The latest wireless developments are allowing organisations to spread the use of mobile data still further. As many have already discovered, equipping field staff with a wireless terminal linking them back to base can be a great help when it comes to keeping in touch.
Until now, this has usually meant giving them portable PCs connected to digital mobile phones or dedicated data terminals working over specialist radio networks such as Cognito or RAM Mobile Data, but none of these routes is perfect. PCs are bulky and still relatively heavy, and there are several different ways of making the connection to the phone, all of which require extra hardware or software. And while the dedicated devices are excellent at allowing end-users to report how the job went, access to office systems is a little tougher to provide.
The latest generations of mobile devices are changing that. Several handsets feature internal data capability together with either a standard serial port and cable, or better yet, an IrDA infra-red transmitter. These can be used with any portable PC or handheld computer that supports those connection methods, even something as compact as a Palmpilot, Psion 5 or Windows CE handheld.
And the first Wap-capable phones have started to appear. These are able to access both information and applications by radio. Software developers are hurrying to add Wap support to enterprise applications or to build Wap interfaces for collaborative systems such as Lotus Notes or Microsoft Exchange.
"The Wap advantage is you have it in the same device," says Johan Berg, managing director for R&D at Intentia, which has added Wap access to its enterprise resource planning software. "The first suite addresses service technicians, who need mostly character-based data so they don't need Web technology, and the biggest difference is cost."
According to Berg, the Wap interface will deliver service assignments, customer information and materials availability, and allow the user to report time spent and materials used. "It could fit in with a Web service order system for customers to use," he says. "You could even create a closed loop with a backend system that automatically generates the assignment and sends the invoice."
Wap phones may make good thin clients for mainly text-based applications, but they have small screens and little local storage or processing power, and for many purposes a handheld PC will still be necessary.
That means using the GSM network, using either a mobile phone or a dedicated data card. Data was built into the GSM specification right from the very start, but initially at least the manufacturers focused on the voice side, so even their data-capable handsets were not directly PC-compatible.
Instead, they needed something to convert between the different digital formats and signal levels used within phones and PCs. This typically took the form of a data adapter and a cable linking the two devices.
Luckily, this process has become a lot simpler since mobile phone makers, kicked off by British company Orbitel about five years ago, started producing handsets that have the data adapter built in. Orbitel's 905 Pocket Phone plugged into a standard serial port via a cable and responded to standard modem AT commands. Orbitel was subsequently bought by Ericsson, and the 905 became the GS18.
Since then, there have been several more data-capable handsets with serial ports, including the Bosch 909s, Sagem's 750 and 850 models, and the Mondial ML808 chrome phone. However, while almost any computer with a serial port can make use of these phones, it still requires a cable and, of course, not all devices have a standard serial socket. For example, Windows CE handheld PCs usually have non-standard miniature connectors.
The solution has been to use another wireless technology: infra-red, in the shape of the IrDA (Infra-red Developers Association) standard. Long derided for its inability to connect anything to anything else, not least because it was poorly supported in Windows 95, IrDA has now achieved a degree of maturity.
As a result, phone makers have been able to build IrDA ports into their handsets and use these for connecting to just about any type of PC or handheld computer. The first was Ericsson's SH888, although it has since been supplanted by IrDA add-ons for other models and now by the R320 which has IrDA built-in once more. Others with built-in IrDA and data include the tri-band Motorola L7089 Timeport, which also works in the US, the Siemens S25 and Nokia's 8210 and 8850, but not the Nokia 6100 series as the infra-red port on these is non-standard.
The next step will be to remove the line-of-sight requirement of IrDA, and this is where Bluetooth steps in. Bluetooth is a short-range radio link which allows all sorts of devices to interact in a personal area network. Unlike wireless Lan systems it does not assume that most devices will be PCs. Instead, it can be built into all sorts of peripherals, with Ericsson already announcing a Bluetooth wireless headset and an add-on for its phones.
A Bluetooth-capable phone could be used by a similarly-equipped PC or a PDA to access remote services even when the phone was still in your briefcase or pocket, say. Since a Wap browser can even be had for the Palm now, the size of the phone's screen would no longer be an issue for anyone who also carries a PDA.
Armed with this sort of equipment, users can stay in touch almost anywhere. The GSM data connection works much like a modem, enabling users to remotely access their normal applications and services. The drawback is that most GSM services are limited to 9.6kilo bits per second (kbps), but this is certainly adequate for text e-mail, for instance.
In any case, speeds are increasing - some networks already offer a basic bearer of 14.4kbps instead, and Orange was the first UK network to add a form of channel bonding called HSCSD (high speed circuit switched data), enabling two 14.4kbps channels to be linked into a virtual 28.8kbps connection.
The next step will be to add features such as GPRS (general packet radio service) which carries packets of data instead of only circuit-switched calls. This will allow a mobile data connection to work more like Ethernet, being always connected, but it also allows the network to carry more data calls because each one only consumes capacity when it needs to transfer data.
By using channel aggregation and data compression, GPRS also enables peak data rates of 115kbps, though they will normally be lower as the channels will be shared with other callers. Networks around the world are testing GPRS, with BT Cellnet among those hoping to roll it out later this year.
However, it is not data speed that is the key to the future uptake of mobile data, but the ability to deliver data packets on demand and without setting up a call for each one, says Sigurdur Bjornsson, CEO of Icelandic software house Softis, which is pioneering the ability to connect legacy Cobol and RPG applications to the latest mobile devices. "Wireless data for mobile professionals will be even more practical when the mobile devices are virtually connected to the ISPs," he says. "This will be possible with GPRS."
Another extension to GSM is EDGE (enhanced data rates for global evolution) which adds radio modulation techniques to increase the capacity of each channel to 48kbps. Combined with GPRS, it offers a maximum throughput of 384kbps per subscriber, though once again this will depend on who else is using that particular network cell at the time.
Following on from this, the first 3G (third generation - analogue cellular was the first and GSM the second) mobile networks are due online in 2002. Known as UMTS, these will use extra bandwidth and new technologies to increase data capacities to 384kbps or more per channel.
A key difference between second and third generation systems is that where GSM was designed as a voice system that could also carry data, UMTS has been designed as a packet-based system that can also carry voice calls, according to Ericsson's UMTS programme director Lars Bergendahl. He predicted that as a result, by 2005 most UMTS voice calls will be carried over IP rather than switched circuits.
Broadband wireless links like GPRS and UMTS should at last bring mobile data the large scale acceptance that has eluded it so far. However, it is perfectly possible to extend corporate applications and intranets into the mobile environment today, for those willing to plan and build their systems carefully.
Mobile telephones have achieved huge acceptance, allowing us to talk on the move, while Internet technologies have enabled people to find information, buy things and communicate remotely. Mobile data services allow those two to start converging.
Today, mobile data is slow so the services offered over it must be pared down to the minimum - a useful process as it may mean redesigning underlying applications and Web sites to focus on user psychology, not presentation.
Mobile data can require as little as a smart handset, but most business users may want to use the handset together with a PC or PDA. Infra-red makes this process easier, and Bluetooth will make it easier still.
Case study - Logistics company goes mobile
Bremer Lagerhaus-Gesellschaft is one of the first companies to extend the reach of its internal business systems by using Wap. Staff at the freight and logistics company, based at the port of Bremen in Germany, can now access their diaries, contact lists and Microsoft Outlook e-mail via mobile phones.
Bremer Lagerhaus-Gesellschaft's business systems are based on the Tamino database from German software giant Software AG, which stores data in XML format. The WML (wireless markup language) used by Wap is a subset of XML, so it is relatively simple to generate one from the other.
The next plan is to add Wap access to the existing electronic terminal logistics system Bremer Lagerhaus-Gesellschaft operates. This will then allow freight administrators to monitor the progress of shipments even while they are working in the docks or out of the office.
Software AG's UK channel marketing manager Andy Jefferson comments, "I think people don't appreciate that the investment needed to implement Wap isn't huge if you get your basic service right. It's no more complex than adding a Web interface or interactive kiosks."