From The Editor
by WDN Staff, June 5, 2000
Just Because You Can Doesn't Mean You Should
As wireless technologies continue to proliferate and new capabilities pop up on an almost-daily basis, the time has come for professional developers
to approach wireless development with a bit of caution, planning, and customer consultation. From my experience, there are largely two types of developers currently building applications for
wireless data-enabled devices: content developers (such as those working for CNN, Yahoo, WirelessDevNet, etc.) and corporate developers/systems integrators/
consultants working for large corporations and financial institutions. The content developer is basically tasked with getting his/her companies' brand and content
onto as many devices as possible. For members of this group, I feel your pain. We are currently distributing our daily news in several formats (HTML, AvantGo, PQA) and will
be adding several more formats later this week (RSS, WML, XML); what's worse, I'm not sure there's an end in sight given products such
as the new RIM 957 Handheld and the recently announced AOL/Gateway/Transmeta appliance...potentially
great products, to be sure, but the overworked developer in me sees new opportunities for additional client display formats.
Despite these difficulties, in some respects the content developer actually has it easy: he/she can target all devices and all document formats assuming
proper architectural choices are made. It's the other developer camp - those of you forced to roll out enterprise- or department-wide applications to 20, 200, or 2000 users
on a limited budget - that are being forced to walk the fine line between success and failure. You've convinced management of the productivity
gains that will be generated by making your application mobile, and now all eyes are upon you to back it up. One platform and one architecture alone
must be chosen to satisfy your in-house needs. As the lead developer, the number of tradeoffs can be mind-boggling! You must choose a network that will
cover your user base (for instance, CDPD and/or Mobitex coverage is not always a given in North America) while selecting developer tools that will integrate with your
existing systems. You must also choose a handheld platform that will actually be used by the end user. It seems that the knee-jerk choice is rapidly becoming WAP for applications such as these, but how many of these decisions are
based on media hype versus careful consideration of technological issues and end user satisfaction?
The problems I have with WAP phones being used to perform business transactions (purchasing, logistics, project planning, etc.) are based on my experience
in the past with a wide variety of end users. In other words, while WAP may have a high geek factor, does it pass the "Even My Grandma Would Use This!" test?
Data entry is a huge factor in this discussion. Do we really expect users that previously avoided boxes with 17" monitors to suddenly begin entering field reports on a 3-line mobile phone display?
Is your average user ready to struggle with handwriting recognition software such as Graffiti?
While WAP tools and server vendors are getting much of the spotlight, there are a number of other exciting products being released that I feel more appropriately
target the business market. Extended Systems' XTNDConnect RPM and the @Hand Mobile Application Environment
are enterprise-class tools that provide a set of APIs and database access capabilities that support application development on multiple platforms. Mark Skelton, Product Marketing Manager at @Hand,
addressed this very issue in a recent conversation: "In the case of Rental Service Corporation, RSC performed extensive testing with their
mobile workforce during pilots and proof-of-concepts, reasoned about the interface, business information required in the field, and the real estate requirements
of their mobile application, and decided on the NEC MobilePro 800 form factor running Windows CE. Given their success with the @hand platform, they are now considering other
form factors for other mobile users at their site (service workers, managers, executives, etc.). @hand's ability to easily support a wide variety of form factors translates
into huge benefits and time savings in rolling out new applications to the field. We believe that for simple transactions, such as dispatching, location-based
services, and verification checking scenarios, perhaps a smart cell phone using WAP might make the most sense. Bottom line, customers are very savvy about choosing
what is right for their own business fingerprint. Today, it appears that the larger form factors are winning that battle."
My suggestion is to prepare prototypes on a wide variety of devices...from Blackberry pagers all the way up to the thin form-factor laptops. Present these
options to your user base and get their feedback before delivering a final product (I know, I know...that's a novel concept in many corporations)!
While it may seem that your experience with WAP-related technologies will make for great resume/CV material, a poor choice on a highly visible and promising, yet failed, project
could result in your mailing resumes out much sooner than you had anticipated.