Into the mobile millennium

The technology that will fuel a boom in mobile computing is now a reality. Murdoch MacTaggart reports

The technology that will fuel a boom in mobile computing is now a reality. Murdoch MacTaggart reports

The desire for IT on the move has been with us since the early days of personal computing, but it is only now that it looks set to become ubiquitous among the general population and business world.

The first handheld computing device was the Psion Organiser, launched in 1984, well over a decade before the Palm Pilot, which now holds over 70% of the PDA (personal digital assistant) market worldwide.

There are currently three main groups of PDA: Palm which offers a simple product with limited functionality, Psion which is still a strong seller in the UK, and Pocket PC which is based on a feature-rich operating system from Microsoft.

Like Microsoft, Palm has licensed its operating system to third parties, and Handspring, a start-up owned by the original Palm development team, has taken advantage of this. Handspring's Visor range has attracted users by offering expandability options, albeit through plug-in cards of proprietary format. Handspring's success has prompted Palm to respond, and its latest range of products will be capable of supporting a range of snap-on devices, such as a modem or a digital camera.

Like the original Palm Pilot, Microsoft's Windows CE operating system was also launched in 1996, but hardware - which is manufactured by third parties - was not available until 1998. User interest was also lacking despite the Windows look and feel of the system.

The most recent release, WinCE 3.0, is more impressive than earlier versions and Microsoft has relaunched its concept under the Pocket PC banner. As the name implies, the hardware is a PC in miniature and supports multimedia functions alongside the usual range of office applications. Pocket PCs are available from manufacturers such as Hewlett-Packard, Compaq and Casio.

The similarity to the PC is carried down to the software level, with a range of cut-down versions of familiar Microsoft applications including Outlook, Excel, Word and Internet Explorer. In addition, support for heavyweight corporate systems is being supplied for SAP's R3 and Siebel's CRM (customer relationship management) suite.

Psion, the third major PDA player, also produces powerful computing devices and recently released a completely rewritten version of its Epoc modular operating system with the Psion 5 handheld. The Epoc system is managed by the Symbian alliance, which includes Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola and Matshushita (Panasonic) alongside Psion. The alliance is well placed to benefit from the projected growth in mobile Wap phone sales but the market has been slow to take off.

Using a mobile device for Internet connectivity is tedious and difficult but this is likely to change rapidly when third generation (3G) systems with their promise of up to 2mbps connectivity appear in volume.

At present there are about 150 million fixed Internet connections, very few of them outside North America, Western Europe or South-East Asia. Mobile phone deployment is forecast to approach one billion by 2003 or 2004, which should coincide with widespread deployment of very fast, "always on" wireless services, which will enable realistic mobile Internet connectivity.

At about the same time, other technological developments will render sterile the ongoing debate about mobile phones taking on PDA characteristics - as with the Nokia Communicator - or whether more powerful PDAs, such as the Pocket PC, will offer telephone connectivity.

In future, convergence will be the watchword. Voice commands, a printed fabric or folding keyboard could be used to enter data, and information may be viewed on a virtual screen projected into the eye or, perhaps, be displayed on a flexible, slim, foldable A5 booklet.

A wristwatch could support a Wap telephone connection. A smartcard in a shirt pocket could hold huge volumes of data and communicate with devices by radio to authenticate the user or transfer electronic money to vending machines.

The material is all there. As Wap suppliers are finding to their cost, the real question is - will the users wear it?

Mobile computing:the state of the art

  • Lernout & Hauspie recently showed a voice-controlled PC

  • Wronz EuraLab has developed Softswitch, a wearable material that can act as a keypad

  • Charmed Technology, an MIT spin-off, holds fashion shows where catwalk models use jewellery to send or receive e-mails and perform other computing tasks

  • Last year, IBM demonstrated a "wearable computer" with a virtual screen projected into the user's field of vision

  • Last week, IBM showed a Linux-based wristwatch display that communicates wirelessly with PCs or phones

  • Storage initiatives are developing systems to store hundreds of gigabytes in a square centimetre

  • Bluetooth, due to appear later this year, uses a radio frequency over a 10m range to allow localised cable-free connectivity

  • Read more on Mobile hardware