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Mobile Strategies

Handheld and Goliath

By Dominic Giangrasso
June 1999, issue 28

Once again, in researching our utility issue, it has become apparent that the platforms of choice have not changed much. The utility industry has long been in the mobile computing market-since the early days of Grid Systems in the late 1980s. Utility IT folks and their business leaders know what they want and need. Heck, I even repeat the mantra when I am around other utility folks who want to talk field computing.

It starts with the war stories. You know, those anecdotes about embattled field workers who use their portables as hammers, paper weights, coffee holders, and self defense weapons. Mobile utility computers often bear the scars and teeth marks (some quite literally) of real world operation. And so the first hallmark of the mantra is ruggedness, usually of the military spec variety.

Once we pay for the survivability, we go for sheer power and speed. We have been used to running high-powered desktop and laptop applications for years, so we expect nothing less out of field-based war machines. We seek out the fastest CPUs and the largest hard drives and we reason that this will justify our costly expenditures to do everything. Everything from the initial application we have planned to any future one we might imagine.

The power (no pun intended) we seek is in part driven by techno lust, but is very heavily influenced by our required software environment. Windows 95 and 98 with their Pen for Windows overlay are the kings of the hill. Most utility companies have been building their IT environments around Microsoft's products to such an extent that few look past Windows APIs when they build their applications.

While color is king in the desktop and laptop markets, utilities and manufacturers have been very careful while deploying color. Utilities are beginning to demand color in greater numbers than ever and are having to deal with the negative affect it has on mobile battery life. Color and readability both indoors and out place such demands on battery life that most manufacturers maintain monochrome units for the discriminating buyer unwilling to impact run time.

While on the topic of power, utility companies demand that mobile computers are capable of running for an entire shift. Though all agree that an eight-hour human shift may only equate to a few hours of operational computer time, it is an assumption that may be breaking down today.

Indeed, as mobile computers learn to do more, more of the eight-hour work shift involves its use. While an old application designed for emergency repair jobs may be isolated to just that, today we might expect the worker to also use the mobile system to access a contact list, task list, and even corporate email and procedures. Suddenly, larger chunks of the eight hours are actually spent using a computer.

So we have bullet proof super computers, which are easy for our coders to program, but they struggle to work during our increasingly longer shifts. The winners to date have been pen tablet PCs running the latest versions of Windows. Manufacturers are now building them with the latest Pentium CPUs, largest disk drives, and brightest color LCDs.

Next Generation
However, a new generation of machines was born a few years ago, and after a few years of growth is beginning to be recognized by even us tough utility folks. Handheld computers are coming of age in capability and downright usefulness, and their prices are very appealing.

Their first few entries didn't exactly address the ruggedness that utility folks demand, but someone pointed out that you could lose several handhelds and still not match the cost of one of the super tablets. Suddenly, bulletproof ruggedability was a little less important among the ranks of the deregulation weary and the cost conscious.

Still, a flock of new units are now being offered by the front runners in the tablet market. The new machines seem to show that they realize the impact the handheld market will have on them without comparable products. They have even taken to imparting their trademarked ruggedness to the new units. Once we see the new prices, we'll be able to tell if they have simultaneously killed the handheld's inherent price advantage.

In the areas of power and speed, the handheld devices represented by the Palm and Windows CE product lines still leave a bit to be desired. However, project managers are taking a refreshing look at new mobile applications. They have realized that small quick surgical strikes at mobile enabling technologies are better than mega projects.

In keeping with this new view, managers are looking for devices that do the job now, not five years in the future. This approach helps limit the scope of projects to short time frames with much more reachable goals. The process also acknowledges that, in that five-year range, the technologies will change so much that almost anything we buy now will be inadequate then.

The quick and small surgical strikes also help to gradually deploy technology in less intimidating forms. After all, the typical targets of mobile technology are those whose closest contact with a computer is an ATM machine. Hence, a Palm IIIx is a lot less intimidating than a US$5,000 tablet PC, and more likely to be accepted.

On the application development side of things, environments such as the Palm OS can be addressed with available developer kits. Likewise, the growing segment of Windows CE platforms (PPC, HPC, and HPC Pro) and their Windows APIs give the classic Windows development shops a warm and fuzzy feeling.

This new breed of business capable handhelds also breaks the utility barrier of the proverbial shift. Eight to sixteen hours, or even several days, of continuously usable operating life without the benefit of a 345kV supply feeder means real-world usability unlike ever before. Mobile computers can now go places unheard of as little as five years ago.

So move over big boys, there is strong competition in the mobile computing market. The challenger is ready for battle and the fun is only now beginning. Now, what was the story about a giant and a slingshot?

Dominic Giangrasso can be reached via e-mail at

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