Enterprise end-user computing will undergo a dramatic transformation in the next two years to 10 years. CTOs and other business leaders should begin examining now how the convergence of next-generation handheld computers and high-speed wireless connectivity will shape the future of end-user computing. Perhaps most important is a careful consideration of the embedded operating systems that power today’s handheld devices, because these OSes will provide the foundation that will support future end-user computing in the enterprise.

The capabilities of today’s handheld OSes, such as Palm OS, Linux, Java, and Windows CE, are hampered by the limitations of first-generation handheld devices. But the functionality expected in second-generation handhelds, which are expected to arrive in the next two years to three years, will increase capabilities significantly. More storage and memory in forthcoming handhelds will make them viable platforms for applications that go beyond mere PDA functions such as e-mail, calendar, address books, and task lists.

On a parallel track, wireless technologies are also improving. Many handheld devices, such as the Palm and BlackBerry, can enable low-speed access to e-mail and server-based applications. Within the next two years to three years, higher-speed wireless connectivity will make its way into newer handhelds. The connectivity improvements will enable the deployment of a wider variety of business applications to embedded, handheld OSes.

Choosing which of the many embedded OSes you’ll use to support your handheld-based business applications is a crucial decision for a number of reasons. Chief among these is portability. We will almost certainly see several generations of handheld devices with varying capabilities going forward, much as we’ve seen several generations of desktop PCs.

To adapt your business applications to several generations of devices, and perhaps even to wholesale changes in device types, you must choose an embedded OS that supports a high degree of application portability. With respect to portability, Java is clearly a good choice. If you develop business applications for handhelds using Java, you could deploy them to a wide range of devices, including handhelds that support the Palm OS, embedded Linux, and pure-play Java devices. By contrast, if you choose to develop business applications that target Palm OS, these applications are portable only to the degree that they can run on device generations that support the Palm OS.

Your choice of embedded OS should also take into account the availability of development tools and the strength of the programmer community that will be available to support the creation and maintenance of business applications. For example, if your developers are already creating business applications using Visual Basic, they can easily use available toolkits to target Windows CE devices using the same language.

Furthermore, many leading IDEs (integrated development environments), such as Borland Software Corp.’s JBuilder and Metrowerks Inc.’s CodeWarrior, enable developers to quickly extend applications to the Palm OS, Java, or Linux.

At present, the Palm OS supports the greatest number of packaged applications: More than 5,000 apps are available. But many of these applications are better suited to individuals than to corporate use. The number of ready-made business applications is expected to increase with the arrival of the next generation of handhelds.

Today, most enterprises do not take handheld computing seriously, due to the limited applicability of existing handhelds in business settings. But as the next generation of handhelds provides capabilities comparable to a desktop PC, IT strategists should plan to manage the purchase and deployment of these second-generation handheld devices in a centralized manner – just as desktop PC procurement and deployment is handled today.

With the handheld market currently in flux, it may be difficult to determine now which embedded OS will be best for your company in the long term. Certainly today’s most popular platforms, such as the Palm OS and Windows CE, are leading candidates for corporate adoption. But other choices, including Java and embedded Linux solutions such as MonteVista Software Inc.’s Hard Hat Linux, bear close investigation as highly flexible approaches that are gaining ground. Moreover, embedded OSes that power other types of devices, such as smart phones, also merit examination as handheld application functionality will likely converge with other types of devices in the future.

Now is the right time for corporate strategists to begin studying this emerging market and the impact it will have on enterprise end-user computing operations. Examining embedded OS options today with an eye toward the smart handhelds of tomorrow will help prepare your company for the next generation of end-user computing in the enterprise.


Embedded OS Strategies

Executive Summary: Strategists should plan now for the next wave of end-user computing, which will be powered by second-generation handheld devices, broadband wireless connectivity, and embedded OSes that will make handhelds viable clients for enterprise business applications.

Test Center Perspective: Palm OS and Windows CE lead in the embedded OS market for handhelds today, but IT managers should consider other options, such as Java and embedded Linux, that can increase application portability and potential application customization.

Contributing Editor Maggie Biggs ([email protected]) is a software developer with more than 15 years of business and IT experience.

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