Earlier this year, midway through a heated parliamentary debate, federal minister for the environment and water resources, Malcolm Turnbull, stunned many of his fellow parliamentarians by using a BlackBerry to access the Hansard.
Strategically it was a great way to divert attention from the debate at hand, as all eyes were turned to the palm-sized data unit from which he delivered a comment he'd previously made in parliament, verbatim.
If anybody was going to be the first to whip out a smartphone in the hallowed halls of our elected law makers it was going to be Turnbull, who is so comfortable with connectivity that even his dogs have blogs on his personal webpage. However, the obvious ease with which he was able to access the information he wanted raises an important issue when it comes to selling mobile technology; given the same access to the same sorts of technology, people in the same roles will use it in different ways.
While Turnbull's IT antics are rare in politics, they are increasingly the norm in the upper echelons of business, where access to data, and the ability to respond to queries is paramount to success.
Picking a BlackBerry, or launching a laptop?
Seeing this footage on television must have made Paul Osmond, director of BlackBerry vendor, Research In Motion (RIM), leap for joy. Over the last 12 months, RIM has put a lot of energy into expanding the uses of BlackBerry units through software partnerships and applications development. A federal minister is about the best spontaneous high profile endorsement it could have wished for.
"Now we have organisations using BlackBerry to get access to a range of protocol-independent multicast [PIM] functions wirelessly, as well as accessing and entering corporate information such as integration into CRM systems, ordering systems, service ticket systems and reporting tools," Osmond said. "This has allowed a lot of organisations to replace their laptop with a Black- Berry, generally in conjunction with a much cheaper and easier to maintain desktop computer within their office." In fact, Osmond argued that applications developments and improvements in handheld devices are forcing a shakeout in the market for mobile computers.
"A laptop has always been designed to allow you to take your desktop computer applications out of the office, but it was not designed to provide instant or easy access to the business when actually in the field, or to allow instant access to business communication tools such as email or CRM systems," he said. "A laptop isn't something you want to be carrying with you all day long."
Understandably, general manager for the information systems division of Toshiba Australia, Mark Whittard, disagreed with Osmond's assertions. While he conceded that handheld devices were increasingly prevalent in business, he said they were still some way from taking over from laptop computers.
"We don't come across smartphones as a competitor to laptops in a tender situation, and big companies aren't indicating to us that they are looking to replace laptops with mobile phones," he said. "While there are a number of things you can do on a smartphone that you can also do on a laptop, you will always be able to do more from a laptop. We are seeing smartphones take over from where PDAs left off, but not eating into the laptop market in any way."
While RIM has been beavering away at the applications development side of the game, Toshiba has been working on the weight, and usability, of its high-end laptops and tablet computers. At the top of the range, the Portege series uses a magnesium alloy chassis to bring the thickness down under a centimetre, and weight to as little as 1.2kg. Moreover, in a direct challenge to BlackBerry style products, Toshiba has also integrated a small screen in the upper side of the laptop case. This provides users with access to limited functions without actually opening the computer.
"The screen lets you see who an email's from and shows you the first line, so that you can decide how to respond straight away," Whittard said.
But the real coup will come when a combination of 3G chips and IP telephony combine to embed a soft handset within the laptop.
"Smartphones are a great way to keep in touch, or quickly pick up sales and pricing information, but they have a natural limitation because of the screen size limits and the lack of a keyboard. You still have to go back to a computer device to read or correct content," Whittard said. "Once 3G chips become standard in notebooks, and we start seeing an increase in the use of softphones, we'll see people start using their laptops increasingly for telephony and data access."