Mobile computing: PC redux?

Mobile computing: PC redux?

Mobile computing has some growing up to do if it is to have serious enterprise appeal. That was the consensus at an Intel event aimed at fostering discussion about how best to address the nascent enterprise mobile computing market.

Improving interoperability between the bewildering number of mobile computing devices and enterprise software from companies such as Oracle and SAP was a key issue for attendees, many of whom represented software companies that were developing middleware to connect laptops and personal digital assistants (PDAs) with enterprise software.

"As long as you have proprietary vertical interoperability, nothing grows," said W.S. "Ozzie" Osborne, the vice-president of alliances and operations with IBM's Pervasive Computing division, at the Mobilised Software Occasion in San Francisco.

Despite the software integration challenges ahead, many attendees found reasons to be hopeful about growth prospects in the enterprise for mobile phones, PDAs, laptops and Tablet PCs.

Microsoft vice-president of office program management, Antoine Leblond, predicted that there wouls be more than 100 million mobile workers in the US by 2006.

The fact that 20,000 Wi-Fi hotspots have now been installed in the US is an indication of mobile computing's growing importance, according to the general manager of Intel's Software and Solutions Group, William Swope. Growth in the laptop market, which was expanding at 30 per cent per year, was also encouraging, he said.

"There are very few legal markets that are growing at 30 per cent per year," he said.

Another promising sign is the new generation of mobile processors, such as Arm's ARM9, which will have up to 15 times the performance of its predecessor. The ARM9 chip, along with Intel's XScale processors, will open up mobile devices to many new kinds of applications.

Distinguished engineer, Benoit Schillings, said that the mobile phone industry was looking at the same kinds of problems that the PC industry addressed as processor performance increased in the early 1980's, starting with a poor user experience.

Making user interfaces easier to use would be critical if the industry wanted to transform mobile phones into information devices, he said. While most mobile phones today include advanced features such as Web browsing, they are not designed in such a way that customers intuitively know how to use all of their capabilities.

"Basically, people don't know how to use their cell phones," he said. "They think of the cell phone as a device they use to make phone calls." Schillings predicted that faster processors will lead to more capabilities like faster scrolling, better image manipulation and better "predictive input," where the handset can accurately guess the function the user is most likely to want next.

But greater processing power creates new problems for mobile devices. As it becomes more common to download software to mobile devices like handsets the industry will have to pay more attention to security, he said.

There is also a risk that processor power could be growing too quickly, chief systems architect with middleware vendor Aventeon, Krishanu Seal, said.

"It's actually a double-edged sword," he said "Battery technology is not advancing as fast as Moore's law."

Seal pointed to a handful of consumer PDAs running Aventeon's software.

He said that because of processor-intensive features like wireless networking, they only last a few hours on battery power.

The battery problem was just one of many that the mobile computing industry faced as it tried to switch gears and become a supplier of enterprise products, said J.R. Bibb, an innovation advisor with a large petroleum company who was one of the few customers attending the event.

After years of focus on the consumer space, tougher economic conditions hadforced mobile computing companies to shift their focus back to the enterprise, and that translated into experimentation as companies searched for ways to apply consumer technology to the enterprise demands, he said.

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