?The most beautiful things come in small packages? was never so true as in 1998?s IT industry. After a couple of years of the usual fighting over technologies and standards, we are beginning to see business applications, communications, entertainment and online information converging around the tiniest devices on the market.
These come in various guises - the handheld computer, now given a boost by the uptake of Microsoft?s Windows CE operating system; the Internet appliances, including network computers and Webphones; and even the set-top box, which will increasingly deliver services traditionally associated with PCs via the television.
All the suppliers are struggling to snatch a share of this market, which offers them probably their first opportunity to appeal to consumer and business markets simultaneously, and to span the whole gamut of electronic services from mass media to enterprise applications. In the hardware market, the fall out that inevitably follows such gold rushes has already begun, highlighted by Apple?s withdrawal of its Newton personal digital assistant, once one of the early pioneers in this territory.
In software, the battle has only just begun. This week, Oracle shows off a version of its Oracle Lite cut-down database for handheld computers and it has also been a leader in developing software for the network computer. Also this week, Oracle?s Network Computer (NCI) unit signed a significant deal with Cable and Wireless Communications in the UK, to provide operating software for its set-top boxes for digital television and Internet access. And not to be outshone, Sybase is also porting its low end database to miniature computers.
These three announcements highlight the key trends at the smallest end of the market. There is a split between server/Internet-centric strategies and the Microsoft view of the world, just as there is in the corporate desktop world. The network computers - and their PC-based alternative, the NetPCs, reluctantly endorsed by Microsoft - are designed primarily as Internet appliances, downloading the bulk of their data and applications from the server via the Net, as required. The handheld computers running CE - and rivals such as the Psion range - are basically miniature PCs, with almost the same local functionality as a desktop, although with increasing emphasis on Internet functionality.
But the dividing lines are generally artificial, at least as far as real world users are concerned. The key is the rise of devices that can operate in a truly mobile way, and that means Internet access. As such, Webphones, Javaphones, Web TVs, set-top boxes and the rest are no different in concept from network computers, providing access to a range of services via the Web.
Users are generally not interested in the political battle between Windows CE and Java, between mini PCs and network computers - at least now that it seems clear both technologies will survive. They are likely to use a mixture, with CE devices replacing laptops as personal productivity machines with some communications built in, while NCs look set to adopt the role formerly held by the dumb terminal. ?There?s no religion about this,? said an IT manager at a major retailer. ?We?re just looking into any way of making IT more flexible and that means a mixture of Java and Windows."
The consensus seems to be that NCs are currently mainly in use to provide a low cost alternative to a desktop or laptop for accessing corporate data sources - a step up from the dumb terminal. This may remain their pigeonhole, although their supporters, such as Oracle and Sun - eager to increase sales of servers for all purposes - want to push them as consumer devices and Web TVs too.
So far, consumers are buying more specialised products and have not, it seems, yet accepted the idea of an all-in-one device embracing telephony, television and computing. Hence the race to get involved in the Web TV market, with Microsoft currently very active.
The convergence of so many areas of technology is bringing many players up against each other, who previously would have regarded each other as neutral or even friends. The mobile phone vendors are developing models that handle Internet access, data feeds and Java applications, with Nortel showing off its first Javaphone this month. And purely consumer electronics suppliers, as well as cable television companies, are also moving into the field via set-top boxes - so it is only one step to offer their customers data services too.
This would seem to benefit diversified electronics suppliers such as Siemens, which has different units selling computers, telephony equipment and televisions. Japanese giants such as Sony also fall into this category, in theory able to merge the technologies of their different product lines to bring a converged unit quickly to market.
It isn?t just client side and consumer devices that are shrinking fast. Storage will also have to become tiny, at least for handhelds which have significant amounts of data held locally. IBM recently showed off a matchbox sized hard disk drive for use with miniature computers and is likely to license the technology behind it to other storage makers.
Some things will have to get bigger to gain widespread acceptance for handheld devices. For instance, Korean giant LG Electronics made a breakthrough this week with the launch of Phenom Handheld PC Ultra, a CE palmtop device with an 8.25-inch screen and the fastest processor in any computer in this class. The 100MHz Risc processor from Hitachi enables the device to run spreadsheets, Powerpoint presentations and other applications more normally associated with fully fledged PCs, rather than just basic email and diary functions like most PDAs.
The versions of these Microsoft applications are more slimline than their full PC releases but have most of the functionality business users need, according to LG. This is the same argument used by the NC supporters - that NC users can download stripped down applications written in Java, which provide only the functions they really need. In contrast, the anti-Microsoft camp argues, buying the full releases of PC applications means paying a large sum of money for a package, and then using only 20 per cent of its features.
If handhelds and PDAs gain full strength applications and robust Net access, they will increasingly collide with the Internet-attached device market. Both sets of products are targeted at corporations wanting to equip their mobile users, or those who do not need a fully specd PC, and also at home users who cannot afford - or are scared off by - a traditional PC. In fact, although the CE machine is still a more personal tool than the NC, they are likely increasingly to converge - one of the key barriers keeping them distinct is the lack of a Java Virtual Machine for CE, something the database makers, in particular, are pressuring Microsoft to adopt.
The marketing of the same devices to two such different sectors will prove a challenge in terms of packaging, pricing and advertising, but the key will lie in the software and, in the Internet world, the services.
While, in the consumer market, vendors race to sign up content providers offering online information, Web searches, television and other services, in the business sector all eyes are on office applications and databases.
Most of the PC sofware makers are now producing Java versions of their products to accommodate the new slimmer computers - Corel will finally release Office for Java at the Cebit show this month, for instance, while IBM?s Lotus division will be rolling out Java applets throughout this year.
And the database makers are bringing some enterprise credibility to the handheld sector. Sybase?s Adaptive Server Anywhere will run on CE computers and is particularly targeted at mobile salesforces. It supports email, Notes and messaging and takes up 500Kbytes to 1Mbyte of memory. Oracle has a similar product, Oracle Lite for CE, and both rivals are planning an even smaller version taking up only 100-200Kbytes. This will be suited for mobile phones, vending machines and other embedded computers, further highlighting the technology convergence going on at this end of the market.
But while some companies are aiming to support the whole range of applications from television to business computing, others are being forced by their circumstances to be more selective. Apple has already been a casualty in the handheld market with the loss of Newton, and is now staking its future on portable entertainment devices that offer Internet access and play CD music and DVD films. Apple will also offer tools for users to create Internet sites and to link to television. But in this fast changing and competitive market, this is a high risk strategy - especially since the company already cancelled development of its Pippin architecture, which had very similar functionality.
Microsoft, Sony and many others are racing to develop similar products. One thing is sure - in the converged world, competition will be fiercer than ever before in IT, and there will be more casualties than champions.
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