Mobile computing is currently causing great excitement among consumers, end-user businesses and resellers alike. Perhaps the most thrilling aspect for those in the selling part of the chain is the way technology is cross-fertilising between the two main types of mobile buyer: the gadget freak and the corporate specifier.
On one hand, notebook computers, which have been common in the business world for about a decade, are starting to become the PC of choice for consumers. On the other, now that mobile phones are no longer just things you talk into, and hand-held computers are more than novelty devices on which to record birthdays, corporate IT managers are starting to accept both as part of the system landscape, and are learning to integrate them better with fixed networks.
This crossing over of separate worlds takes many forms. Philip Taylor, senior analyst for wireless and mobile technology at market researcher The Yankee Group, said: "Makers of mobile phones are moving into the market for more complex handsets, such as personal digital assistants [PDAs]. The makers of PDAs are moving into the world of notebook computers, and vice versa."
Mobile computing is a blanket term that covers an amazing range of products, technologies and services. Unlike many other technology markets, mobile computing can only become bigger and its application broader.
The market is being driven by many factors. Kevin Bulcock, product manager for connectivity at distributor Ideal Hardware, said: "More and more people are not working in an office, and are either at home or on the road. Some six per cent of the UK workforce is mobile or remote."
Enabling technology is also developing fast. "Device battery life is going up, and size is coming down. And everything is getting easier to use," said Bulcock. However, there is a negative side to all the excitement. While mobile computing has undoubtedly come a long way in the last year or two, it still has a long way to go. The speed of the journey is going to leave a lot of technology standards, vendors and their channel partners behind, eating the dust of the pace setters.
Eyes on the road ahead
The challenges ahead were highlighted by John Zeglis, president of AT&T's wireless division, at the Supercomm event in Atlanta in June. His theory was simply that mobile technology does not yet do exactly what it says on the tin, a fact that the most zealous gadget addict or committed road warrior is forced to confront from time to time.
Zeglis pointed out that mobile applications are still simplistic and require too much fiddling around by users before they get anything useful out of them. He also claimed that mobile applications needed to become more intuitive and inventive.
Talking about mobile phones in particular, he said: "Services need to be ubiquitous and mobile phones have to be as easy to use and program as old-fashioned alarm clocks." He added that telecomms carriers should be less afraid to work with new developers to create innovative applications.
Some of Zeglis's visions of a mobile future verge frankly on the harebrained. For example, he suggested that vendors should develop fridges that create online shopping lists, which are then connected to wireless phones to remind consumers what they need to buy each time they go to the supermarket. Then there's the wireless pill that could alert hospitals if the user was about to have a medical emergency.
But the basic truth of his thesis will be obvious to anyone who has ever tried to download data between a PDA and desktop; or use a mobile phone on a speeding train; or deliver a seamless presentation in an alien boardroom via their notebook. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't, and that's not good enough. If network servers started acting in this way, they'd be dumped in a skip faster than you can say Bluetooth.
For resellers in particular, the fast-moving but still emergent mobile world can present difficulties. Sell someone a bunch of hand-held computers today, and they'll be back within the month asking why their employees can't use them to surf the web.
Sell someone a phone without wireless application protocol (Wap), and they will soon want to know why all their friends are swapping detailed information while they are stuck with clumsy old short message service (SMS). It's no good telling them that they might as well buy a model of the Starship Enterprise and complain that it won't reach warp speed.
Nevertheless, mobile computing is so pervasive that few resellers can honestly say that their solutions do not have any interface with the mobile world, or are unlikely to in the future. The question is not whether to invest in the development of mobile solutions, but which technologies, platforms and standards are the right ones to back.
Portable Add-ons, the PC card manufacturer, has developed a range of mobile products, from its 16bit Lan cards through to 32bit quad devices for high-speed connectivity. Andrew Edmeads, the manufacturer's product development manager, has the job of looking at emerging mobile technologies and working with the company's R&D department to identify likely winners.
"Resellers are constantly asking 'What can I sell today?', but there is far too much promise of jam tomorrow coming out of manufacturers," said Edmeads. "We're constantly told that this or that technology is 'just around the corner' or that 'first products will be with us by the end of the summer'. It's important to realise that there are plenty of technologies around now that have every chance of still being around in a year or two's time and beyond."
Edmeads is reserving judgement on Bluetooth, one of this and last year's 'emerging' technologies. "Bluetooth has been massively hyped, but people are now starting to ask, in the cold light of day, what it's going to deliver and by when. It looks as if initial products will be available at the end of 2000, and that they will be good for little else other than cable replacement. What people haven't yet realised is that there will be considerable costs involved in implementing a Bluetooth-based system," he said.
Bluetooth looks like it will be a multi-speed affair, with Bluetooth-enabled PCs becoming available before phones, added Edmeads. He claimed he has yet to see a road map from any phone vendor indicating which Bluetooth products they will make available and when. "It might be 12 months before we have any Bluetooth phones, and a year is a long time in mobile computing. The whole landscape might be different by then," he said.
Another mobile technology that many feel is enjoying more air time than it deserves is Wap. "All that most people understand about Wap is that it lets you surf the internet on the phone. But what they don't realise is that the web and Wap are all quite different things. A Wap phone will only let you see Wap-based XML data, not the whole web," said Edmeads
He felt that a Wap backlash is a possibility. "With new technology, you often get a period of excitement where early adopters flock to get involved. Then there's a trough of negativity where its shortcomings emerge. Wap's entering that phase now."
Right here, right now
Edmeads said it is far better for resellers to focus on technologies that are here today as workable solutions. "GSM [Global System for Mobile communication] technology is delivering results. GPRS [General Packet Radio Service] is the next wave of GSM technology, which, like HSCSD [High-Speed Circuit Switched Data], has immense potential. A lot is happening now that doesn't require resellers to wait."
Not all observers are as dismissive of well-hyped technologies such as Wap, although most agree that it is very early days for the standard. Yankee's Taylor believes the success of Wap is by no means assured and depends on other developments. "I don't see Wap taking off until GPRS becomes widely deployed. Services will be limited until then, and the expectations of many customers dashed," he said.
On the hardware front, most market observers agree that hand-held computers of various types are the growth market for the next year. "PDAs are moving into the corporate world big time. It's the hottest space in the mobile market," said Edmeads.
A trend that looks set to play into reseller hands is the fragmentation of the PDA market into vertical sectors, said Taylor. "The handset market will almost certainly fracture. There will be more and more types available to cater for different niche markets."
Just as the PDA market starts to break up, and products and standards become more applicable to certain vertical sectors than others, so resellers are going to have to choose which part of the overall mobile computing market is most relevant to their customer base.
As a whole, it is far too big a market for any one reseller to take stock of it all. But mobile computing will certainly become virtually impossible to ignore.
- Mobile computing is a very hot market which will be hard for resellers to avoid, but it will burn a few fingers along the way.
- Mobile solutions have not reached their full potential yet.
- Resellers will have a hard time keeping up with technological developments in the sector.
- Some mobile technologies, such as GSM, are more mature and dependable than others. Older technologies are slower.
- PDAs are the hottest mobile items around, in both the consumer and corporate markets. The market generally will probably fragment into vertical sectors.
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