Microsoft Corp., recognizing that PDAs are growing in computing power and influence, is pushing its .NET Compact Framework to help enterprises extend critical applications beyond firewalls to mobile workers, analysts say.
The .NET Compact Framework aims to help developers build information-rich applications that will be useable on mobile computing devices. It is a subset of Microsoft's larger .NET Framework, which includes products and services governed by technical standards that aim to reduce software development time.
Microsoft released a beta version of .NET Compact Framework for developers in March, 2003. It is available for handheld computers powered by Windows CE .NET 4.1 operating system, especially Pocket PC devices by Microsoft. "As a developer, the Compact Framework addresses rich applications running in a small form factor," says Keith Franklin, chief executive officer of Empowered Software in Burr Ridge, Ill. "You're not bringing up Internet Explorer on the Pocket PC; you're talking about (accessing) Word, Excel or some database application that's using processing power."
The Compact Framework is supported by Visual Studio.NET and may be available on a future version of Microsoft's Smartphone software for mobile phones. It reflects not only Microsoft's growing dependence on the larger .NET platform, but also its intention to serve a larger chunk of the enterprise market for PDAs and mobile phones, says Nick Jones, a London, England-based research analyst with Gartner Inc.
"Once you look at applications that need a thick client, Microsoft really is winning the corporate PDA battle," says Jones. "Talk to corporations and ask them, 'What are you buying for sophisticated PDA applications,' and the answer is Pocket PC."
There are some good reasons for this. Jones says .NET Compact Framework uses a toolset that is familiar to developers writing for big-end environments like Visual Basic and C++. Also, .NET uses a common framework and runtime that spans platforms and hardware architectures, meaning developers can reuse code and deliver services to a broader spectrum of mobile devices much quicker.
Xerox Global Services, the equipment and document services provider, extended its .NET-based asset management software to mobile devices used by service technicians in the field. The aim: Reduce paperwork errors and free technicians to respond to more pressing concerns.
"Our mobile asset management extensions allow technicians to use a Pocket PC to access asset information and make necessary updates without having to wait until end of the day, and without having to write things down on paper," says Steve Schlonski, the company's directory of software development. "Finally, technicians can use the Pocket PC to receive e-mail alert notifications from networked devices that have gone down."
Xerox programmers wrote a Pocket PC application in C# using .NET Compact Framework. The application uses SQL Server 2000 CE to store data locally, and synchronizes with a central SQL Server 2000 database using XML Web services and custom business rules.
According to Franklin, this type of versatility eliminates some of the heavy lifting associated with building applications. "If I needed to hold an object that I would need later, it used to be very difficult. You would have to write logic into your objects to support that."
With .NET, he says, "I can take the object and tell it to serialize itself into the file. In Java, I would need to serialize everything myself by taking all my data and building an XML document by hand."
In fact, that points to a key difference between .NET and J2EE, or Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition. While Java is less of a platform and more of a specification for standardizing application development across multi-tiered enterprises, .NET consists of actual product code shipped by Microsoft, such as the Compact Framework.
Despite its unyielding push into the corporate PDA/mobile device market, Microsoft faces several obstacles. First, its Pocket PC device has notoriously short battery life -- Gartner's Jones notes it has to be recharged almost daily -- when compared with competing products like Palm, by Milpitas, Calif.-based Palm Inc. That could make Pocket PC's impractical for running most high-availability applications.
What's more, Microsoft's incursion into its territory has Palm angling to offer Web services on its own devices. Palm owns about 60% of the wireless PDA market, and recently struck a deal with IBM Corp. to provide Palm developers with tools for creating networked software that runs on Palm devices and enterprise servers, with connections through wireless networks. Palm also souped up recent devices with more powerful processors.
Customers also may not readily embrace Microsoft's presence as a mobile device and services provider. "They don't want Microsoft to own their pocket device in the way it owns their desktop PC," says Jones.
Nonetheless, .NET and the Compact Framework enable Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft to launch a full-tilt strategy for increasing its wireless footprint. "In a few years, every significant employee (in companies) will be carrying an intelligent phone, a PDA or something like that," says Jones. "That's the market Microsoft wants to get revenue from."
About the author: Garry Kranz is a freelance business and technology writer in Richmond, Va.
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