Developers Hold Platform Futures in Their Hands

Peter Coffee: Development for handheld platforms should accelerate as better dev tools emerge.

Of all the surprising events to find at a glitzy Hollywood resort, the i-comm trade show would have to be one of the most incongruous. What could be less glamorous than industrial handheld computers?

Even so, this conference (hosted last month by Intermec Technologies Corp.) was just one of several recent events that should draw developers attention to such devices. Handhelds are quickly becoming more powerful, better connected, and better supported as enterprise application platforms.

On the hardware side, Intermec officials took the opportunity to show off their latest Model 700 handheld, the 700 Color, with up to three flavors of wireless connection (802.11b, Bluetooth, and GSM/GPRS or CDMA/1xRTT WAN) in a single device. Designed for a 5-foot fall to a concrete floor, and sealed against rain or dust, this is no executive-suite PDA—and its Pocket PC operating system opens it to mainstream software tools and skills.

Intermecs manager of software tools, Brian Kristiansen, holds a position thats new to the company: His job is to balance what he called the "knowledge-worker-centric" nature of Pocket PC against the demands of "workforce" computing—again, his term, so dont blame me if you dont like the implication that people at desks arent really working. Pocket PC, said Kristiansen, is "not network-friendly. Its resource-constrained. It has volatile storage: Resetting a Pocket PC is like FORMAT C: on a desktop."

Developers for handheld clients, said Kristiansen at the i-comm event, are on the cusp of having breakthrough tools that will greatly ease their tasks: "Its like the transition from Windows 3.x to Windows 9x," he amplified. "The tools werent quite there yet. Thats where we are with Pocket PC." I have previously observed that mobile handhelds are the under-the-radar Big Thing in Microsofts .Net strategy, and Kristiansens overview of tool and framework strategies for Intermec bears out both his own and Microsofts projections.

Id be even more impressed if Intermec didnt seem to be willing to let Microsoft define so much of its future: Even its Web site, as I write this, renders badly in Opera while urging viewers to use Internet Explorer. Sorry, but I dont approve. I was much more comfortable with the deliberate platform agnosticism that I encountered at the Borland conference in Anaheim—literally across the street from Disneyland—during the same week as Intermecs event, and as described in my eWEEK column today (which may not be visible on our Web site until later this week—if so, my apologies for the delay).

Borland, as announced last week, is making its own moves into the embedded space with its acquisition of embedded tools provider Highlander Engineering Inc.—leading me to wonder if theres any connection with that other Highlander tale, and its motto of "There can be only one." Just so long as I dont see developers carrying swords, along with their handhelds, at the next conference that I attend.

E-mail me and tell me what youre doing with workforce handhelds.