The war for the corporate palmtop is heating up. As more and more CIOs grasp the potential benefits of extending network resources and applications out to mobile workers, handheld device manufacturers and platform developers marshal their forces and move to outflank opponents. The spoils of war promise to be rich.
But while individual users may be seduced by the gee-wiz appeal and hype around handheld Swiss Army computers, CIOs are taking a more critical view. Most are kicking the tires on RIM BlackBerry phones, Palm Treos, Windows Mobile and Symbian smartphones, and even buying a few to test or to equip top knowledge workers. But most are not deploying en masse. Or not yet.
“As far as CIOs are concerned, convergence for the sake of convergence doesn’t mean an awful lot,” says Carmi Levy, a senior research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group. “They’re asking, ‘Is it going to save me money? Can my people do more work in less time? Will it improve the customer experience?’”
Levy believes the latest generation of smartphones can in fact reduce total cost of ownership (TCO). “You can reduce administrative overhead by an order of magnitude because instead of managing separate fleets of cell phones and PDAs, you’re only managing one device,” Levy suggests. This assumes mobile workers carry both devices now, of course. And Levy admits that the first generation of smart phones did not deliver on this promise. CIOs remain skeptical.
Case in point: Mike Cuddy, vice president of IT and CIO at Toromont Industries Ltd., a $1.5-billion-a-year construction equipment and compression systems engineering firm. “We’ve refrained from deploying handhelds as replacements for cell phones or pocket organizers primarily because we don’t think the capabilities have converged sufficiently to make the package a real productivity improver for the organization,” Cuddy says.
It’s not that he doesn’t see the benefits of equipping mobile workers with wirelessly communicating handheld devices running corporate applications. “There’s an absolutely huge potential benefit to our organization,” Cuddy says. “We’re talking about 20- to 30-per cent productivity improvements. If we could get a useable device. Our main frustration right now is that, regardless of what you read, that device just doesn’t exist.”
Toromont wants to automate field mechanics who service customers that buy its Caterpillar vehicles, and also drivers in its Battlefield division that deliver rental equipment. That’s just for starters. But Cuddy has a litany of complaints about the state of the art of converged devices and wireless communications. The devices aren’t stable enough, batteries don’t last long enough, screens aren’t big enough. He even disparages the often praised BlackBerry user interface, pointing out – accurately – its several annoying flaws.
Cuddy notes that mobile devices from different vendors still don’t interoperate flawlessly. Nor is it possible to move seamlessly with a single device from one kind of wireless network to another. It’s also difficult to develop and integrate applications, he says, and vendor companies don’t have as much experience or expertise as they claim – or need to help companies deploy these applications.
Cuddy is not alone. At office supplies retailer Grand & Toy, vice president of information technology John Melodysta has deployed the iPaq Pocket PC to 100 delivery trucks to manage delivery manifests and invoicing. But the company isn’t even using the device’s wireless communications capability to upload data from the trucks – it can’t justify the silly expensive air time charges, Melodysta says. And Grand & Toy’s mobile sales force continues to carry laptops provided by the company and cell phones they pay for and manage themselves.
He can see converged devices eventually replacing cell phones and PDAs. “It’s only a matter of time before a device like the BlackBerry or the Treo becomes the norm,” Melodysta says. “But whether it can also take the place of a laptop, that’s a question that is unanswered at this point. I don’t think we’re there yet.”
Like Cuddy he’s – well, critical. He’d like to see more powerful devices with longer battery life and some better way to input text than handwriting recognition and hunt-and-peck virtual keyboards. For all their dissatisfaction with the current state of the technology, though, Cuddy and Melodysta are closely watching the mobile convergence space, and are well aware of the brewing battle for palmtop supremacy.
Levy contends that the battle is in fact all but won. Palm, an industry pioneer, has already capitulated with a recent announcement that the next versions of its Treo smartphones will use Microsoft’s Windows Mobile operating system. Symbian, the operating system used in many smartphones from Nokia and other cell phone makers, has enormous strength in Europe, but less in North America.
“There are really only two serious competitors,” Levy argues. “RIM [Research in Motion] and Microsoft.”
Microsoft has key advantages. Its Windows operating systems offer a work-alike environment for users moving from desktops to handhelds. Windows Mobile handhelds work more seamlessly with Windows servers and Windows-based backend applications. And the Microsoft software development environment now makes it possible for a single development team to build one application for both desktop and palmtop, reducing overheads for commercial and enterprise development shops.
RIM’s traditional strength is its push-based BlackBerry mobile e-mail system. It automatically delivers messages to a mobile handheld as soon as they’re received at the mail server, without the user having to do anything. BlackBerry is still generally regarded as the best mobile e-mail platform. “But that’s about to change with the next version of [Microsoft] Exchange Server,” Levy says. The new Exchange Server will make it very easy for enterprises to set up BlackBerry-like push-based e-mail systems that send messages in real time to Windows Mobile devices.
RIM is also “playing catch-up” on the development front, Levy says. It has only recently begun to sink more resources into building relationships in the developer community and tools that make it easier for them to create applications. On top of everything else, he adds, “No small firm has ever taken on Microsoft and won.”
While Cuddy and Melodysta acknowledge the appeal of Microsoft’s cross-platform development environment, neither is about to declare his allegiance to any of the warring handheld camps. None of the devices is good enough yet – although Cuddy concedes that the Microsoft platform might be there in six months. What would their dream device look like?
Melodysta wants more power, more memory and some way to input large volumes of text – perhaps voice recognition. The last part doesn’t seem so far away given that Samsung recently released the p207, a traditional flip phone with speech recognition capabilities for inputting SMS messages.
Cuddy’s main preoccupation is form factor and screen size. He’s convinced many mobile applications require screen sizes closer to a sheet of letter paper – especially the vertical applications Toromont wants to deploy. PDA screens simply can’t display a big enough chunk of information to be really efficient for these applications, he says. Cuddy is looking seriously at tablet PCs as an alternative to PDAs or smartphones.
“But if I’m completely unconstrained by anything to do with reality,” he continues. “I’d want something you could unfold like a piece of paper to the size you need for filling out information and reading, but then fold back up so you could hold it in your hand and use it as a phone.”
So what looks now like a fight to the death for the corporate palmtop is really just the battle for software platform supremacy. The physical form factor and user interface will continue to evolve. Which is all to the good – they have a way to go, Cuddy and Melodysta will tell you.

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