Mobile devices - today's trends and tomorrow's tools

While there are many considerations when choosing a new mobile device - including the features offered and price - fashion and personal tastes also play an important role. Handsets also provide the gateway to a range of new mobile services, enabled by both increasing device capabilities and the wider availability of mobile broadband networks.
This means that the handset market is fast-moving and ever-changing, with manufacturers continuously working to put new features and technologies in the hands of customers.

Form, function, and fickle tastes

Touch-screen devices have become increasingly popular in recent years because they enable manufacturers to develop tactile user interfaces that deliver a more personal interaction with devices when compared with PC's and older smartphones.

Driving the interest in touch screens has been the Apple iPhone, which has led to an increased range of competing devices becoming available from vendors including HTC, LG Electronics, Nokia, Samsung, Palm and Sony Ericsson. In addition, Research In Motion has launched touch-screen BlackBerry devices, adding business functionality to a largely consumer-centric interface.
Despite their attraction, touch-screen devices are ideal for all workers. 

Messaging-heavy enterprise users may find that QWERTY keypads provide a better user experience, and as a result a range of devices with different keypad layouts are also available. Some vendors are offering handsets that include both keypads and touch screens, offering the best-of-both-worlds.

The real issue is that different people use their mobile phones for different purposes, and while there is "convergence" among features, not all workers are the same. This makes the emergence of a single dominant form-factor unlikely, with diversity remaining the order of the day.

Can the iPhone and Android be considered enterprise devices?

Reflecting the ever-changing nature of the mobile phone market, the biggest splashes in recent years has been a smartphone from a company new to the market - Apple's iPhone - and a handset operating system from another mobile new-entrant - Google's Android.

Both Apple and Google see the mobile phone as an integral part of the mobile service chain, rather than as a standalone product. The iPhone forms part of an ecosystem which includes the iTunes content store and App Store software catalogue, while the Android platform is open to developers to allow integration with a range of internet services.

But from an enterprise perspective, both the iPhone and Android¬-powered handsets have shortcomings. There is only one iPhone manufacturer and form factor, and so limiting choice, and its consumer-oriented feature set may not fit with business requirements. For instance, the iPhone does not support satellite navigation, whereas the HTC devices do, but then the iPhone does support Microsoft's ActiveSync so that Exchange users can synchronize their mail, contacts and calendar over the air.   The Android environment  is likely to gain support from multiple manufacturers, and like the iPhone was has been designed initially with a consumer focus, and the fact it is open to collaborative development through the open-source community may not appeal --alternatives such as BlackBerry, Symbian OS, and Windows Mobile have a proven track record.

Windows, Symbian and Blackberry

With the iPhone and Android jointly receiving the lion's share of the attention, it is easy to forget that Symbian OS is an established leader in the smartphone market - according to research firm Canalys, it accounted for nearly 47% of smartphone shipments during the third quarter of 2008. Symbian OS is the platform of choice for Nokia's high-end devices, including the E-Series enterprise range, and is also used by Samsung.

Microsoft's Windows Mobile is also an ever-present force, with a particular strength in the mobile enterprise market, where it is popular due to its easy integration with existing IT systems based on Microsoft products. With a supporting device manufacturer base including HTC, LG Electronics, Motorola and Samsung, a number of handsets are available with a variety of designs, enabling the platform to serve a wide customer base.

The advantage of both Symbian OS and Windows Mobile is maturity, having been used in commercial handsets from multiple tier-one manufacturers for many years. The various companies involved are also working to ensure that the operating systems evolve to support emerging services and technologies.

Research In Motion's BlackBerry looks set to remain popular in the enterprise market also, as well as gaining ground in the prosumer user base. RIM offers a range of devices with various form factors, but all sharing a common focus on messaging and enterprise applications, with the supporting BlackBerry infrastructure also designed to meet business demands for security and robustness.

Third-party application support

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the move to more advanced devices and operating systems is the ability to customize devices through the addition of third-party software. Previously, users have been largely stuck with the software included by device manufacturers, with a one-size-fits-all approach that limits personalization.

The comparison made is with PCs: computers with the same specification will look completely different in use due to the personalization of appearance and the different applications installed, reflecting a user's work or home preferences.

The opening of mobile platforms to third-party software also makes it easier to mobilize enterprise applications, providing more functionality that would be possible through simple browser-based data access. In addition to mobile email, popular enterprise mobility applications cover categories including customer relationship management, project and resource management, and collaborative working.

New device types

Laptops with integrated mobile broadband are common among travelling workers, and netbooks are providing an even more portable option for nomadic workers - according to IDC, 20% of portable computer sales were "mini notebooks" during the fourth quarter of 2008.
On the horizon are mobile internet devices (MIDs), which are likely to provide a more consumer-oriented alternative to netbooks, with a focus on multimedia and internet service support, and including touch screens. It is not clear whether these internet tablets will evolve to support a more "prosumer" oriented feature set.

With their larger screens, netbooks and MIDs are capable of delivering a mobile internet experience that is more akin to laptop PCs. But this comes at the expense of portability, where smartphones retain the edge.

Future technologies

The technology currently gaining most traction among vendor device portfolios is WiFi, driven by the high penetration of WiFi access points in the home and office. ABI Research is forecasting a doubling of dual-mode mobile/WiFi device volumes between 2008 and 2010.

Assisted GPS is also penetrating through manufacturers' portfolios, enabling both business and consumer location-based services. Privacy will be important here, as users will be worried that location information could work its way into the wrong hands. The ability to control who can access location data and when, will be crucial.

Looking further ahead, near field communications (NFC) technology will enable customers to make small purchases using their mobile phones for payment, for instance in car parks or shops. A quick swipe of NFC-enabled handset passed a wireless payment reader will see an account credited/debited and the user will be able to interrogate their accounts in real time. 

Pico-projectors will enable devices to project information onto screens, transforming mobile phones into portable ad-hoc presentation tools for travelling business users.

Behind-the-scenes, processor and memory capabilities are improving, meaning that smartphones now pack impressive computing power - and making Nokia a bigger seller of computers than HP or Dell.
Anthony Plewes

After a Masters in Computer Science, I decided that I preferred writing about IT rather than programming. My 20-year writing career has taken me to Hong Kong and London where I've edited and written for IT, business and electronics publications. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Stewart Baines where I continue to write about a range of topics such as unified communications, cloud computing and enterprise applications.