Smart phone still waiting in the wings

A lot of companies have bet a lot of money on the eventual success of a new category of wireless devices, which have come to be known as smart phones-or, more recently, as net phones

How long will it be before Web-via-mobile phone is commonplace?
As yet, little support.

Dan Sweeney

A lot of companies have bet a lot of money on the eventual success of a new category of wireless devices, which have come to be known as smart phones-or, more recently, as net phones. Because features and functionality tend to differ considerably from one device to another, the category eludes precise definition. One can only say that a smart phone is a device that combines the functions of a mobile or cordless phone with some measure of computing capabilities.

Initially, the term applied to a mobile phone that could receive and store text messages. But because that capability is now ubiquitous among digital mobile phones, the smart-phone nomenclature is more apt to be applied to mobile telephones with built-in Web browsers, and, in an expanded definition, to those relatively few devices that incorporate the more extended functionality of a Palm computer.

Multiple operating systems

Interestingly, the combination mobile phone/personal digital assistant (PDA) represents the older approach and has been embodied for the past three years in the Nokia 9000 Communicator series, and more recently in the Qualcomm PDQ phones, which include a fully functional PalmPilot. The Nokia phones are based on the little-used Psion operating system, while the PalmPilot employs an operating system that is entirely proprietary to 3Com, the company that currently owns the PalmPilot design. Thus far, no one manufactures a smart phone with PDA capabilities based upon the popular Windows CE platform.

Despite the power and flexibility of the Nokia and Qualcomm units, neither has found much acceptance at the enterprise level. Rather, consumers and individual business users form the principal market for the phones. Whether the relatively high cost of such phones is the chief obstacle to their acceptance by information-technology (IT) departments or PDAs in general are achieving relatively slow penetration among business organizations, the true computing phone has few advocates as yet in the business world.

The browser phone is a more rudimentary device based on a thin client architecture and is intended to access the World Wide Web through a specialized wireless Internet portal maintained either by the carrier or the enterprise. The limited display resolution and throughput rates of mobile phones make a normal connection to the Internet impractical. What is needed instead is a specially configured server that can compress and cache content and eliminate graphics and streaming media. Such devices are available, and virtually all on the market today conform to the Wireless Applications Protocol (WAP).

Browser phones lack the large pen-based displays of the PDQ phones and the full QWERTY keyboards of the Nokia Communicators, nor do they have the memory or processing power to store programs and files as do the PDA hybrids. But they can execute Web-based applications, functioning almost as dumb terminals.

Economic appeal

The fact that the WAP thin client does not require a powerful and costly CPU and can instead use the server to run applications has made the WAP phones more attractive to cost-conscious IT departments than the older PDA phones. Indeed, the browser phones are beginning to appear in such field applications as route delivery and fleet sales and maintenance where they are starting to replace the older, bulkier, ruggedized terminals in instances where extensive report generation and transaction processing are not required. WAP phones typically cost a fraction of the price of mobile data terminals, and they allow low-cost voice communications, as well. Where short messaging is to be combined with dispatch and mobile phone service, they provide an excellent solution.

Nevertheless, Web-based business applications designed around the mobile connection are in short supply, and the display limitations and lack of effective two-way messaging over the phones make them ill-suited in applications where lengthy upstream data communications are required. In certain vertical markets, powerful two-way pager/communicators such as the RIM device continue to enjoy an advantage.

The coming of high-speed third-generation (3G) networks will surely lead to the development of a new breed of smart phones that can take advantage of the ability of networks to deliver large quantities of data quickly. One can assume voice activation and voice recognition will begin to come to the fore to provide a more responsive interface. Displays are apt to remain a problem, however. There's simply no way to put more than a few square inches on a pocket phone. It is also possible that the traditional mobile phone could give way to a pure PDA form factor where a speaker phone is substituted for a handset. Manufacturers are already examining such concepts.

Mention should also be made of smart phones for in-building use. Spectralink makes phones with messaging capabilities, and Symbol has a product called the DataPhone, which combines a wireless phone with a ruggedized data terminal complete with bar-code scanner. Whether this is the beginning of a trend remains to be seen.

Dan Sweeney is technical columnist for Wireless Integration, another PennWell publication.

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