Maturing technology and wireless connectivity could see 1999 become the year of the handheld computer.
At least half a dozen local developers are working on applications for handheld devices that incorporate wireless functionality. Auckland-based Strategic Business Innovations has specialised in handheld technology for five years and develops software for vertical markets including field sales and service and community health. SBI managing director Scott Wattie says in the past two years wireless technology has become better integrated with handheld computers and he sees a lot of the necessary components coming together in 1999. He says exciting developments next year include the delivery of the wireless application protocol (WAP), a standard for the transmitting high-bandwidth wireless data. In the past, a number of mobile phone manufacturers have come up with protocols for transferring data over wireless networks but the need to comply to three or four standards discouraged application development and threatened to cause market segmentation.
WAP version 1.0 works with most major network types including GSM (global systems for mobile communications) and CDMA (code division multiple access) and was developed with input from the group's 40 or so members. WAP-compliant products are expected by the end of next year.
Even closer are devices that adhere to the Blue Tooth protocol, which will enable mobile devices and PCs to automatically synchronise when their owners enter their offices. Unlike current wireless infrared technology, Blue Tooth won't need line of site between devices. The final Blue Tooth specification version 1.0 is scheduled for public release during the second quarter of 1999 and the first products will be announced during the second half of 1999. Early Blue Tooth-enabled products are expected to include mobile computers, handheld PCs, digital cellular phones and peripherals such as printers, projectors, PC Cards and hands-free headsets. Network access points will also be available to facilitate access to LANs and WANs.
Further integration between handhelds and wireless will come with the launch next year of version 3.0 of the Windows CE operating system, which incorporates a lot more wireless functionality.
With the strengthening of their wireless communications component, handhelds are starting to move out of the traditional PC distribution channel and into the mobile channel. It's a move which pleases Wattie, who has been disappointed with the lack of handheld knowledge among the PC reseller community.
"We're starting to push down the cellular channels rather than computing channels," he says.
This is backed up by Luigi Cappel of Symbol (a Palm Pilot with built-in barcode scanner) distributor Computer Enhancements Portable Technology. "A large number of cellular data carriers are now looking at selling solutions in partnership with software dealers. The handheld device is now being seen more as a communications device than as a computer."
Cappel says a benefit of the handheld device is that it works with any kind of wireless technology.
"There are lots of different ways to connect, such as over Telecom's AirData service which uses CDPD (cellular digital packet data) technology or through a variety of GSM phones, through a landline or through a PC. Most of the solutions don't care what the communications method is."
One CDPD product which has Cappel particularly excited is the Minstrel, by Novatel Wireless, due to be distributed in New Zealand early next year by Christchurch-based Insite Technology.
The Minstrel is a CDPD modem for the 3Com Palm Pilot and IBM WorkPad (manufactured by 3Com) which is like a portable cradle.
"With products like this coming, I think we will see quite a radical change in the way people handle computing out in the field. Consider a Palm Pilot, printer, phone and software — that whole solution will probably cost the same as a notebook with nothing on it, and yet it will be more portable," says Cappel.
Aaron Judson of Ericsson's new business unit, Ericsson wireless Internet, says next year instead of having handheld computers merely talking to cellular phones, they will become communicators in their own right. He is also excited about forthcoming technologies from the WAP and Blue Tooth initiatives and another Ericsson venture, Symbian.
Symbian is a joint venture with Nokia, Motorola and Psion which rallies around developing Psion's EPOC 32 operating system as a standard for handheld communication devices. These will look much like mobile phones but will also offer Internet access and run specialised applications.
Meanwhile, Microsoft has plans to team with Qualcomm in a venture aimed at getting a version of its Windows CE operating system into such devices.
At the same time, local developers are working on the handheld applications that can take advantage of wireless technology. Auckland-based Creata Nova is specialising in field service apps which transmit data over CDPD; Christchurch-based Holliday Group is developing solutions for the sales, services and courier industries; and Auckland-based Genie Systems has developed a Web-based solution for sales and service.