The Writing On The Wall for PDAs

I just got this from SmartMobs and Roland's weblog - it's a fantastic article about GM switching from PDAs to smartphones.

Farewell to handhelds

GPS, Java, and push-to-talk give smart phones a clear edge over PDAs

General Motors announced last week that it will partner with wireless carrier Nextel to use Nextel�s Motorola cell phones with data capabilities to market a field-force management application to its commercial truck fleet customers. The announcement casts a shadow over the future of handheld devices in the business marketplace.

By selecting a cellular phone, GM in essence said no to Palm, HP, and Microsoft.

IT departments should consider the reasoning behind GM�s decision before recommending a handheld solution of their own.

GM representatives told me they believe the cell phone is nonthreatening, a piece of hardware most people are comfortable using. GM�s first target market of field-force operations has as its core a noncomputer-savvy workforce, and the theory goes that these workers need a device that is easy to use. Believe it or not, many white-collar workers also struggle with handheld operating systems and would be grateful to be able to have a slimmed-down application that responds to just a few presses of a keypad.

Nextel is certainly capturing a large piece of the so-called blue-collar market with its built-in Direct Connect push-to-talk technology that transforms a phone into a walkie-talkie on steroids.

But in addition to push-to-talk, the Nextel Motorola phones have a JVM (Java Virtual Machine) that runs J2ME (Java 2 Platform Micro Edition) applications, which can be downloaded and upgraded over the wireless network. In many respects, leveraging Java on the client with J2EE app servers on the back end makes handsets equal in capability to handhelds. In fact, handsets are already encroaching on traditional handheld markets. For example, an application exists for remote IT systems management called IC2 from Inciscent. Engineers use PermitWorks to look up permit contracts in construction.

Ernie Cormeir, vice president of business solutions at Nextel in Reston, Va., tells me that there are Java clients for PeopleSoft and that Siebel CRM apps run over Nextel�s iDEN wireless network.

The combination of GPS, Java, push-to-talk, and ease of use makes it hard not to consider a handset over a handheld.


And Roland's site adds a bit more analysis: Mobile phones are cheaper to buy and maintain and users are more comfortable with them. Yep.

Now this service is just using freakin' NexTel phones, which generally suck. Imagine the sorts of things you can do with a Series 60 or P800. These devices are going to hit the corporate world like a bomb in a few short months.

Here's an apt analogy: Remember back in 1994/1995 when ALL the corporate apps were being written in Visual Basic? I had a ton of work back then. But installing and upgrading these apps was a nightmare, which is why my company always pushed Lotus Notes because of its ability to replicate the custom apps - though you still had to manage the software installation and user keys, etc. Then came the web and over the next few years EVERYTHING moved to web based development. Roll it out to thousands with a flip of a switch, and changes/debugging could be made on the fly. Perfect.

This is what's going to happen now with mobile devices. Right now if you want to have a custom app - or even your basic PIM info - on a PDA, you have a very difficult development environment, your users have to remember to synch it to use it, installing the apps is painful and managing changes is worse. PDAs are awkward to use and an "extra" thing to lug around with you. Thus even though Palms and PocketPCs have been around for years, I have never seen any mission critical apps in the real world. I've been in LOTS of coporations and never seen any custom PDA apps. I've seen lots of uncharged Palms given to execs the first day of work cluttering up desk drawers, but never really used.

Microsoft is making some headway in this market right now with their .Net for PocketPCs. I just saw a bit on Pepsi rolling out custom apps to their distributors. This stuff is great - and should have been tackled years ago. However, it's still not simple to develop those apps and you still have the process of synching, installing and upgrading the applications. Now smartphones, XHTML and J2ME apps are going to hit the mobile dev like the web hit desktop applications in the mid 90s. Suddenly you can rely on your devices being easy to use, always with you and always connected. The applications that can stem from that are going to be awesome.

Every CTO in the country should be thinking about ways to implement this stuff. They should be thinking, "what if we got every person in the company an smartphone? What apps could we put on them? What benefits would it bring to have all of our employees, sales people even our customers always connected to our business?" Hell, a lot of businesses give their employees mobile phones already (especially here in Europe - it's a principal 'perk'). Start with those employees first - get them hooked up securely to your mobile intranet ("mobranet?" Okay, I'll stop). Everything from PIM stuff (C&S, Email, Tasks, etc.) to more custom type business applications. Now the have the resources and tools that they need always with them. No more "let me get back to the office and check on that" sort of thoughts. Plus sales guys are notorious tech-boneheads - but all of them love their cellphones. Smartphone-simple apps will make their day. The competitive advantage will be huge for any company that gets on this bandwagon now.

Exciting stuff.


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