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The Key to Handheld Devices

April 2003. Pocket PC/PDA versions: [MS Reader]

What is the future of computing? The computing industry has gone through five generations. First was the large and bulky mainframe computer, where users connected through terminals to large and centralize data processing units. Next came the minicomputers, which were smaller and less expensive and even could be contained with a room. These computers supported time sharing and allowed departments to have their own computing resources. Next, with the growth of the microprocessor, came the microcomputer. These included the Apple Mac and the IBM PC. The power of these computers increased over the years, and supported the next major wave which was in networked systems. These systems allowed users to share resources over a network, and even computing power. The next wave of the computing industry is likely to be the move towards mobility, where the physical link between the device, and the network is finally broken. For these systems to be adopted the key elements will be: Operating Systems, Networking and Applications. If these three areas are successfully conquered, mobile devices will truly be the future of computing.

Operating System.
An operating system allows the user an easy access to the resources of the computer. In most cases, this is graphically-oriented, with Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointers (WIMP). A mobile device has a different type of operating system than a normal desktop. This is mainly because the mobile device typically has a limited range of resources, such as a limited amount of system memory, storage memory, processing power, and screen resolution. Thus an operating system of a mobile device will typically be a highly efficient, and highly optimised version of a desktop operation system.

The two main competing standards are: Windows CE (which is a stripped-down version of Microsoft Windows) and Palm OS. The term stripped-down is actually not a very good term for an operating system which runs on a mobile device, as it is a highly engineered, and robust piece of software, which must run as efficiently as possible. Where most modern software applications are verbose in their usage of resources, especially in terms of system memory and processing power, programs which run on limited resource devices must be carefully designed and must be robust, as users do not have access to the normally tools for analysing and debugging applications. Imagine if your mobile phone crashed in the middle on an important call, and erased itself, and all its data. You'd take it back, and ask for another type of phone. With desktop PCs we accept it.

Windows CE is likely to become the standard as Microsoft promote it, giving vendors the rights to customize the environment for their own applications. It must be remembered that the market for this type of system will not only be in mobile computers, but in mobile phone, MP3 players, DVD players, games consoles, and so on. Thus for PC-based companies such as Microsoft it could open many new markets, especially in consumer electronics. It is expected that by the year 2006 that there will be many more versions of Windows CE sold than desktop equivalents. The actual hardware is less important than the operating, as the operating system generally defines the hardware that can be supported. A good example of this is in the Pocket PC, which uses Windows CE, and several different types of processing elements.

A key factor for the adoption of mobile devices is the capability to network to other devices, especially in a connection to the Internet. A problem in the past with mobile devices has been in the ability to share and transfer content. At present the two main methods to network onto the Internet are through ISP-type connections or through the GSM network (though a mobile phone). The two main network connections that a mobile device can use are IEEE 802.11b (Wi-fi) and Bluetooth. The Wi-fi is a wireless connection which connect to normal network-type connections, whereas Bluetooth is typically used to connect to consumer devices, such as mobile phones and hi-fi’s. The new HP iPAQ offers one of the best examples of this type of technology with integrated Wi-fi and Bluetooth. The Wi-fi part can be used to connect to an office or home network though a wireless hub, while the Bluetooth part can be used to connect to a mobile phone, which can then make an Internet connection for the mobile device. Both Wi-fi and Bluetooth are now well supported and make excellent use of network resources. Wi-fi, for example, can be used to transmit over 11,000,000 bits per second over a range of 400 meters.

The main applications that a mobile device must support are: Office applications (word processing spreadsheet, and email client), A WWW browser and a Media Player. Unfortunately, up to now, few of the mobile devices had the processing power or memory capacity to run these applications. The devices were also limited in their graphics capability. The processing power has now increased, and the size of the electronics has reduced, to such an extent that desktop applications can now be run at an acceptable rate on a mobile device. Microsoft, of course, have several trump cards which they can play in order for Windows CE to become the standard mobile computer standard, as they use their considerable PC application experience to port applications to the new embedded systems. The key applications in this are Word, Excel, Outlook, MS Explorer and Media Player. These applications have become the foundation of most businesses, and without them many organisations could not operate effectively. All of these applications are now tightly bound with Windows CE, and thus make it attractive to purchasers, over Palm-based version with will require some form of conversion between the PC-based version and the Palm version. The Pocket PC, such as the HP iPAQ, has Windows CE with integrated versions of Word, Excel, Outlook, MS Explorer, and Media Player. The link with a fixed network is still important, thus the network connect offers a way to synchronise information from a desktop computer to the mobile device, and back. For example, with the Pocket PC, the contents of a desktop email Inbox can be transfer from a desktop to a handheld device, and then read. The user can then respond by sending a response which is then synchronised with the Outbox of a desktop computer.

It will be a while before mobile devices can truly break their link with fixed computer, as they do not current have enough storage space, or processing capabilities, but the present range of hand-held devices offer a glimpse into the future where the storage and processing capabilities of our desktop computers will be available in the palm of our hands.