Courting the popular kid

In the high school of technology, wireless is the prom king, star quarterback and valedictorian. Everyone wants to hang out with this kid. Software developers are trying to be crowned queen of applications, e-commerce wants to play alongside and hardware vendors can’t stick close enough.

Although, no one can be sure whether his charm is lasting.

Imagine the ongoing homecoming race for lead operating system then. In one corner we have Palm, in another we have Windows CE. Also weighing in Linux, Symbian, BREW, IDEN, RIM and others.

There is no clear view as to who the princess of PDAs will be. Robert Fabian, director of the E-Technology Institute at Seneca College in Toronto, said there are two industry trends more or less contradicting each other.

“Trend one is that for near equal dollars, the full-featured product swamps the niche product. When Windows CE has all the features, all the capabilities, Palm OS is going to have difficulties,” he said.

Fabian pointed out that, repeatedly in the computer business, a more general technology that is fully competitive – in terms of features, functions and everything else – swamps the niche technology. “The obvious expectation is that if you can put a completely general operating system on a wireless device that has all the special features, plus all the general stuff, that’s going to be more attractive.”

However, he said the second trend is in some ways a counter trend.

“It’s nicely symbolized by the blinking 12:00 on a VCR. It’s amazing the number of people who either can’t or don’t bother or don’t understand how to change the time on their VCR. To the extent that a wireless device is like a VCR – a mass market, end consumer, unsophisticated sale – not giving the user too many choices is a good thing.

“This argues that you don’t want to confuse (the end user) with the bewildering array of things that happen when you start up Windows, even baby Windows,” Fabian said.

He is amazed by the number of people using or thinking about wireless technology. “People have a problem. They want technology to solve it, but they don’t want to hear about options, they don’t want to know about the OS. I have phone numbers, addresses, my to-do list – what’s this operating system crap?”

Although he sees these two trends clearly, he doesn’t know who will win, Fabian said.

At one end of the spectrum is Research In Motion’s operating system, which was specifically developed to suit RIM’s always-on always connected simple text-based messaging, according to Ken Price, manager of product marketing for Richmond Hill, Ont.-based Compaq Canada.

“At the other end of the spectrum is something like Windows CE, which is saying, ‘Let’s give people a real pocket PC and give them the same graphical experience, a lot of the same metaphors and themes – really the ability to browse anything,'” Price said.

He said Palm and similar operating systems lie in the middle. “In terms of saying, ‘Let’s provide functionality that lets us look at content that has been optimized for us.'”

He said something like RIM’s operating system – that kind of appliance-like simplicity is a good idea. However, he added, Windows CE may give more flexibility.

As far as micro versions of operating systems, such as Windows CE, there is a difference when a user is looking at a small screen, Price said. “Is it a good idea to have content created for that? Definitely. Should the operating system work to manage that? You bet. That’s what I think I would demand as a user.”

Price advised users to be very flexible and not subscribe to anyone’s vision yet.

“The good news is that the devices are not all that expensive, so the cost of making a bad decision is not that bad. They are intended to be like appliances. Your expectations shouldn’t be that this is the thing you are going to live with for five years,” Price said.

He also sees no clear winner yet. “I can’t crystal ball this. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I’m going to come across as fence-sitting guy.”

Palm Canada’s Michael Moskowitz said that Palm’s view is to make the devices easy to use.

“It’s not about cramming as many features as possible. It’s the ease of use, through a myriad of things like add-on accessories that are easily customized to users’ needs,” said Moskowitz, president and general manager of Mississauga, Ont.-based Palm Canada.

The PC mentality doesn’t always cross over to PDAs well, he said. “It’s about placing the highest value of information in the palm of your hand. If you try to make a palm work like a PC, you destroy the very reason for using a handheld in the first place, which is to get at your information very quickly, very easily. Think of it as your stopwatch. You want to get into and out of your information quickly.”

He added that simplicity doesn’t mean the devices are as simple as calculators. They are complex, but the user doesn’t have to see the complexity, and shouldn’t have to overcome it.

“It’s about balance,” Moskowitz said. “Everyone will say they want MP3 and colour screens, but what are the trade-offs? Lower battery life, larger units, more cost, etc. If a customer says they want things, you have to figure out the trade-off. Especially with a mobile device. You don’t have the ability to plug in every hour, you don’t have the ability to do wireless surfing because the bandwidth is too small.”

no favourites

Many companies try to enter the wireless operating system market, especially those with embedded OS solutions, said Jonathan Eunice, principal analyst at Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata.

“Everyone that’s got a small footprint, embedded OS has visions of building a wireless device of some sort,” Eunice said. “All the embedded systems do not use a lot of resources. A lot of those are catch as catch can.”

However, he added, many other operating systems like Windows CE are all foreign environments to a wireless device. “They are not the same system running on a PC as they are on a wireless device.”

As to which operating system will become the favourite, Eunice said no one has answered that question yet.

“People have been asking this question for a long time – how fat does it need to be? Does it need to be more simple, or does it need to be a scaled down version of a desktop OS?” Eunice asked.

Edward Hung has a clear opinion on which OS he would see as the winner. Hung, manager of advanced research and technology for the City of Richmond in B.C., evaluated both the Palm OS and Windows CE.

“We found that the Palm was fast. When you turn that baby on, it’s right there. It’s in your face,” Hung said. “We also found that people who were using the Palm and switched to CE, wanted to go back to Palm.”

He stressed he is not actually declaring a winner, but Palm worked better for helping to run IT apps and for off site employees for the city.

He noted the benefit to the Palm OS was that people could gain fast access to the nuggets of information that they needed. “People want information quick and fast, they are not looking for watered down applications. . . People do want tight integration with the desktop, but that does not mean the smaller version of the desktop OS is going to work the best.”

Where did we put that bandwidth?

None of this will matter until bandwidth issues are settled, Hung joked.

Moskowitz agreed, saying network speeds are not to the point people need them to be.

“We’re just not really at the point where we can utilize wireless technology,” he said.

Telcos want to partner with Palm, he said, but they have to ask: Should they get involved in building a device for a network that isn’t out there yet?

“There is some exciting stuff happening in the short term, but the GPRS network in Canada hasn’t even been launched yet,” Moskowitz said. “With fatter pipes, more bandwidth, less latency, the market will change.” Fabian also made mention of the lack of bandwidth available for wireless networks.

“There’s talk of everything being wireless, so you can call your refrigerator and find out if you need milk. There are more than small technical problems in the way. There’s a fixed amount of spectrum to put wireless on. The only way to expand is to steal bandwidth from another service, which will fight like hell to keep it, or increase the number of cells, which will increase cost,” Fabian said.

Eunice thought another important issue was the form wireless devices would eventually settle into.

“As far as cell phones, a lot of people are carrying these. My mother, my father, my wife – they all have one. As far as palm devices, people are not utilizing them. There are some who use them well though,” Eunice said.

Fabian suspects that the industry is in a period of heavy turbulence. “What is wireless going to buy us? Will we go with a universal wireless device? It makes an unnatural phone or a heavy organizer or both.”

There will probably be more than one device, but the ones available may have more options, Eunice said. “I think a real question is to which degree is the cell phone going to pick up functions? There are already devices that are cell phones, digital cameras and MP3 players. The devices are still evolving.”

Eunice also questioned the form wireless will take, whether it be Bluetooth, 802.11b or cell phone.

Whatever the future holds, Price is happy to be in the market now. “We’re at a neat innovation stage,” he said.

“There’s a lot of innovation regarding security and compression to enable you to access, especially for corporate information. Whether that then becomes part of the operating system definition is interesting.”

Price added there are also improvements in integration and seamlessness with the wireless infrastructure.

“It’s very clear that all people have an expectation that all devices will have some level of wireless capability.”