Pockets of possibility

Pockets of possibility

Telstra announced in its annual review this month that data services would be one of four key areas of growth for the future. Meanwhile, Optus has reported annual revenues of approximately $30 million from the bundling of voice and data services. And mid-year, Vodaphone announced its plan to move to a non-subsidised model, indicating that telcos are nearing complete penetration of the Australian mobile phone market.

"This will be the last year that telcos are only interested in customer acquisition," says Liz Wolahan, category manager of telecommunications at Tech Pacific.

"From here on in they will start to raise the quality via customer care, additional functionality and services, which will inevitably lead to an increased focus on data packaging."

With the utterance of the words "data packaging", pulse rates in the IT world jumped - well, just a little. A serious approach to bandwidth, the rocket behind mobile and wireless solutions, has been a long time coming and handheld vendors wasted no time in coming to the party.

"Telcos are the key for mobile solutions in the business sector - they need reliability," says Phil Osbourne, business development director of i-business at Citrix Asia-Pacific.

Sure enough, when Hewlett-Packard launched its new Jornada series this month, connectivity was the buzzword. Like many of its peers, the vendor has integrated Bluetooth technology into its new handhelds to eliminate the clumsiness of infrared, which requires a direct line of sight.

The goal, says Harvey Sanchez, regional wireless and mobility manager for Microsoft Australia, is to raise the handheld beyond the status of glorified personal organiser to a mission-critical appliance.

According to Charles Martin, Handspring business manager, the prospect of increased mobility is driving real acceptance and approval of handheld solutions. In particular, the vendor is seeing a shift from the blue-collar business applications, such as inventory and maintenance work orders, to white-collar usage in sales and information retrieval.

"The guys that adopt these solutions talk about return on investment in months, not years," says Felix Wong, managing director of PDA distributor Advanced Portable Technologies (APT, a Brightpoint company). "That's how you justify a handheld - even in periods of doom and gloom."

What's more, with the added functionality of remote server management and access to CRM applications for live quotes, Osbourne says handhelds often work out cheaper than a notebook solution.

"There aren't as many moving parts to break, they're not so heat-sensitive and there's no boot sequence to fuss around with," says Osbourne.

"There's no ‘I'll get back to you'." You can place an order for the store then and there."

For the reseller, it's also a services-rich solution, incorporating consulting, design, implementation, hardware and maintenance.

That said, the war is on between the PDA vendors as to which operating system will dominate the market - Palm, Microsoft's PocketPC or Nokia's Symbian.

Each of the vendors are cajoling partners to act as advocates, signing agreements like Palm's integration agreement with PricewaterhouseCoopers, and tightening relationships in the case of HP, Compaq and Microsoft.

Most industry rhetoric recognises that each operating system (OS) has its own strengths and weakness based on its origin. Palm is built from the ground up specifically for handheld devices, while Pocket PC has been squashed from a PC-based application and Symbian has its roots in the telco world.

Microsoft has made no secret that the commercial sector is the prime target of its new PocketPC 2002 OS, due for release in mid-November.

Palm, on the other hand, refrains from catering to any one specific market, allowing the application and much of the direction of its products to be determined by the vendor's large and active developer community.

"All the games and add-ons come from our third-party developer community, including Mac and Linux users," says Gavin Maxwell, platform development alliance manager for Palm Australia.

On the reseller front, however, APT's Wong says it is detrimental for resellers to limit themselves to one platform.

"[Which vendor] a reseller supports should be customer driven. You pick the platform for the solution not vice versa," he says.

"As an integrator it's important to be technology-agnostic," agrees Martin Stafford, systems integration manager for Spike, an IT services firm which has added handheld solutions to its services kit over the last 12 months.

Stafford believes various platforms will continue to coexist, just as integrated PDAs/phones won't totally eclipse the adoption of a two-device approach. "It's horses for courses - it just depends what the customer wants to do with it," he says.

While vendors advance into the commercial sector, it is, as Wong asserts, not entirely virgin ground. While most of today's handhelds sell through retail, Wong says 60 per cent of them are paid for on a corporate credit card.

"People buy it to be cool, then they go to the IT department to help them install it. Still, most businesses don't have a handheld strategy or plan, and there is an excellent opportunity for resellers to put one such strategy in place," he says.

"Resellers should go out to customers and say, ‘Have you noticed all these appliances popping up? Well, you have no standard for security, you can get some productivity out if it and, by the way, you probably paid for it anyway.' That's the door-opening argument for resellers."

Chee-Mei Gan, manager of mobile products for Compaq Australia, agrees: "Often the opportunity for a handheld sale is there in resellers' existing desktop contracts."

"Personal appeal is the first step - PDAs still have an element of pretension surrounding them; the consumer is buying because it's the best-looking thing on the market," says Gan.

"Productivity is the second step, and one where systems integrators and consultants have a distinct advantage through their knowledge of customers' businesses. The goal is to help customers solve their business issues. Resellers need to look away from just the pure hardware sale and facilitate the business strategy using wireless deployment."

There is a plethora of considerations: existing infrastructure capability, network capability, device requirements, wireless network bandwidth in conjunction with the type of applications being run, and all the regular security issues.

These become the determining factors for the platform; for whether or not the applications are hosted locally or accessed via a thin-client model.

In addition, Melinda Harrington, senior project manager for Spike, says it is important to understand how user groups interact with their handheld devices; whether they operate on a "batch" model (syncing to their desktop periodically or once at the end of the day) or "live" (constantly online), and what design aspects they respond to.

"It's important to make solutions intuitive, both applications and interface wise," says Harrington. "If the device doesn't work the way they want it to, you diminish the value of the solution."

According to Citrix's Osbourne, the limited processing power of handheld devices has provided an environment in which thin-client applications like Citrix's can shine, especially when it comes to connecting intensive backend systems such as SAP or Oracle.

"The old thinking was that everyone was going to go out and write a WAP version, but sure enough the feature you want wasn't available in WAP or Web-based format and people don't want to support two versions of an application."

Still, Osbourne qualifies that not every situation is suitable for a thin-client model. And in many cases it is not viable due to the relative instability of the carrier networks. Indeed, the success of data services on the whole claims a healthy crowd of sceptics, particularly with regards to uptake and when it will reach critical-mass proportions.

Osbourne likens the handheld market to the application service provider (ASP) sector, warning there is a lot of hype and excitement around that will drive sales for a while before it tapers off.

"The technology that's in Japan is still a long way off," he says. "People are expressing interest in the concept locally but by the time they think about it and find the applications, it will be six months down the track."

Osbourne adds that with G2 only just released, there are still refinement issues that need to be addressed, such as the latency in the links, which Nokia and Optus are in the process of rectifying.

While the potential for sending packets of data is five times the speed over GSM networks, Peter Leihn, HP Australia market development manager for peripherals and appliances, says we are currently tracking at only two times that.

Even in terms of usage, Wong feels the market should temper its enthusiasm. "At the moment, people are sticking to transactional, B2B employment of handhelds," he says. "It is too early for entertainment, ticket purchasing and what not - that's all a bit pie-in-the-sky for me."

In addition, while the local coverage is reasonable - anywhere you've got GSM you can get GPRS (general packet radio service) - Laurie Biddoulph, technical director for PDA specialist retail outlet Widgets Australia, points out that global roaming solutions are hindered by poor compatibility between international networks.

Still, Microsoft's Sanchez says the convergence of IT and telecommunications in relation to handhelds may crack open new opportunities as telcos begin to subsidise handheld offerings via joint contracts with IT vendors.

When all is said and done, the reality remains that handhelds are still a fairly niche product. Not everyone is going to go out and develop the skills set because not every customer will be interested in it. In this case, Wong suggests channel players lean on PDA specialists until the economics balance out.

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