Get on the right mobile OS track

There is a vast array of operating systems available to run on mobile devices. So how do you choose the one that is best for your business needs?

In the domain of the desktop, there are not too many choices to be made when it comes to operating systems for general business use. It is pretty much a case of Windows or not-Windows, and in the latter case Mac or Linux operating systems are pretty much a sector- or task-­specific choice.

When it comes to mobile devices the scene is much less settled, although some clear leadership contenders exist. Today there is plenty of choice. There is Research in Motion's latest Blackberry, the 8800, which offers a Qwerty keyboard and a global positioning system. Sony Ericsson provides a mini Qwerty keyboard on its business smartphone, the M600i, and O2's Xda Orbit does away with a keyboard altogether and uses a touch screen.

So, there are plenty of options for business users, but what are the main choices of operating environment for handheld devices and how should a business decide which platform best suits its needs?

Microsoft Windows Mobile - of which version 6 was recently launched at the 3GSM conference - appears an odds-on bet to achieve leadership in the mobile device arena.

The operating system brings many of the advantages of being based on the most common operating environment in the server and desktop arena - for example, familiar interfaces and integration with Microsoft applications and server software.

Jason Langridge, UK and EMEA mobility business manager with Microsoft's mobile and embedded devices division, says the company's mobile operating systems have the key advantage of offering a unitary environment on a wide range of devices.

"Windows Mobile supports device choice, providing customers with a range of device options - from 48 device makers and 125 mobile operators in 55 countries - but with only one software platform for an IT department to manage," says Langridge.

Windows Mobile 6 comes with an upgraded version of the Office Mobile suite, which includes Word Mobile, Excel Mobile and Powerpoint Mobile. It is also supported by a large number of application providers, a key consideration for business users.

At present there are more than 18,000 commercial applications available for Windows Mobile devices, including applications from SAP, Siebel, PeopleSoft/Oracle, Salesforce.com, Onyx, Microsoft, Sybase/iAnywhere, Dexterra, Mobitor and Field Centrix.

Microsoft's development environment - Visual Studio.net - has tool support that includes mobile development so developers can convert PC applications to mobile.

New mobile versions of Microsoft's .net Compact Framework and SQL Server are built into Windows Mobile 6, which allows developers to create and access applications such as sales tools and inventory trackers.

Security in Windows Mobile 6 is available from several sources, including new Exchange Server policies and certificate options, storage card encryption, and continued support for remote and local device wipe. Information Rights Management technology used on PCs is now extended to Windows Mobile 6 devices.

According to Langridge, "Windows Mobile 6 improves on previous versions of the platform by providing enhanced user interface features, better management capabilities for IT administrators and better scalability and support for mobile operators, device-makers and developers."

High-profile corporate users include News International, which has adopted Windows Mobile primarily for e-mail among top executives and Tesco.com, which has deployed a combined work scheduler and GPS tracking system for its delivery drivers in London.

While Microsoft's mobile operating system lays claim to being able to do a lot of things in a single environment, Blackberry has made its name by being very good at one thing - e-mail.

RIM's Blackberry has proved addictive for many users, who are now dependent on its easy-to-use push e-mail facility. You would not think an interface controlled by a thumb­wheel and very small Qwerty keyboard would be the most efficient, but Blackberry users swear by it.

Messaging is core to the Blackberry environment, and phone, e-mail and SMS options are all easily available from a contact name. Further standard functions come as applets that run a calendar, memo pad, to-do list, calculator and photo viewer.

Blackberry does not just rely on these standard functions, however. It has compatibility with Microsoft Office applications, although it is limited to allowing viewing but not editing of Word, Excel and Powerpoint. PDFs can also be viewed, but much of the graphics and formatting is stripped out in the process.

Blackberry devices are Java-based and third-party applications are written in that language. Extensive software developer tools are available, with Java Micro Edition 2.0 supported.

Tyler Lessard, director of independent software supplier alliances at RIM, says, "We recognise that each user wants to tailor their smartphone to their exact needs. To meet this, the Blackberry operating system enables applications - either Java-based or web-based - to be downloaded over the air. There are more than 650 independent software suppliers creating both bespoke and off-the-shelf applications, which are proving immensely popular with our seven million-strong subscriber base."

Java-based applications available for Blackberry include sales force automation, field service dispatch and helpdesk service management, as well as systems for industries such as healthcare, real estate, law enforcement, finance and professional services.

Notable corporate roll-outs of Blackberry systems include West Yorkshire Police's Streetwyse application, which allows officers on the beat to access the Police National Computer and download digital mugshots, and civil engineering firm Arup, which uses an application called Neverfail as part of its business continuity plan to ensure employees can always access corporate information.

The third option is Symbian. Symbian occupies a strange position in the mobile device world. In terms of market share in the smartphone market, in the first quarter of 2006 it held nearly 65%, beating Linux, Microsoft, Blackberry and Palm, while in the PDA market it only had 3.8% market share, behind Microsoft, RIM and Palm.

Compounding this uneven picture is the fact that there is not really one Symbian, as the operating system is tailored to individual devices and looks and acts differently on each.

Consequently, ease of use differs depending on the device. Messaging using POP3, Imap4 and webmail are possible, and Microsoft Office compatibility allows access to Word, Excel and Powerpoint, although, again, whether you can create and edit documents depends on the hardware.

A large number of third-party applications are available - about 5,500 - but fewer are available for business use than Windows Mobile.

Of all the devices in the market running Symbian, Nokia's Series 80 leads the field as a business tool. These devices - the 9300 Smartphone and 9500 Communicator - are aimed at the enterprise market, with large screens, full keyboards and support for Microsoft Office applications, although extra software is required to edit or create such documents. Comprehensive development support for the SAP Netweaver platform is also a feature of Series 80 devices.

Despite such highlights, the Symbian platform in general lacks wide-ranging support for enterprise-class software and is regarded as difficult to link to back-end systems.

Finally, there is Palm OS. Despite having about 30 million users globally, it was abandoned by owner Access late last year. Access is now concentrating on developing a Linux-based operating system to replace Palm, called Access Linux Palm. Access launched Linux mobile operating system product development kits to partners at 3GSM.

So, what is best for your business? If you are considering a mobile deployment there are a number of considerations that should guide your choice of environment.

First, it is important to decide what exactly your workforce will do with the mobile devices you deploy. This may be a simple matter of access to e-mail or perhaps a business application to staff in the field. However, if you want to satisfy the needs of a number of roles within the business, your selection of device and operating environment may become complicated.

You may have to think carefully about which device and operating system can be used by different roles in your organisation, says Rob Bamforth, principal analyst at research group Quocirca. "There is no 'one size fits all' solution, and there might not be one platform that can supply what you need for all functions," he says.

"For example, if an initial deployment is aimed at providing a sales force with data on the road, the same platform may not be suitable when you need to connect with delivery drivers.

"Or if you choose a tool with a stylus or keyboard, for example, and then commit to extending that to a role that does not have a hand free to use the stylus or has to wear gloves to work, your roll-out will not be successful."

You have to step back and ask what you need from a device and not get bogged down in the minutiae of features, says Mark Blowers, senior researcher with Butler.

"Different roles in an organisation need different features. Senior executives, for example, need e-mail, while the sales force would need access to back-end systems. There is a different focus required for different roles, so you need to have a clear view of the likely use of devices," says Blowers.

Beyond suitability for the chosen job, the main factors left to determine are the availability of software, integration with back-end systems and, ideally, the commonality of the platform with devices and ­features to be used by different roles in the organisation.

Roberta Cozza, principal analyst at Gartner, says, "When an IT manager chooses a device for different needs among the workforce, the platform needs to have consistent software across all devices and have application portability."

Industry presence is an important attribute for a mobile operating system. Ideally it should have a wide availability of devices, a multinational presence and an ecosystem of partners, services and applications. The platform must also be comprehensive in terms of security, e-mail, manageability and PC integration.

Finally, you need to run trials with your chosen operating system, device and software with the staff roles they will eventually be deployed to.

Evaluating operating environments, software, development and integration are time-consuming processes, but can come to nothing if the end-user cannot or will not embrace the device in the application it was intended for, says Tony Cripps, senior analyst and service manager with Ovum.

"In some companies top executives are likely to exercise choices based on their fondness for particular devices, but doing things that way may mean they are not useable or accepted if they are deployed to other staff doing different things," says Cripps.

"It is a really simple thing to overlook, so some kind of trialling is always useful."

 

Comment on this article: computer.weekly@rbi.co.uk

 

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