Will handhelds kill the notebook?

Will wireless PDAs kill the notebook business? Perhaps. Notebook computers could be relegated to niche uses and handhelds -- for mobile workers at least -- could become essential.

Will wireless PDAs kill the notebook business? Perhaps.

Here's an interesting example of the law of unintended consequences.

CreditSuisse First Boston wanted to enable 3000 of its investment bankers with wireless email. They contracted with Vaultus, based in New York. Vaultus, if you like, will do everything for a company, including setting up an intranet site where an employee can purchase an approved device. Vaultus then sets up the user profile, activates the device for the network, picks, packs, and ships it out to the employee, and puts him or her on a unified billing system for airtime.

In this real-world example, First Boston employees had no choice. All were given Research in Motion (RIM) Blackberry 957 handhelds, mainly because First Boston wanted its investment bankers to have remote access to email.

Now to the unintended consequences: After deploying the RIM devices, there was a dramatic drop in online charges to the company. That was a good thing. The problem was that First Boston sales executives also noticed a sudden and precipitous drop in call reports, the lifeblood of the company. First Boston has a call management application that investment bankers are supposed to log in to at the end of the day to update headquarters on customer sales, progress, and problems.

The reason for the dramatic decline in remote access was that the sales representatives stopped carrying their notebooks. If you know salespeople, you know that the call reports didn't do them much good; so once they could access their email, why would they bother with anything else?

Thus First Boston could either recall the RIM devices and insist that all employees carry their notebooks with them, or it could design a call management program that could fit on the RIM handheld.

So according to Ron Spears, president and CEO of Vaultus, First Boston came to him and asked if his company could replicate the bank's call management program on the RIM. The answer was yes, and Vaultus did. But there is a bit more to the story.

If RIM devices were Java-compliant, Spears says, they could have done it easily and inside of a week.

Unfortunately, RIM is not yet Java-compliant (more on that in a moment), so Vaultus needed to build the program in C++, which took several months. It is now in pilot at First Boston. There is an additional icon on the home page of the RIM device for the call management application. Customer contacts are stored on the device; and salespeople pull up the clients, even when not connected, fill out the templates, and push send. The RIM device will keep pinging the network without user intervention until it connects and uploads the call report.

Now back to Java, particularly Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME): This summer in London, RIM will introduce a prototype handheld that will have J2ME and run on the GPRS (General Packet Radio Services) network. GPRS, which is sometimes referred to as 2.5G (2.5-generation wireless) is built on top of the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) network, but is packet-based and thus the right technology for a RIM handheld.

This means the approximately 2.5 million Java software developers would be able to create programs for RIM handhelds. It would be even more amazing if RIMs, Pocket PCs, and Palm licensees all used J2ME applications. Then we might even have cross-compatibility of applications.

The combination of a single wireless device that can transparently access the network and give users the ability to execute programs locally would be unstoppable.

What happened at CreditSuisse First Boston might be a portent. Does it signal a forthcoming collapse in the notebook market as corporate users find fewer reasons to own anything between a handheld and a desktop?

After all, nothing is forever, Intel.

If you believe notebook computers will be relegated to niche uses and that handhelds -- for mobile workers at least -- will become essential, send me an email with examples to ephraim_schwartz@infoworld.com.

Ephraim Schwartz is an editor at large in InfoWorld's News Department. He has covered the high-tech industry for 16 years.

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