Kitting out the mobile office

12 Jun 2006

Smartphones that mix the feature set of PDAs (personal digital assistants) with phone functionality are seeing off the stand-alone handheld devices popularised by the likes of Palm and HP. And why wouldn’t they? Bundling personal information management software (calendar, appointments, addresses) with voice and mobile data functionality makes perfect sense for the mobile executive who craves a one-stop device.

IDC has identified a continued migration towards converged devices in the first quarter of this year, driven largely by the Symbian S60 operating system developed by Nokia. It also predicts a lot of activity around business devices with Nokia, Sony Ericsson, RIM and Windows Mobile products driving the market.

If email on the move has been the killer application that gave some credence to the term ‘mobile office’ and driven the uptake of these devices, then RIM’s BlackBerry has been the preferred weapon of choice.

The user-friendly handsets have become ubiquitous on mobile networks around the world, available either with QWERTY-style keypads or as standard phones. With software that sits inside the company, ‘pushing’ incoming email out to the end user, RIM’s compression technology and secure protocols have made it a big hit with businesses who want their employees to always be on the end of their email.

Easy to deploy and even easier to use, the caveat for some companies is that it’s just too expensive and only really makes sense in an email-heavy company. Vodafone spotted the gap and introduced its own Business Email products at the end of last year, including a service that will work with hotmail accounts over standard handsets.

The reality is that there is now a range of business devices to meet every need and taste. Packing an increasing amount of processing power and internal memory (520MHz and 128MB are typical), they are also getting easier sync up to the desktop.

Quite how ergonomic they are for extended periods of work is subjective. Some will find them too small and fiddly although a product like the Nokia 9300, with its fold-out QWERTY keyboard and ultra-wide 600×200 pixel screen, is as good as it gets if you want a pocket-sized laptop. O2’s Xda series comes a close second with a new version coming soon that features an extended keypad.

Because of the obvious limitations of smartphones there remains a growing demand for mobile data cards that slot in to notebooks.

In an attempt to move this market further into the mainstream Vodafone has taken its 3G Mobile Connect cards a stage further and done a deal with Dell, HP and Lenovo to have 3G imbedded in the laptop.

Greg Tierney, Dell’s client systems marketing manager, explains how it works: “People have been using a 3G card and connecting to notebooks for a couple of years; the difference now is that the service can be registered, integrated and installed when somebody places an order.”

The Dell Latitude D series notebooks will also offer optional integrated high-speed downlink packet access (HSDPA) as well as 3G and GPRS.

When Dell enters a market it is a sure sign that the technology is on the cusp of mass-market acceptance. Tellingly, the leading computer seller has still no plans to launch a tablet PC, a product category pitched as the missing link between notebooks and PDAs.

“It is still a niche market,” says Tierney. “Where we excel is giving value in mainstream markets. Tablets got complicated, with variations such as ‘convertibles’ and slates, and suddenly there was more than one market for them — a niche within a niche!”
The other player to watch is Microsoft. Not only has it launched its latest iteration of its mobile operating system, Windows Mobile 5.0, it is also planning to make easy work of integrating it into Small Business Server and back-office infrastructure. The plan is for an out-of-the-box enterprise solution that will open up the possibility of small and medium-sized enterprises having access to another level of mobile office applications.

There is every likelihood of an increase in the number of smartphones sporting the Windows mobile operating system, giving the Symbian camp a run for its money.

By Ian Campbell

Pictured: Greg Tierney, client systems marketing manager for Dell with Chris Handley, head of business products at Vodafone Ireland