People’s ability to keep in touch and get information from anywhere is an assumed part of business these days. That’s helping to fuel demand for applications for mobile phones and PDAs.
Despite the hype of WAP three years ago inevitably leading to market disappointment, SMS (short message service) has come along in its wake as a viable application vehicle.
Auckland-based Datasquirt is an SMS developer with six staff in New Zealand, three of whom are programmers, and one in the UK.
Examples of its work include TextCode, which lets Pizza Hut customers place orders using SMS text messages; MovieTimes, which lets people find out what movies are showing and where; and a Vodafone Live application which shows traffic conditions via a camera at Auckland’s “spaghetti junction” motorway interchange. The applications reside on a Datasquirt-built messaging engine connected to the internet and the two cellular networks.Datasquirt CTO Mark Loveys (pictured) jokes that the mobile apps market isn’t as big as ERP “but it’s getting there”. He says the SMS market is potentially very lucrative with the large number of handsets in circulation and the advent of the Vodafone Live platform, which he describes as a modern progression of WAP. It’s still just a matter of coming up with the sought-after “killer app”.
He admits the WAP market was overhyped a couple of years ago, especially as the handsets available weren’t up to people’s expectations.
“They have improved a lot but are still overhyped in my opinion.”
Loveys, who created the local accounting package exo-net, says developing for the mobile phone is very different to developing for the PC.
While all Windows PCs operate similarly under common rules, mobile phones differ vastly in how each model handles data formats for ring tones and graphics. This is improving with the introduction of Symbian and Java-based phones, but the majority of phones in use today have little standardisation. This is the main reason Datasquirt has focused on developing its applications on a Windows-based messaging engine rather than developing handset-specific applications.
Datasquirt uses Borland’s Delphi and Microsoft tools for web development. Loveys says there’s no shortage of people with these skills, but not many are skilled in mobile-
specific technologies such as MMS (multimedia messaging service), and SMPP (short message peer-to-peer).
He says developers don’t get a lot of help from tools vendors that is specific to mobile technologies. “Borland and Microsoft are always helpful, but we learn most of what we know from our own research and experimentation.”
Auckland-based Amtrax develops applications for the transport sector and made a foray into the WAP world when the technology was launched several years ago. Amtrax developed and sold WAP products to several clients and built trade-specific applications such as one which allowed car dealers to track the delivery status of vehicles by entering the vehicle VIN or registration number. The phone would then display the current location of the vehicle.
Despite these early efforts, Amtrax’s Jon Donald says for his line of business the mobile phone platform is definitely not lucrative.
“In hindsight, I think we developed solutions for perceived problems and used the hype of new technology to sell these applications. The initial systems suffered from the usual issues of technology — lack of speed and reliability as well as the extreme limitation of a very small screen display size.”
He says phones are getting better — screens are larger and faster — but are still not good enough and the cost is still high.
“A transport company with 100 trucks baulks at the cost of supplying a large screen WAP phone to each driver. It’s an outlay of $100,000. In addition, most companies need to resolve fundamental administrative procedures first, without worrying about refining data capture from a relatively unsophisticated field operative.
Nobody seriously expects a truck driver to carry around a PDA and a phone. “The current phones still have poor display,” he says. “Often drivers are older with poor eyesight and can’t view the screen in poor lighting conditions. We are continually being asked to make the text on delivery dockets large for this reason.”
Having noted these issues, Donald says there will always be niche markets for specific applications.
The PDA platform, meanwhile, continues to grow, helped along by the strong competition between the Palm Pilot and Windows-based devices.
Auckland-based Software Etc develops customised software solutions for businesses, often integrating PDA mobile data capture with back office modules for reporting.
Palm-based systems it has built include RepMinder, used by grocery suppliers; PharmaMinder, which is used in the pharmacy trade; and an asset tracking system which interfaces with back office systems called AssetMinder.
Software Etc’s John Shaw says a large business market exists for handheld systems that communicate effectively with back office systems. Businesses are becoming more aware of the possibilities, he says, and acceptance of PDA technology is growing.
“The key ingredient for this market is being able to communicate data both to and from head office easily. The advantage of Palm-type devices for a sales rep is portability, as many situations and work environments rule out the use of a laptop or tablet PC.”
Shaw agrees the introduction of a host of Windows-based PDAs is a challenge to Palm’s success but he sees devices such as the Kyocera Smartphone, a mobile phone with the Palm OS embedded, giving the platform an exciting future development path.
For PDA development Shaw uses Satellite Forms from Puma Technology. PumaTech runs an internet site where third-party products are advertised.
Satellite Forms is extensible with user-written functions, a catalogue of which appears on the site. A Satellite Forms user group (SatForms@yahoogroups.com) answers questions posted by developers. He develops back-office solutions for the Windows platform using a development tool built inhouse called VBTamer.
“As with all development tools there is a learning curve and the developer has to become absolutely familiar with the tools chosen, so the strengths and weaknesses are known. Patience is required and an ability to get inside the tools to be able to structure your design to maximise use of the strengths of the tool.”
When comparing Palm with Windows-based platforms Shaw says traditional development skills, namely the effective management of minimal memory, is required.
“This may make if tough for developers who have relied on Windows-style resources being available.”
Auckland-based IT Link develops exclusively for the PDA market. It has a core business based around two off-the-shelf offerings — SalesLink Mobile for sales force automation and StockLink, a stock-take application used by retailers and distribution companies. The company also does a small amount of custom development.
IT Link sales director Luigi Cappel says the PDA market is potentially very large and is growing rapidly. He believes that in certain sectors of distribution, particularly fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), it will become the standard way to do business.
However, as with mobile-specific applications, it’s often hard for IT Link to find skilled staff and most are taught inhouse.