Why Form Factor Matters

Last week's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2002 doesn't seem like an obvious place to turn for enterprise news, but because of a blurring of the lines between the consumer-oriented CES and the more business-oriented COMDEX show, CES presented several enterprise-relevant technologies. One of the more intriguing technologies that Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates discussed in his keynote address was "Stinger," the code name for Microsoft's upcoming line of smart cell phones based on Windows CE technology.

When I first heard about Stinger last year, my initial reaction wasn't particularly positive. Although I consider PC-to-cell phone connectivity important, I didn't think a cell phone was a great PDA replacement. First-generation Internet-enabled phones, some of which open to a horizontal screen and tiny keyboard for email and Web use, are interesting gadgets, but aren't necessarily compelling or cost effective. And I've seen a new generation of cell phones with 64MB of RAM for, seriously, storing MP3 files. You can use your cell phone as a portable audio player, although anyone who's wrestled with cell-phone battery life already knows that this concept is a foolish use of precious resources. And then we have PDA-cell phone hybrids. Picture a Palm or Pocket PC device with earphone attachments and a screen-based numeric pad, and you get the idea. But I'm not sure I want my ear on the PDA screen, and a trailing ear bud and wire sort of ruins the wireless effect.

Combining a cell phone with a PDA is a fairly obvious move, but the PDA form factor doesn't lend itself to phone use. The goal is to combine these technologies into one space-saving, lightweight device that makes our lives easier. The Stinger demo during Gates' keynote suggests that Microsoft might have created a device that addresses these needs. Now called Smart Phone 2002, the device resembles a standard cell phone but offers a color screen adorned with Pocket PC-like icons and text labels. You navigate with the numeric pad (a number precedes each menu option) or the phone's directional keys. And similar to a Pocket PC, the Smart Phone synchronizes with your PC and offers Outlook-style Calendar, Contacts, and Tasks functionality.

Watching the demo, I realized that the cell phone form factor is the right choice for combining cell-phone and PDA functionality. Frequency of use is the deciding factor: Which device do you use most often? For most people, the answer is the cell phone, so developers need to meld PDA technology into the cell phone and not vice versa. In the Smart Phone, Microsoft has melded these technologies in a way that seems practical and easy to use.

However, the technology still raises questions—about battery life, for instance. My iPAQ delivers hours of uptime between charges, but no cell phones currently equal that capability. And the Smart Phone offers other Pocket PC functionality, such as Web browsing, that seems impractical on a cell phone—at least until more Web sites can autodetect the client and display a properly formatted (i.e., mostly text) page. But for taking contact and scheduling information on the road, a cell phone might prove to be the ultimate form factor. I'll be watching this technology closely, and recommend that anyone considering a palm-sized personal information manager (PIM) device do so as well.

Other Notes and Corrections
In last week's Windows & .NET Magazine UPDATE, I reported that the FBI created the National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC) in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. I should have said that NIPC has taken on increased importance since the attacks.

Also, regarding "Laptop of the Month," the feedback was overwhelmingly in favor of keeping this piece, so I'll do so. A review will appear in the final UPDATE of each month. My next review will be of a Compaq Evo, I believe, but I'm looking for suggestions. If you have any particular machines that you'd like me to review, please let me know.

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