As smartphones get smaller, usability and reliability trade-offs become inevitable. Find out whether the trade-offs are worth it.
Palm's official unveiling of its Windows Mobile Treo smartphone, the
Treo 700w, at the beginning of this month made me contemplate the
current status of smartphones and their likely evolution. Overall, I'm
enthusiastic about this platform, but I have to confess that from a
productivity point of view, it's easy to invest just as much time working
with these devices as any time you will save from using them. That's
First, let's look at the some of the recent smartphone developments.
The first Windows Mobile 5 devices have now appeared. These include
the Treo 700w, available from Verizon Wireless and the PPC-6700
from Sprint, both with stylus support and small keyboards. Meanwhile,
Cingular started selling its Cingular 2125, which is based on Windows
Mobile 5 but more compact -- it uses a regular telephone keypad instead
of a stylus and keyboard. There are more Windows Mobile 5 PDAs without
phone functionality than there are with phones for the simple reason
that adding wireless to these devices is complicated, and wireless
operators have rigorous acceptance procedures. Windows Mobile 5
will have a big impact as it addresses some of the serious shortcomings
of the prior version, including volatile memory and the need for two-handed
operation with a stylus. Anyone who has spent much time with a RIM
Blackberry of Palm Treo understands the importance of one-handed
operation. The Treo 700w even shows the battery level, a reading that
required multiple steps with the Pocket PC 2003 platform. Meanwhile,
connectivity speeds are increasing with RIM Blackberrys, which now
support EDGE and EV-DO. RIM also recently released its attractive 8700
line. And PalmSource has decided to use Linux for future platform
development. Finally, the Symbian platform gets its best shot for
visibility in the United States with the Nokia 9300 being sold through
Smartphones are intriguing, as they represent efforts to concentrate the
greatest amount of computing and networking power possible in a small form
factor that is comfortable to carry. The result is tremendous capability, with
a good range of productivity or entertainment applications, such as e-mail,
Web browsing, Web applications, file access, portable documents, database
access, music, video and hundreds more (just search the online catalogs).
For most workers, smartphones can't replace a laptop, but the multitude
of features present makes it increasingly possible for many workers to use
their smartphone for short trips or other periods away from the office.
However, this level of capability also means complex computer systems
and all the associated maintenance and reliability issues. Although I'm
reasonably happy using an EDGE-capable Treo 650, I have now updated
the system software twice to newer versions as they became available.
I was glad each time, because the updates addressed various problems.
Although Palm documented the update steps clearly, these were still
complex operations that likely defeated many users. I also spent a
considerable number of hours getting Bluetooth to work for various
usage models, such as using the phone as a modem, for HotSync
and with my wireless headset. And still, on a regular basis, the phone will lose
awareness of the headset, and I have to pair the two devices again. I've
searched various support forums and have found other users with the same
problem, so I don't think it's just me. As for stability, it's not bad, but not
perfect. My device runs for about a week before I have to reset it. These are
just examples of my usage. If you want to see the scope of support issues for
these devices in general, just read the thousands of entries in the various
support forums for the different platforms.
When I add up my support time, I have to question how much further
ahead I am from a productivity point of view. From an IT perspective,
these devices must be managed; their software must be kept up-to-date
for potentially large numbers of devices, preferably through some
centralized system; and remote-access security architectures must
be updated to support smartphones, all adding up to considerable time
investments. And if you don't make these infrastructure investments,
you'll pay even more in compromised security and supporting devices
on a case-by-case basis.
Still, I see the ascendancy of the smartphone platform as inevitable.
One reason, after functionality, is that prices are dropping, with good
smartphones now available in the $200 to $300 range, putting them in
reach of a lot of people. Gartner in a July 2005 report predicted global
sales of 200 million smartphones by 2008, over 20% of all mobile phones
sold. However, unless smartphone vendors want to see an IT backlash
against these devices for wasting too much support time, they should
make sure their platforms and included applications are as stable as
possible. It took quite a few releases of Microsoft Windows before it
finally became reasonably stable with Windows 2000 and Windows XP.
After this long painful experience, IT and user tolerance for system
instability has gone down, so let's make sure we don't have to repeat
this process with smartphones.
Peter Rysavy is the president of Rysavy Research, a consulting firm that specializes in wireless technology assessment
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