Mobility showdown: laptop vs. handheld device

As handheld devices become more like full-fledged computers in their own right, the question of whether business travelers might be better served by leaving their laptops at home is again being asked by IT managers and end users alike.

But that still appears to be more of a future goal than a current reality.

Relying solely on a handheld hasn’t been a realistic option for most road warriors. However, analysts at firms such as Gartner Inc. have predicted that the day would soon come when it is, and Apple Inc.’s release of the iPhone 3G last month has reinvigorated the laptop vs. handheld debate.

For Seppo Beumers, an applications manager at Genzyme Corp.’s European operations in Amsterdam, the idea of putting all the apps needed by his users on a handheld is no longer theoretical.

More than two years ago, Beumers began adding client contact management software and other sales tools to the BlackBerry handhelds carried by Genzyme’s 150-plus pharmaceutical and medical-device sales reps in Europe.

The CRM integration work was done by Boston-based Vaultus Mobile Technologies Inc., which is adding upgrades to the software once or twice a year — enough to persuade Beumers that the BlackBerry devices inevitably will become more and more functional. As that happens, “gradually we will lose the laptops,” he predicted. “That is the direction we are moving.”

Many of the sales reps don’t need to write long reports while on the road and can easily rely on their BlackBerries for checking and responding to e-mail, Beumers said.

They also can enter information into the handhelds either during meetings with doctors and other health professionals or immediately afterwards, he noted. That lets the sales reps quickly share data with co-workers and saves them time that they used to spend inputting handwritten notes into their laptops — a task that previously took an average of two hours per day, according to Beumers.

But he added that any discussion of handhelds fully usurping laptops on business trips is still somewhat premature. To make that truly feasible, he said, the BlackBerry needs more memory, faster data transmission speeds and a larger screen the latter without encroaching on its keyboard. “And batteries, they are a big part of it,” he noted.

Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass., doesn’t think mobile workers as a whole will ever be able to winnow down what they carry to just one handheld. “I call it the single-device paradox,” he said. “There’s no single device for everything, especially when you consider the input and display on a smart phone or handset.”

Even slider phones or flip-style devices with dual keyboards can be too small for the kind of work that many people need to do while on the road, such as writing reports or running PowerPoint presentations.

Brant Castellow, a regional sales executive at Correlagen Diagnostics Inc. in Waltham, Mass., understands all too well the paradox that Mathias described. Castellow recently bought an iPhone 3G and would love to use it for all of his communications and computing needs on business trips, except that Correlagen’s CRM applications and corporate VPN still require the use of a PC. As a result, he continues to cart along his laptop when traveling.

“Do I still carry the laptop? Yes,” Castellow wrote in an e-mail. He uses the PC less than he did in the past but said that bringing it with him “might be a hard habit to break” unless the genetic testing company’s IT department makes the CRM apps and the VPN accessible via the iPhone.

Colin Dickerson, an engineer at The Procter & Gamble Co.’s Gillette Engineering Group in Boston, said that for personal trips, he recently started leaving his laptop at home and taking only his iPhone with him. “I love having just one device to carry around,” Dickerson said, adding that he has noticed business executives from various companies toting only their BlackBerry devices on road trips.

But Dickerson conceded that for work purposes, “I don’t see myself traveling without my laptop anytime soon.” Even while on the road, he needs to access heavy-duty engineering programs such as Unigraphics and AutoCAD, “which I don’t see being available on smart phones” in the near future, he said.

As a compromise between carrying a full-sized laptop and trying to get by with a regular handheld, Mathias and other analysts said they expect many users to convert to so-called Mobile Internet Devices, a class of sub-laptops that are being touted by Intel Corp. and various hardware vendors.

The MIDs introduced thus far are based on Intel’s Centrino Atom processor and typically have screen sizes of 7 to 10 inches.

Mathias himself is using an Asus Eee system that fits the MID mold. Other vendors that have introduced such devices include Taiwan-based Micro-Star International, which offers a system called the Wind. Mathias said he expects Dell Inc. to soon announce a MID offering of its own.

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