pick” – from budget-priced notebooks to fully-featured desktop PC replacements. typical example is the Compaq Evo N1000 series – it has Pentium 4 processor up to 2.2GHz, 15-inch TFT display, high-spec graphics controller, and Multiport feature for wireless operation.

Stronger, lighter cases are now the norm, such as Toshiba’s Tecra, which has 10-layer circuit board to reduce footprint and kilograms (weighs in at 2.2kg). And for those of us who just view the mobile phone as simply that, mobile phone, there is no shortage of choice. Familiar brand names include Alcatel, Bosch, Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia, Panasonic, Philips, Sagem, Samsung, Siemens, and Sony Ericsson. Use the optimum combination of price, functionality, ease-of-use, and stand-by time as the criteria for making your selection.

Blurred boundaries
It’s where the boundaries between computing and communications blur that you’ll find the most exciting technology advancements and the most potential for increasing personal productivity. Much of this development has come from phone manufacturers that have formed alliances with handheld PC or PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) companies, or vice versa. From this has emerged new breed of “smart-phone” or “convergent device” offering users not just the ability to make and receive calls, but also access email and personal data, and operate daily tasks organiser.

Standout products in this category include Handspring’s Treo 270, compact communicator that integrates mobile phone, wireless applications like email and internet browsing, as well as Palm organiser, all at the touch of button. The Treo has built-in, backlit keyboard, up to three hours of talk-time and 150 hours of standby time, and full-colour screen.

A smart-phone’s ability to send and receive data as well as voice was highlighted recently with the release of the Sony Ericsson T68i mobile with Communicam camera option. Now you can use your phone to take photos and email them direct to PC anywhere in the world.

It’s case of: “what’re the snow conditions like? Hang-on, I’ll send you picture!” The technology is called PXT – it’s available through Vodafone, and is as easy as sending text message, albeit slightly longer process (about one minute for one image). More PXT-capable phones are coming, along with phone-to-phone capability. Meanwhile, the T68i is leader with its full-colour display, fast GPRS internet access, Bluetooth wireless connectivity, global roaming, and built-in organiser.

One-stop palmtops
All is not what it seems from handheld PC perspective either – many of today’s offerings provide much greater functionality than their predecessors. Many palmtops and PDAs can access the web, and email via telephone jack, although you may have to buy modem. Other models provide wireless access to email and the internet if you buy wireless modem or connect them to certain mobile phones. And there are PDAs that can connect wirelessly without the need for additional hardware or software.

The mobile market is being driven by Telecom and Vodafone, which now offer greater bandwidth for wireless data transfer. Users can transmit at 20 to 80kbps using Gtran-type phone card, Bluetooth and notebook or handheld.

Generally speaking, today’s pocket-size computers have the ability to easily synchronise with your desktop or laptop PC. Most now come with colour displays, and battery and memory capability are much improved on earlier models.

Some stand-out models include Compaq’s stylish iPAQ Pocket PC, with up to 64Mb memory and wireless capability; the HP Jornada series, including the 720 clamshell model; the Palm family of handhelds including the powerful m515; Toshiba’s new offerings, including the e740; and from Casio – the Cassiopeia EG-800 and IT-70 “rugged” Pocket PCs, E-200 Pocket PC, and new BE-300. The latter can be upgraded to the Windows CE .NET operating system, allowing it to run Pocket Internet Explorer, Media Player, and Flash Player.

Monaco Distributor’s Edward Armstrong believes that the business handheld market has effectively split into two camps. “There are those executives who have traditionally used phone anyway, so they might as well have one multifunctional device to get themselves even better organised,” he says.

“On the other hand, there are companies wanting to utilise the technology to make real productivity gains enterprise-wide in market of shrinking margins. These are companies looking to do things smarter, for example, sales order automation applications where handhelds talk directly to back-end systems. They’re looking for seamless systems which allow field staff to process transactions in real time, which allows for far greater accuracy,” explains Armstrong. He knows of one electrical firm that saved significant money by eliminating discrepancies in invoice recording. There are obviously huge efficiencies to be gained by real-time data keying, as opposed to relying on memory.

Today’s handhelds come with mind-boggling accessories, and tomorrow’s options look even more exciting. There are GPRS Compact Flash cards that allow you to stay online all the time; GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) modules that put street maps on your mobile computer; plus plug-in cameras, dictation capability, handwriting and speech recognition, and to come – displays that can rotate and swivel from clamshell to tablet without sacrificing keyboard ability.

While it’s tempting to invest in high-end, feature-rich models, it’s wise to step back and consider the primary reason for purchasing handheld. According to Armstrong, common mistake is to buy consumer model when really an industrial-strength version would be more applicable. “Ask yourself what you or your staff want to achieve, and then go out and find the hardware,” he says.

On the notebook front, the big question for buyers is: what is the primary purpose of the purchase – mobility or desktop replacement? Generally, if it’s over three kilograms, it can replace the desktop.

Two to three kilogram Pentium 4 models are more advanced but watch for less than two-hour battery life. Anything under two kilograms generally involves trade-off in display size (down to 12.1-inch). Processor performance currently ranges from 1.2GHz for the entry-level market, up to 2.0GHz P4 processors or greater for the high-end market. Battery life can often be trap – some vendors even avoid quoting battery life. battery can weigh from 250 to 500 grams, so there is wide variation in battery capacity which, in turn, determines battery life.

Another trap for buyers is lifecycle, especially if it involves fleet of mobile computers. Consistency, single software platforms and easy deployment are therefore vital.

Hopefully, as the mobile market matures there will be consolidation of technologies and products which will make the buyer’s job easier. In the meantime, make distinction between what’s going to benefit business productivity, and what is merely gimmick. M

Glenn Baker is New Plymouth-based writer and editor of M-tech. Email: [email protected]

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