Device convergence has arrived, and the smart phone is the clear winner

At press time a deal had yet to transpire, but even if the company that pioneered the handheld gets shuffled off to a new owner, a shadow hangs over its future, and that of other device makers.Less than 10 years ago, when the Palm Pilot was first picking up steam among business users, cell phones were also growing in popularity. So were laptops, which were only just starting to emerge as a viable desktop replacement. At industry conferences and elsewhere, vendors were asked about device convergence – whether it was reasonable to expect that users would one day want features consolidated into a single device. Vendors equivocated as long as they could, but when it came to a choice between a PDA and a phone, the market has clearly chosen the phone.

There are a couple of reasons that handsets are making the transition (or have already made the transition) to bona fide personal computing client devices. In Europe and elsewhere, cell phone use surpasses even the level of North America, which means it becomes an appropriate platform for software applications. For all the talk of the One Laptop Per Child initiative, cell phones are a much more economical way for those in developing countries to explore the Internet. Finally, Microsoft’s ongoing efforts to develop a credible smart phone platform are starting to pay off. Its products are now rivals with more mature operating systems from Symbian and Palmsource, and they will likely offer better integration with back-end enterprise systems that are also standardized on Microsoft products.

The competition then came down to whether users would opt for a PDA with built-in phone capabilities or a phone that could function like a PDA. This has become a crowded market, with worthy entries from Ericsson, Nokia and many others. Most consumers are probably satisfied with the number of things they can do with their devices, and designs will probably not get much smaller before they become ridiculously easy to lose. That means the focus has to shift now to the management of devices, an area in which Palm should have invested more R&D.

Device convergence was never an enterprise decision, but IT departments will be responsible for the fallout. Even when the PC market consolidated to a handful of players, they still had oversight as to what machines were purchased, installed and used. That’s not true of smart phones. In many businesses, users are still free to buy a Palm Treo, a RIM BlackBerry or a Nokia e90 without consulting anyone. IT departments will only be able to put off connecting those users to the rest of their data for so long. Managing and securing smart phones could become much more difficult than a fleet of desktop PCs, and the lifecycle management will be even more erratic. The device management question may have been settled, but the future will show that it was among the easier ones we faced.

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