General Motors announced last week that it will partner with wireless carrier Nextel to use Nextel’s Motorola cell phones with data capabilities to market a field-force management application to its commercial truck fleet customers. The announcement casts a shadow over the future of handheld devices in the business marketplace.
By selecting a cellular phone, GM in essence said no to Palm, HP, and Microsoft.
IT departments should consider the reasoning behind GM’s decision before recommending a handheld solution of their own.
GM representatives told me they believe the cell phone is nonthreatening, a piece of hardware most people are comfortable using. GM’s first target market of field-force operations has as its core a noncomputer-savvy workforce, and the theory goes that these workers need a device that is easy to use. Believe it or not, many white-collar workers also struggle with handheld operating systems and would be grateful to be able to have a slimmed-down application that responds to just a few presses of a keypad.
Nextel is certainly capturing a large piece of the so-called blue-collar market with its built-in Direct Connect push-to-talk technology that transforms a phone into a walkie-talkie on steroids.
But in addition to push-to-talk, the Nextel Motorola phones have a JVM (Java Virtual Machine) that runs J2ME (Java 2 Platform Micro Edition) applications, which can be downloaded and upgraded over the wireless network. In many respects, leveraging Java on the client with J2EE app servers on the back end makes handsets equal in capability to handhelds. In fact, handsets are already encroaching on traditional handheld markets. For example, an application exists for remote IT systems management called IC2 from Inciscent. Engineers use PermitWorks to look up permit contracts in construction.
Ernie Cormeir, vice president of business solutions at Nextel in Reston, Va., tells me that there are Java clients for PeopleSoft and that Siebel CRM apps run over Nextel’s iDEN wireless network.
The combination of GPS, Java, push-to-talk, and ease of use makes it hard not to consider a handset over a handheld.
Minneapolis-based GearWorks, the field-force application software developer selected by GM for its commercial fleet division offering also makes the same field-force application, called etrace, for handhelds. However, Keith Lauver, GearWorks CEO, obviously believes that Java-based business applications on cell phones are the better choice.
“Until [handheld] device manufacturers present the right combination of familiarity, features, and cost, we’ll continue to see a long and snowy winter for handhelds,” Lauver said.
The auto industry has a lot of clout. GM is not only the biggest of the auto makers; it is also not shy about preaching what it practices. GM’s CTO Tony Scott is a regular attendee and speaker at major IT conferences. As IT managers get a better sense of what they want to do with wireless and remote access, they will be listening.
Certainly implementations of any application on any device will cause hassles for IT. But I suggest that the case for handsets over handhelds is strong, and there is no doubt why: A handheld costs more going in, adds another layer of management, and requires additional support.
Let me know what you think.
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