It's time for the handheld computer to grow up and go to work. While cutesy Palm and Windows CE handhelds have attracted more than their share of admiring glances, not to mention a mountain of headlines, it might well be argued that until now they have been little more than executive toys.
While handhelds were supposed to give rise to mobile workers operating out of their mobile offices, a lack of connectivity has limited the real-world application of the technology. After all, it's rather difficult to shrink that multi-gigabyte corporate database down into the 8MB footprint of many of today's handheld computers.
As such, most Australian resellers and integrators would have given little thought to expanding their areas of expertise into mobile technologies. While retailers have found handhelds to be nice little additional earners on their shelves, there have been few large corporate uptakes of handheld devices, and as a result, very little for the general channel to get excited about.
However, that might be about to change. With the increasing maturity of wireless networks, handheld computers are finally becoming connected.
Improved data transmission over wireless local area networks and wide area networks like GSM or CDMA, as well as the increasing maturity of protocols like wireless application protocol (WAP) mean that mobile computing is finally become truly mobile.
Improved development tools and server-side applications are also making corporate mobile computing more viable.
Felix Wong, managing director of Advanced Portable Technologies, a distributor specialising in mobile technologies, argues that the opportunities opening up in this area are "huge".
"I don't think that the true opportunities in this area have yet to present themselves," said Wong. "They're about to hit now, though."
Eworld Technologies is the value-added arm of Eworld, a mobile computing specialist perhaps better known for its retail division.
Gavin Maxwell, chief engineer of Eworld Technologies, said it was still a relatively difficult sell to get corporations to buy into wireless computing solutions, but it was getting easier.
"This is a very different mindset for a lot of companies - they have to think a little bit differently as an early adopter," he said.
"But it's not like we're having difficulty finding work. It's there, but I think the floodgates are well and truly about to open."
A lot of Eworld's work today involves deploying wireless local area networks in industries like distribution and retail. Manufacturers of industrial and ruggedised handhelds such as Symbol Technologies have adopted platforms like the Palm and Windows CE operating systems, allowing developers to get their hands on more popular software development kits and therefore opening up the market to a wider channel.
"We're doing a lot of work in areas like electronic point of sale, stock management and asset tracking, Maxwell said.
"One of our most recent projects was for the ShopFast online grocery company. They now have 30 handheld devices being used in their warehouse by the pickers and packers, getting real-time information about the next batch that needs to be picked and packed."
Real-time information was the key driver of wireless networked applications being deployed today, Maxwell added.
"A lot of the stuff was previously being done in batch mode, so it was all being synched at the end of the day. The problem is by midday, your information is out of date."
"So having real-time access back to the database at the coal face means the system can check everything is happening at the right place and as a result you give the users better control, you have greater accuracy and reduce the number of errors."
A survey conducted by the Wireless LAN Alliance found that 97 per cent of users either strongly agree or agree that their wireless LAN contributed to the speed in which they completed a task requiring real-time or near real-time access to information.
The same report also reported very impressive return-on-investment figures. Across all industries surveyed, the wireless LAN paid for itself in less than 12 months. Solid standards for wireless networking and faster performing networks meant that wireless networks were both driving down costs and improving productivity.
The report also found that:
- 89 per cent of companies experienced a successful implementation - 92 per cent of respondents believe there is a definite economic and business benefit after installation - 92 per cent of respondents reported that they will continue to deploy a wireless technology in their network through 2000 because of the benefits experienced by end users and/or IT staff.
The industries that were mostly likely to deploy handheld solutions based on a wireless LAN were healthcare, manufacturing/warehouse, production/ maintenance/repair industries, retail and finance.
While mobile applications based on wireless LANs are proven and relatively broadly deployed across a number of industries, expect to now see significant growth in solutions based on wireless wide area networks, said Stuart Palmer, general manager of mobile data services.
"If you have a look at areas like office automation or field service these are industries we think are ready to move into wireless on the back of wireless wide area networks," he said.
"Look at field service which has previously relied very heavily on pagers. We think they will increasingly use GSM-based applications to replace their pages.
"While technicians were previously able to accept messages via their pages, they will now be able to respond to those messages, hit their parts database or their fix database, enter orders and evoke an invoice, basically eliminating all paper work."
Technologies like WAP made it far simpler to transmit data across wireless networks like GSM and CDMA which had been designed for voice carriage, he said. As a result, carriers like Vodafone were now aggressively scouting for partners who were able to deliver value-added services and custom developed applications that ran across their wireless infrastructures.
"We're very keen to talk to potential partners," said Palmer. "Vodafone is an organisation that provides network products and services - our core competency is not in developing end-user applications.
"So for us, the marriage between ourselves and mobile technology systems integrators and development houses is exactly what we are looking for."
Palmer said Vodafone would help its partners understand the ins and out of its network as well as the various complexities of mobile data.
According to Eworld's Maxwell, mobile applications running over wireless WANs have been possible for some time using networks like Telstra's Mobile Data network.
"That has been available for some six years and has primarily been used by both the taxi and the mining industries, however it hasn't been generally picked up because of cost considerations," he said.
The GSM market with its much broader coverage and the emergence of WAP greatly opened up the wireless market, he said.
"A lot of people, in particular the carriers, are pushing the WAP standard, but really I think what WAP is going to do is give people a taste for how they can access data from a small device like a handheld or their mobile phone,"Maxwell said.
"It's not the end game, however - it's more of a leg up that will make consumers aware of what is possible before technologies like GPRS are introduced."
While GSM is restricted to 96Kbps, GPRS operates at up to 115Kbps, speeds equivalent to an ISDN fixed line.
"Once you have that kind of bandwidth, really the sky's the limit to what you will be able to achieve," he said. "A lot of the stuff that we are going to see in 12 to 18 months time, we haven't even imagined today," Maxwell said.
Vodafone's Palmer said that, as the speed of wireless networks improve, it would increasingly open up opportunities to a broader channel.
"The greater the bandwidth, the less integration that is needed because you can reuse more of your existing applications and that is going to make it easier for more resellers to play in this market."
A lot of consumer-based WAP applications are already being deployed that allow users to do things like check on stock quotes and transfer money between bank accounts. Maxwell said these innovations would inevitably lead to a broader adoption of the technology in the corporate arena as well.
"If you have a look at the uptake of Palm devices, you had a lot of guys walking into a retail store and buying them as basically a personal organiser, but then they go back to the office and think about how they could use it in their business."
"I think you'll see the same thing happen with wireless applications. As it is accepted as a consumer tool, it will spark a lot of thinking about how it can be used to improve business."
Another feature of WAP was that it made the choice of platform less important. While handheld operating system makers like Palm Computing, Microsoft with its CE platform and Psion continue to slug it out for supremacy, WAP works across all platforms.
It's not just improved standards that are making mobile technologies more accessible to the channel. Tools vendors like Aether and Avante are now hitting the markets with products that make it far easier to give mobile users relatively seamless access to backend databases and systems.
"Our business is centred on mobile computing and we have been looking for years for the right products that would enable resellers to take a handheld solution to their corporate customer and it's only in the last three or four months that such products have come to market," said APT's Felix Wong.
APT distributes the ScoutSynch server-solution from Aether Software which allows handheld devices like the Palm computer or a Windows CE palmtop to connect to a corporation's backend systems. The system uses "conduits", many of which have been pre-developed for popular server platforms like Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange or which can be custom developed, to allow handheld devices to connect and synchronise with these systems. Another product called ScoutWeb strips out all the graphics and excess formatting from HTML pages so they can easily be viewed on handheld Internet browsers.
"So any corporation with an intranet can immediately allow that information to be accessed via handheld computers without any reprogramming," Wong said.
"What these products do is remove a lot of the complexity allowing more resellers to offer their customers mobile solutions. It requires some scripting of course, which is good because there is that services revenue there, but it is not impossible, as many past solutions have been. It really allows your customer to dip their toe as far into the mobile water as they want."
According to Maxwell, this is exactly what a lot of customers are doing right now - testing the waters. He said it was often a necessity to take prototype solutions to customers so that they could play with the technology. He said resellers that wanted to play in this field needed to skill up, but warned that because it was a relatively new field there aren't the skills out in the general market and as a result it was pretty much "learn as you go".
No doubt, however, those resellers who can position themselves in the right markets, with the right partners and the right solutions, will be extremely well positioned as the inevitable explosion of wireless mobile applications occurs.