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The Many Guises of Mobile Computing

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Human existence is inherently mobile for a variety of reasons. From the Brownian motion of the tiniest atom to the awesome power of the space shuttle, planet Earth is on the move! While any number of species can outrun, outswim, and outmaneuver human beings, we’ve been able to improve on our inferior physical mobility by using our intelligence—the one trait that makes us unique. This intellectually acquired mobility has made us the most powerful species on the planet. We’ve harnessed the power first of other animals, then of machines, to speed us to our goals. From the chariots of Rome to the 747, we have continuously improved our physical mobility, but it’s been a scant hundred years since we seriously started improving our mental mobility. Starting with the telegraph, we’ve seen an electronic revolution in the last 100 years that has had an impact on almost every aspect of our lives—especially on our jobs.

The most unique and potentially disruptive characteristic of IT is its inherent evolutionary speed. While few employees could be called “mobile” workers a few years ago, most current estimates indicate that 40 to 50 percent of today’s workers are mobile in one way or another. Because of this, we are once again experiencing a new evolutionary step in computing. A critical factor in the success of a modern business is empowering employees with the information they need to do their jobs, regardless of their physical location. Computing has moved from the computer room to distributed PCs, extranets, and, now, the next logical step in global information processing: mobile computing. Although mobile computing is a moving target and hard to pin down, in this article, I’m going to show you where mobile computing technology fits in today and possibly scare you with a look at where it’s going to be in two or three years.

In Today’s World, Kansas Is Where You Want It to Be

First the telegraph, then the radio and telephone, extended our ability to communicate over long distances. While cable and satellite television, cellular phones, and, of course, the Internet have become commonplace means of communication, handheld computers, or personal digital assistants (PDAs), and portable transaction computers (PTCs) are pushing the mobile computing envelope even further. PDAs, exemplified by the PalmPilot and

various Windows CE handheld devices, are growing in numbers, capabilities, and industry acceptance. IBM has greatly increased its wireless PTC product line and is committed to wireless computing on the AS/400. (See www.as400.ibm.com/wireless/ main.htm.)

With the recent explosion of smaller and more powerful computing devices, we are standing on the same kind of precipice we were on when affordable PCs were introduced into the corporate IT equation in the early 1990s. IBM has dubbed this new era of mobility pervasive computing, but whatever moniker we pin on this transition to mobility, we IT professionals are tasked with understanding the different mobile computing technologies and choosing the right mobile strategy for our organizations. In the last few years, the AS/400 has shed its reputation as a proprietary legacy machine. Version 4 of OS/400 is ripe with potential mobile computing solutions. Go on—keep repeating “There’s no place like home,” because home is going to be wherever you want it to be.

The Many Methods of Mobility

While there are many ways to implement mobile computing, the ultimate goal of every mobile strategy is twofold: both to allow mobile workers to access and update corporate data and to maintain real-time communications with fellow workers.

Mobile computing has evolved in several strategic directions, which I like to break down into three technologies:

• Laptop computers and PDAs that can automatically synchronize themselves in a two-way conversation with their corporate big brothers over a wired connection

• Wireless handheld PDAs and PTCs that can communicate with other computers using a variety of operating systems

• Wireless devices designed for use with satellite technologies For the purpose of this article, I’m going to treat the traditional off-site workers—those who use the Internet or leased lines to work from satellite offices or home (my own modus operandi)—as remote rather than mobile personnel.

Although the laptop computer is a relatively new technology even compared to the average PC, it represents the oldest form of mobile computing. You can carry it with you to every corner of the globe. As long as you can find a working phone line or public Internet connection (which is becoming quite common), you can connect to your AS/400 to upload and download information on the go.

Laptops are becoming smaller, lighter, more powerful, and, most important, less expensive. For example, IBM’s new line of PC companions, represented by the WorkPad z50 (a descendant of the ThinkPad line), are basically thin-client laptops selling for under $1,000. Designed as mobile extensions to traditional PCs, these thin-client laptops, weighing less than three pounds, could eventually replace much of the traditional laptop market and provide mobile workers with what amounts to a rather large PDA. For now, laptops have an important place in mobile computing and provide a cost-effective solution for updating corporate data remotely.

Lotus Notes/Domino and Microsoft Exchange are powerful tools that can be used in this scenario to replicate information and collaborate with fellow workers using advanced messaging and calendaring functions. Domino Runtime Services, announced in June 1999, is a particularly robust technology that uses a self-installing (from Domino R5) set of ActiveX and Netscape plug-ins that allow mobile workers to work on the road and automatically synchronize both data and application logic when they reconnect to the corporate server. (See “Piloting the AS/400” in this issue of MC.)

PDAs, which are growing in variety and number, come in different shapes and sizes and primarily use two different operating systems: Palm OS and Microsoft CE. As more reliable, powerful, and cost-effective PDAs make their way into the corporate world, IT managers are confronting new challenges in making strategically sound decisions on mobile computing. Currently, most PDAs use a wired connection to access and

synchronize information on the handheld device, with corporate data on PCs and midrange computers.

The key to using PDAs effectively in the corporate environment lies in the specialized software that connects the mobile user to the corporate database and allows twoway transfer of data. Because 3Com/Palm Computing’s (www.palm.com) personal organizers had a head start over Windows CE-based PDAs, Palm Computing currently has the lion’s share of developers working on software for its Palm OS. For example, Advance Systems’ (www.asl.com) ASL-Connect 2.1, a leading application for mobile computing, allows both Palm OS and Windows CE to synchronize with any ODBC, Microsoft Exchange, or Notes database. However, Globalware Computing’s (www.globalware.com) Pylon ServerSync, a powerful Notes-centric suite of applications, runs only under Palm OS. Corporations interested in using PDAs to boost sales productivity through sales force automation applications are currently probably better off looking at devices using the Palm OS rather than Windows CE.

As usual, though, Microsoft (www. microsoft.com/windowsce) isn’t just watching the competition pass it by; it is busily inking agreements with independent software vendors (ISVs) to maximize the flexibility of Windows CE environments. For instance, on June 8, 1999, Microsoft announced a new data architecture for Windows CE called the Global Data Access architecture, based on ActiveX Data Objects (ADO) and OLE DB. Global Data Access will offer applications access to both Microsoft and other data stores through open interfaces, including SQL Server-based applications.

What to Do if You Can’t Find a Wire

While Palm Computing and Windows CE compete for the wire-dependent PDA market, IBM has set its sights on the real plum of mobile computing: wireless corporate access.

While the majority of PDAs in use today need some sort of wired connection to synchronize data between the mobile users and the corporate host, IBM, Lotus, Microsoft, and even Palm Computing have recognized the limitations of this paradigm. One example of the futility of using the hard-wired telephone/cable infrastructure for mobile computing is the dearth of rural lines supporting modern broadband protocols. For example, I live roughly 55 miles from San Diego and about 20 miles from a large city, yet I have no access to a digital subscriber line (DSL) or cable modems. The highest speed I can achieve with a 56K modem is 26,500 bps; any data synchronization from this type of line is extremely slow. Unless you live in or near a major American city, you will probably run into the same kinds of problems.

Global corporations that depend on mobile commuting are particularly affected by the lack of a high-speed wired infrastructure. This fact is driving the development of a new breed of PDAs that use one of several wireless infrastructures to connect to corporate databases. Palm Computing has introduced the Palm VII, which extends the Palm OS to true wireless computing. Using the Palm.NetSM wireless service, the Palm VII PDA allows mobile workers to connect to the Internet and send messages from most metropolitan areas. IBM, a pioneer of PTCs, has, in conjunction with Lotus, recently dramatically changed its wireless computing strategy and energized every aspect of mobile computing research and development. On February 23, 1999, IBM announced the withdrawal from marketing of all remaining IBM Wireless LAN hardware. Effective May 24, 1999, customers are no longer able to buy the following LAN hardware:
• All 2480 Access Points PC Wireless LAN adapters and accessories
• All 2482, 2483, 2484, 2486, 2493 Wireless Portable Data Collection
• All 2470 Access Points and accessories When I wrote “Take Advantage of Mobile Computing with an AS/400 Wireless LAN” (MC, October 1997, which you can still use as a template for configuring wireless LANs) a mere two years ago, the solutions above were IBM’s premier wireless strategy. Today, IBM’s new Wireless Connection for AS/400 (product 5798-TBW), running under

release V4R1 of OS/400 or higher, performs all the tasks of the older wireless LAN configurations, but uses the standard IP and TCP/IP sockets that allow communication with both locally attached wireless LANs and remote locations using routers. In this new scenario, PTCs need not reside within one wireless LAN but can be in remote locations and still communicate effectively with a variety of corporate databases.

Several ISVs such as Telxon (www.telxon.com) provide similar wireless solutions that use 5250 emulation, in conjunction with IBM’s Wireless Connection for AS/400, to empower a mobile workforce. In fact, the effectiveness of IBM’s new watchword, pervasive computing, is heavily dependent on wireless access to all of its platforms, especially the AS/400. IBM is intent on providing seamless wireless access, from the smallest PDA to the largest mainframes. This includes everything from developing an interactive service with Nokia (www. nokia.com/main.html) and The SABRE Group Holdings (www.sabre.com) that will allow cellular phone users to update flight and travel plans to an In-Vehicle Information System (IVIS) that will allow real-time access to email and the Internet while driving to, say, Las Vegas. While these objectives may seem a bit extravagant, the core of IBM’s strategy is strictly tailored to the corporate bottom line:

• DB2 Everywhere is designed to allow small PDAs to access and manipulate real- time corporate data.

• VisualAge for Java Technology Edition is leveraging Java’s small footprint to bring robust software to embedded systems.

• Through such electronic innovations as the Microdrive, PowerPC microprocessors, template chips, and embedded voice technology, IBM is setting the stage to be a major factor in mobile hardware.

• IBM eNetwork Wireless Software, part of the SecureWay Software family, is an IP-based client/server middleware that allows seamless access to existing Web or host IP- based applications over wireless networks including 5250 emulation.

IBM has obviously made a huge investment in mobile and wireless computing and, by all indications, will continue to leverage its stake in this technology into the next century.

When Is a Phone More than a Phone?

Pagers and cellular phones may be a nuisance to some (including me when I’m sitting in a movie theater) and a pain in the neck for law enforcement, but they are rapidly becoming an integral part of mobile computing. The Wireless Application Protocol Forum (www.wapforum.org), a consortium of 120-plus firms, including IBM and Microsoft, is the de facto standards body that is attempting to standardize wireless mobile services, especially with respect to the Internet access standards developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Although Microsoft only joined the WAP Forum in May 1999, the company obviously recognizes the value of wireless Internet access and has introduced the MSN mobile service and invested several hundred million dollars in wireless service provider Nextel (www.nextel.com). Lotus has followed suit and put its developers to the task of finding the best solutions for mobile computing. In fact, Lotus has made wireless mobile computing one of its top priorities and has chosen pagers and smartphones as a cornerstone of its wireless computing strategy.

The recent introduction of Pager Gateway and Wireless Domino Access (WDA) is an indication of Lotus’ confidence that wireless technology is the way of the future. Pager Gateway connects Lotus Notes and Web browsers to one-way and two-way pagers, while WDA allows digital cellular phone users direct access to their Notes Mail, calendar, and Public Name and Address Book using wireless IP networks like AT&T’s PocketNet service. WDA works on digital cellular phones equipped with Unwired Planet’s (www.uplanet.com) Handheld Device Markup Language (HDML) and runs on a Domino server to act as the middleman between the server and smartphones and other wireless IP devices. HDML, now generally called Wireless Markup Language (WML), was originally

developed by Unwired Planet as a free and open standard. WML is a tag-based language similar to HTML that allows text portions of Web pages to be shown on smartphones or PDAs. With the proliferation of smartphones and PDAs, this language is becoming an integral part of mobile computing and is reputed to be no more difficult to write than HTML. Actually, the traditional cell phone carriers are not far behind the big IT companies in wireless technology. AirTouch Communications (www. airtouch.com), the second largest U.S. wireless carrier, unleashed a special service on July 29, 1999, linking cell phones to laptop computers in order to provide mobile access to the Internet. In August 1999, Sprint (www.sprintpcs.com) announced the construction of the Sprint PCS Wireless Web, due to be available nationwide by September 1999. This service will allow Web access from a suite of intuitive wireless devices that incorporate elements of both PDAs and smartphones, enabling on-the-go customers to access both the Web and corporate networks. If present trends continue, PDAs and smartphones will be mated to create an inexpensive, all-in-one personal communications device.

The Ultimate Goal: Satellite Communications

As the world is becoming one large, interconnected community, reliable international corporate communications are becoming indispensable to growing your business. While wired connections, PDAs, PTCs, and smartphones offer a variety of reliable communication methods for mobile workers in the United States, many developing countries have no real communications infrastructure, whether wired or wireless. Consider this: In the next century, the so-called Third World, which includes Africa and South America, will become both the focus of U.S. corporate sales expansion and the major repository of our dwindling planetary resources. It’s essential that we bring these countries into the global community, and the most inexpensive and practical solution to building global communications is through the use of satellite communications.

However, the political implications of this strategy are probably the biggest obstacle to implementing this plan in a cost-effective way. Just look at what happened when a major player in U.S. satellite technology tried to use Chinese launch vehicles to reduce the cost of delivery—it turned into a major domestic controversy. The cost of satellite communications is enormous. One satellite venture that lofted 66 satellites into orbit found out that the public isn’t ready to pay $2,000 for a souped-up cell phone that is as bulky and heavy as a small barbell. Iridium (www.iridium.com), a major satellite telephone operator, which had a magnificent vision but not enough common sense, found this a hard pill to swallow when it defaulted on a $1.5 billion obligation in August 1999.

Regardless of the obstacles, satellite communications is the only valid solution for bringing most of the world into the global communications community. Although high, the cost of putting a communications satellite into orbit is dropping and is still much less expensive than trying to install cells or wires in the Amazon or Congo watersheds—where most of future world development will take place. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are commonplace today, and if the evolution from the first clumsy cellular phone to the PDAs we have now is any example, we should see the general availability of satellite uplinks within a few years.

Mobile computing is taking on more guises by the month, and hopefully will make all of our jobs easier. Whether you’re a salesman on the road, a programmer working from home, or an IT professional stuck at the airport, mobile computing can increase both your productivity and peace of mind. As I’ve shown you in this article, there is a wide variety of mobile solutions, but the goal is always the same: the ability to effectively communicate with your business resources from any location. Satellite commmunications is the future of mobile computing, and I hope to live to see the day when I don’t have to hobble along with a 26,500 bps connection in a rural area.



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