Connected: Do you get the mobile picture?

There has been a rush of smartphones offering a wealth of gadgetry. So what are the benefits for business?

There has been a rush of smartphones offering a wealth of gadgetry. So what are the benefits for business?

In the last few months mobile operators have begun offering the next version of the hugely popular simple messaging system (SMS), introducing a raft of phones supporting multimedia messaging (MMS). Used in conjunction with a digital camera, this technology allows people to send and receive picture messages. So is there any business case for sending and receiving pictures on a mobile phone?

In fact, most mobile users in businesses today require two main functions from their handheld devices - access to corporate e-mail, and Web access, enabling mobile workers to log into corporate intranets, download files, and gain access to Web sites that are useful for their job.

The latest crop of smartphones offers a rich set of features, such as Bluetooth connectivity, high-speed data services, FM radios, digital cameras, even built-in MP3 players. But the manufacturers and operators appear to have missed the opportunity to provide business users and consumers with an effective way to use the Internet.

E-mail connectivity from a mobile phone is possible, but users need to invest heavily both in their network infrastructure and in software integration to provide mobile access to their e-mail servers. Web connectivity is not so easy: the ability to surf proper HTML Web pages is extremely limited.

All smartphones available today include a WAP browser to enable you to view colour WAP pages, but I know of only one that comes with an HTML browser, and that's the Orange SPV (sound, pictures, video), which is equipped with a cut-down version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

Users of the Orange SPV have experienced problems accessing certain Web sites - including Microsoft's own Hotmail site - and the service itself is often slow, even though the device is equipped with GPRS, just like the HP Jornada 928. It seems that size still matters in the mobile world, but maybe bigger is better in this case, for now anyway.

The problem is that as desktop PC users we expect to browse sites that include all manner of plug-ins, such as Macromedia Flash, Java and Real Media.

On a desktop PC it's quite easy to download the plug-in if the page you are browsing doesn't function properly. The same is not true on a smartphone with a built-in browser as the browser appears to be hard-wired and does not support downloadable plug-ins.

Another dilemma for business is that while there are plenty of devices available, a company needs to standardise, otherwise support will be almost impossible. As most companies rely on Microsoft desktop software applications, most IT departments would like to support devices that connect easily into a Microsoft environment.

This means that devices running operating systems from Palm and Psion are being locked out of corporate networks.

Companies therefore have to decide whether they offer mobile e-mail to certain phones and go all out investing in new systems and management time as a result of day-to-day user hand holding.

The SPV is, no doubt, the first of many smartphones that can deliver corporate e-mail and Web access from a device much smaller than a PDA. Companies should, perhaps, wait until prices come down and technology refinements are achieved until they start buying any make of smartphone in bulk.

Antony Savvas is an independent observer and commentator on the telecoms and IT industries.

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