Magazine Article | January 1, 2006

What You Should Know About Smartphones

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

The appeal of smartphones’ converged voice and data capabilities is undeniable, but your decision to deploy must factor in the OS and form factor.

Integrated Solutions, January 2006

If you have mobile workers, you’re probably wondering whether and how smartphones fit in your operations. This is especially true if your workers carry both PDAs and cell phones. Smartphones, as converged voice and data devices, will eliminate the need for workers to carry two devices. But there is a plethora of smartphones out there, and your decision should take into account the following factors.

Smartphones include both voice and data capabilities. They communicate via WLAN (wireless LAN) and WWAN (wireless WAN) connectivity (e.g. third-generation data networks such as CDMA [code division multiple access] and GPRS [global packet radio service]). Smartphones also accommodate cellular voice and Bluetooth connectivity. Smartphones can run a broad set of software programs, from e-mail to enterprise applications. “With smartphones, companies can turn mobile phones phones into business tools that give employees secure access to schedules and calendars, PIM [personal information management] data, e-mail, and business-critical applications and customer information,” says Scott Lingren, head of mobile device product marketing, Americas for Nokia’s enterprise solutions group. “For example, some organizations might only roll out an e-mail solution, while others might equip their mobile workers with Bluetooth-enabled RFID [radio frequency identification] readers and access to a centralized CRM [customer relationship management] database.”

The form factor of smartphones is usually small – most are the size of your hand, if not smaller. Smartphones can be in the clamshell (i.e. flips open) or candy bar (i.e. shaped like a candy bar) form factors, or a combination of both (i.e. the phone is a candy bar style vertically, but opens like a book to be turned horizontally). Not all phones have QWERTY keypads; many require text-messaging style data input on a traditional numeric keypad (the latter is usually the case with clamshell designs). “Two things characterize smartphones,” says Geoff Baird, director of seamless mobility at Motorola. “They should take data input easily, quickly, and efficiently. We’re seeing more devices come out with QWERTY keyboards. Smartphones also need to accommodate smooth navigation through onscreen applications. You’ll see multiple mechanisms for that, from stylus-based touch screens to job wheels [thumb scroll wheels embedded in the side of the device], joystick navigation, and buttons [a rectangle-shaped button that can navigate up, down, and side to side].”

The type of data that needs to be input, combined with users’ specific needs, will influence your form factor decision. For instance, if your mobile workers only need to verify data via automated forms they view onscreen, such as in a route delivery situation, you could deploy a clamshell smartphone where users navigate with a button or a thumb wheel. If users need to input more text, such as in field sales environments, you’ll want a device with a QWERTY keypad. And speaking of that keypad, it may seem odd, but you’ll have to take into account the sizes of your workers’ fingers. Some keypads’ keys are positioned more closely together than others’. You should have a selection of the employees that will be using the devices try out several different keypads while making your decision.

Smartphones are not suitable for all job functions. If your workers need to view detailed forms or capture customer signatures, traditional handheld or notebook computers will still be necessary. “For some employees in a company, a device with a large touch screen, such as a tablet computer, might be the most efficient way to get the job done,” says Baird. “However, there is also a group of employees who don’t need that functionality. They might work just fine with smaller devices like smartphones. The key factor to accommodate both needs is that the devices a company implements have common architectures that can support the same applications.”

The mobile OS available on smartphones will be an important criterion in your deployment decision as well. In fact, the OS will most likely outweigh your form factor decision, as it will determine what applications you can run on the devices. You don’t want to be committed to a form factor only to find out the phone can’t support the work you need to do, or your company’s back end application can’t be converted to work on the smartphone.

There are several mobile OSs out there, such as Microsoft Windows Mobile, Symbian OS, BlackBerry Enterprise Platform, and Palm OS. Most cell phone manufacturers align themselves with a single OS, although you will start to find one or two phones accommodating additional OSs (such as Palm, which will be offering a Windows Mobile-enabled Treo in 2006). The OS is especially important because most have a bevy of ISV (independent software vendor) partners that provide niche applications for the OS. Most applications are OS-dependent – that is, they cannot operate over a different OS than the one for which they’re designated. You’ll need to examine the available applications for a particular smartphone and the development future of that OS. Ask yourself whether it will be able to support your future needs. Do the ISVs seem geared toward enterprise applications, or do they offer more consumer-based applications?

You’ll also need to examine whether the OS supports the necessary workflow – that is, the way a user will work through applications, screens, etc. “For companies implementing smartphones, it is critical to walk through the users’ daily routines and establish how they use devices and what OS can best support the users’ needs,” says Chris Hall, director of BlackBerry solutions for Cingular Wireless. “The daily environment needs will determine the OS, application, and device you choose.”

Some OSs include a user interface and development platform, such as the Symbian OS, which is designed specifically for mobile devices. Nokia supports the platform for the Symbian OS, the S60. The S60 provides an environment where third-party developers (either ISVs or an enterprise’s administrators) can create and run applications. “The functionality, openness, and flexibility of the mobile OS and platform directly lead to the range of applications supported by the phone,” says Lingren of Nokia.

Motorola supports the Windows operating system. “We work closely with Microsoft because devices need to integrate with existing corporate environments,” says Baird. “The vast majority of server environments are built on the Microsoft platform. For the user, the environment is familiar, as it is what they use at their desks. For IT, they’re supporting a familiar environment.”