Handhelds Call for New Enterprise Thinking

It's time to start thinking of handhelds in a whole new way, writes Peter Coffee.

Wireless connections are changing the shape of our IT universe, shifting the handheld computer from satellite to center. Its increasingly common for new information, not just brief e-mail but substantial documents, to come to our handhelds first. As a result, we must redesign whats around us—displays, printers and other connections—to accept output from a variety of wireless devices and give those devices the software support they need to fulfill their expanding role.

Printing, for example, is something handhelds havent had much need to do, until now. If you received an electronic document on your PC, whether on a CD or via e-mail, you could print it right then or transfer it to your handheld. The latter was, in effect, an alternate output device.

When the handheld originates information or does substantial processing of data to increase its value, theres a greater need for handheld users to have printing and document management tools. For example, a retail associate might get into a conversation with a customer, in which its clear the customer is open to up-selling. He or she might be persuaded to buy a home theater rather than just a larger TV or to remodel a kitchen rather than just replace an appliance. Additional information, packaged in direct response to the customers questions and concerns, could be summoned via a wireless handheld device and printed at a nearby output station. The resulting improvement in content and speed creates a potent tool for the salesperson.

A real estate agent could lend a client a handheld device, with an embedded camera, before visiting several houses. At the end of the session, the printer in the agents car could generate a hard-copy report on which houses were seen, along with their key facts and figures, and include the pictures the client took of each propertys memorable points.

Doing this requires real printing tools such as those in the Mobile Printing Software Development Kit for Pocket PC, released last month by Hewlett-Packard at a trade show in Switzerland. HPs packages give Pocket PC developers native and .Net support for discovering, selecting and configuring printers via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or infrared links; the resulting handheld platform handles multidocument jobs and supports many standard formats for documents and images. More details are at www.hpdevelopersolutions.com/mobile. I like the direction in which this is going.

Ultimately, I dont want to have to carry a laptop PC or even a lighter-weight notebook just to have access to a full-size screen and keyboard. I want to have something that might be considered a cross between a full-function PDA and an Apple iPod, with the latter already moving in that direction. In addition to tens of gigabytes of storage and a suite of basic organizer and business communication tools, I want a wireless facility that identifies nearby resources such as printers, fax nodes and Internet gateways. To complete the picture, Id also like to see null clients—devices with keyboards, screens, Internet connections and wireless connections—to complement devices like the one that Id be carrying.

Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy makes a persuasive case that all you should have to carry is an authentication token and that your entire personal IT portfolio of data, open documents and active applications should be available at any terminal once it knows who you are. Unlike me, Scotts in a position to sell you his idea, literally, under the brand Sun Ray. You can get the whole story at www.sun.com/sunray/whitepapers.

I prefer something a little more fault-tolerant, something with enough high-speed local storage and processing power to maintain encrypted copies of things when I want to know exactly where they are and be sure that only I can change them. The File Vault feature of Apples Mac OS X 10.3, the "Panther" release that came out at the end of last month, is a welcome step in that direction.

Its a bad idea to squeeze the desktop PC experience into a handheld. Wireless connectivity and the right software can give us something different—and much better.

Technology Editor Peter Coffees e-mail address is peter_coffee@ziffdavis.com.