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Mobilize Your Enterprise Part 3: Technologies

Find out what is available for going mobile in your business by learning the platforms, connectivity options, and middleware.
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Previous articles in this series looked at mobile enterprise applications, including an approach to development and a number of solutions based on commercial products. Various technologies have been mentioned in passing; this article discusses these technologies—covering the platforms, connectivity options, and middleware that you should be familiar with when deploying a mobile enterprise solution.

Platforms and Devices

There are five main platform choices for enterprise mobility:

  • Windows
  • Palm
  • Pocket PC
  • RIM
  • Wireless Web

Beyond these platforms, Symbian and Linux are also contenders; Symbian is available from a number of cell phone vendors, and Linux is available for some Compaq hand-helds. A completely different animal is the voice interface, accessible via a standard telephone or cell phone. It will probably become more popular as people run up against the limitations of mobile text interfaces; for situations in which a worker's hands are otherwise occupied, a voice interface can be the only logical choice.

The Windows operating system is arguably the most capable mobile platform. Available on laptops, advantages include the most extensive base of enterprise software, ease of text entry, superior user interface, and familiarity derived from the desktop. Disadvantages include somewhat limited portability and the intrusive nature of a laptop when dealing one-on-one with a client. In addition, the software and network protocols that come as standard on Windows platforms assume a relatively reliable higher-speed network connection; because Windows is not optimized for wireless networks, you may experience disappointing performance from a wireless connection.

The Palm platform, including licensees such as Handspring and Sony, is still the dominant hand-held platform. It has more than 52 percent of the world market, according to a recent Gartner Dataquest report. Advantages include a huge base of mobile software and a decent peripheral market for such devices as wired or wireless modems, printers, and barcode readers. Also, when compared to Pocket PC, the other main hand-held platform, Palm claims a lower total cost of ownership. This is primarily due to a lower device cost (about half of a typical pocket PC) and reduced user training (see http://www.palm.com/enterprise/ for more details).

Over the last two years, the Windows Pocket PC platform has gained popularity at the expense of its Palm competitors. This increasing popularity is in line with an overall trend toward higher-end hand-held devices with faster processors and memory capacities that approach those of low-end laptops. It is likely that Palm and other vendors will bring out competing high-end devices in the next year or two.

Research In Motion's Blackberry product has a devoted following in the enterprise area. The main advantages of the Blackberry platform are always-on connectivity and direct support for enterprise communications and scheduling. Palm sees RIM as a threat, and has come out with its own always-on wireless devices focused on the enterprise.

The wireless Web promises ubiquitous access to information combined with the familiarity of your cell phone. Advantages include light device weight (some phones weigh less than 100 grams), and integration between data applications and voice communications. Disadvantages include a limited user interface, consisting of awkward keypad entry and tiny monochrome displays. The communicator, or wireless digital assistant (WDA), is a variation on the cell phone and hand-held theme that combines the capabilities of these devices. Advantages include a larger display than a typical cell phone and improved text entry (usually via a miniature keyboard). The main disadvantage is the increased heft and awkwardness of a larger device, although the new generation of communicators is substantially improved in this area.

For some applications, a custom device is mandatory. Factory workers may require rugged cases that can withstand dust, dirt, shock, and/or immersion; couriers may need to print receipts; and inventory clerks may need to scan bar codes. Although it may be possible to add a peripheral to a standard device to perform one of these functions, it is usually difficult to add two or more capabilities. Custom devices often use a standard platform operating system such as Pocket PC, perhaps with some device specific extensions.

Figure 1Figure 1 Platforms and devices: Palm i705, Samsung GSM SGH-100 cell phone, HP Jornada 568, and Nokia 9290 Communicator.

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