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Size Matters: The Smartphone Conundrum

As smartphones get smaller, usability and reliability trade-offs become inevitable. Find out whether the trade-offs are worth it.

InformationWeek Staff

January 19, 2006

4 Min Read

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 the conundrum.

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 Cingular.

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 and integration.

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