Navigating platforms for mobile applications and devices, with expert Craig Mathias

Many choices confront IT managers when selecting and deploying smartphones and mobile platforms. Craig Mathias, principal with Farpoint Group -- an advisory firm specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing -- is no stranger to how overwhelming these choices can be. Mathias will chair the Wireless and Mobility Track and will moderate a session, "Platforms for Mobile Applications," at Interop Las Vegas 2008. The session will be open to Interop attendees on Tuesday, April 29 at 3:45 p.m. To give our readers a sneak peek, SearchMobileComputing.com chatted with Mathias about his upcoming presentation and the trends occurring in mobility.

Craig Mathias
Craig Mathias
Many choices confront IT managers when selecting and deploying smartphones and mobile platforms. Craig Mathias, principal with Farpoint Group -- an advisory firm specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing -- is no stranger to how overwhelming these choices can be. Mathias will chair the Wireless and Mobility Track and will moderate a session, "Platforms for Mobile Applications," at Interop Las Vegas 2008. The session will be open to Interop attendees on Tuesday, April 29 at 3:45 p.m. To give our readers a sneak peek, SearchMobileComputing.com chatted with Mathias about his upcoming presentation and the trends occurring in mobility.

Why is the term "smartphone" becoming obsolete, and what terminology do you expect will be used in the future?
Craig Mathias: The term "smartphone" has become vague and imprecise. Is a phone with a dialing directory a smartphone? How about one with a browser?

I think we need to divide handsets into two categories:

  • Those that are designed to have third-party applications loaded onto them, or "platform-based" phones;
  • Those that aren't -- or which allow only specific applications as enabled by the carrier. We may as well continue to call these "smartphones."

The subject of my session at Interop covers the former terminology, though we obviously need a catchier term than "platform-based."

What are the key platform alternatives available today?
Mathias: There are a lot of them today. Some are full operating systems, such as Windows Mobile, Symbian, BlackBerry OS, OpenMoKo, Android, Garnet and other Linux variants. Some are platforms for applications that can run -- in theory, anyway -- on multiple OS or smartphone software, among them Java, BREW and Series 60.

Are these platforms currently viable?
Mathias: All are viable, but I think Linux ultimately wins -- although that's one of the questions we will need to explore in my session.

Are the service providers or manufacturers the ones influencing most of the platforms today?
Mathias: Vendors, not carriers, are most influential here today, but that could change.

What are the important facts that typical business users should know about the current mobile platforms and alternatives?
Mathias: The big questions for end users are:
  • What software do you want to run?
  • Is the application already ported to the OS running on the device of interest?
  • If not, what is involved in getting it ported?
  • If you develop your own apps, how hard is it to write for a given platform?

What's next for mobile operating systems and software platforms for mobile applications? What changes will mobile operating systems have to undergo to better facilitate the increasing amount of work mobile business workers do on their mobile devices?
Mathias: I tend to favor browser-based, Web-services apps. This approach could minimize complexity and maximize application availability -- as well as commonality with the desktop -- but there are obvious user-interface and connectivity issues preventing a smooth transition to this strategy today.

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It seems a hybrid local-execution/Web-services approach will be required for some time, along with synchronization of the data involved -- as painful and as error-prone as that is. So should we just run Windows Vista on our mobile devices and be done with it -- that's a rhetorical question; I'm obviously not in favor of this for reasons of cost, complexity, convenience and reliability.

Will the handheld continue to challenge and perhaps ultimately replace the PC?
Mathias: The biggest issues are:

  • Form factor
  • User interface
  • Cost
  • Performance
  • Flexibility

Styling (like the Morph) matters more to consumers than to business people, but it is a huge influence nevertheless.

I don't think the handset will replace the PC anytime soon. But it is pretty clear the PC is often more trouble than it's worth -- size, weight, cost, battery life, boot-up time, overall convenience, maintenance, bugs, updates, malware, support costs, etc. -- for day-to-day tasks such as email or giving presentations. Handsets -- perhaps augmented by larger keyboards -- might replace PCs in many common tasks, but not all.

Which mobile information paradigm will win in the enterprise?
Mathias: Nanotechnology is interesting as an implementation technique for components (e.g., supercapacitors), but I don't think there are many user-visible benefits. I think the Palm PDA form factor will continue to be around for a long time, but it's not clear that today's leaders in this space will remain leaders in the future.

It seems that what were formerly just business devices are trickling down into the consumer market. What do you make of this trend?
Mathias: The trickle actually occurs in both directions -- witness the iPhone, clearly designed for consumers but seeing increasing use, as well as vendor emphasis, in business situations.

But the big issue with business devices is manageability -- and consumers don't want their personal phones managed by their employer. The solution is:

  • Policy.
  • Mobile device management tools for business phones.
  • Increasing emphasis on the employer providing the business phone.

But there remains the eternal problem of having too many devices to carry, support, power and manage.

Perhaps someday we'll have a phone with two distinct personalities in one -- business and personal. That's my No. 1 wish at the moment.

What will be the biggest trend or news on people's minds at Interop?
Mathias: Cost control, network management, improving productivity, and planning for cost-effective upgrade cycles. Of course, mobile and wireless are always popular topics as well.

This was first published in April 2008

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