When it comes to choosing the best platform for launching applications it's a question of matching business needs against manufacturers' future plans. E-mail may be kick-starting the roll-out of enterprise PDAs, but to really take off, they will need more than that.

Palm looks to Cobalt
Palm devices, of course, have long been surrounded by a vibrant development community, with the applications primarily commercial and focused on stand-alone clients. "Quite frankly, up until we got to the latest version, Cobalt, even though we put good fundamentals in place, gaps were filled by third parties and licensees," says John Cook, product marketing manager at PalmSource, the software company resulting from the Palm breakup. "You had to be more of a systems integrator if you were trying to build more enterprise apps on Palm OS devices."

Cobalt will feature a licensed version of IBM's WebSphere MicroEnvironment, a J2ME run-time environment, although the new operating systems will also run apps written for previous Palm OS versions. Palm has also joined the Eclipse Java development organisation and has licensed the WebSphere Studio Device Developer toolset for integration into the Palm OS platform. Unlike previous versions of the Palm OS, Cobalt will support schema-based databases. PalmSource is "trying to do more enablement for the developer community," Cook says.

RIM sticks with e-mail
Whether or not customers embrace Cobalt as an enterprise development platform, RIM appears less likely to extend much beyond e-mail in the foreseeable future, according to Todd Kort, a principal analyst at Gartner Dataquest. The development environment uses a proprietary flavour of J2ME that requires a learning curve few enterprise developers are likely to climb in order to build apps for BlackBerrys alone. "RIM is a nightmare to develop for," Kort says. "Gartner actually recommends that enterprises not develop for that platform."
Microsoft wins developers
By contrast, Microsoft's efforts to integrate mobile devices into .Net development have already paid off. Enterprises are developing more apps for the Pocket PC platform than any other. Warren Wilson, a practice director at Summit Strategies, says Microsoft understands that development for mobile devices should "be a seamless part of the app-dev process." In other words, developers can port their general Windows development work into mobile apps.

Ed Suwanjindar, product manager of mobile devices at Microsoft, touts the company's .Net Compact Framework, which has 12 controls for mobile devices, including screen size, rendering, and menus. "It's really efficient to transfer a Windows desktop application, optimised for a small footprint," he says. Visual Studio 2005, due out next year, will make targeting small devices even easier. "It's our intent," Suwanjindar says, "that mobile development will just be development."

PDAs must work standalone
Until recently, enterprise mobile application development has tended to be targeted to specific devices and specific applications, in such areas as field service, sales-force automation, medicine, and retail delivery. Wireless connections have been slow, erratic and expensive, so enterprises have preferred wire-line synchronisation and, have not been able to fully rely on GPRS, let alone Wi-Fi or 3G.

The result for mobile enterprise applications has been a kind of client/server architecture, where the mobile client must be fully usable in stand-alone mode, caching data for upload and downloading updates when an air or wire-line connection is available. To avoid costly one-off development projects for mobile devices, developers need to figure out how to adapt applications already deployed in the enterprise,

The real challenge is to decide what needs to be on the device all the time and what's needed in real time," says Adam Zawel, The Yankee Group director of wireless/mobile enterprise, "and to take an existing application and separate those components."

A Palm project
Such trade-offs manifest themselves in interesting ways. Take CooperVision, a manufacturer of contact lenses that has deployed PalmOne's Tungsten W handhelds to 70 sales reps across the US. The PDAs run a custom-built sales-force-automation application, but they're also equipped with GPRS modems for wireless cellular access, so the reps can deal with e-mail while sitting in an optometrist's office waiting to make a pitch. To upload orders from the SFA application into the corporate database, however, they must synchronise their Palms through their desktop PCs.

... an iPaq implementation...
The most compelling mobile deployments pursue multiple benefits. In a pilot project at Bedford, Freeman & Worth, a textbook division of Macmillan Publishing., high-end iPaqs have landed in the hands of 12 of the company's 70 sales representatives in North America. "Before this, at the end of the day they'd go home and spend two hours responding to e-mails and requesting sample textbooks be sent to professors," notes Paul Lentz, BFW's CRM project manager. "They asked us to decrease their administrative work so they could increase their time in front of customers."

Because they have the time and the tools, Lentz says, the salespeople can submit information into a knowledge management system that all the editors can access. "This helps us in terms of being a real-time enterprise," he says. The sales reps may interact with professors who are in the forefront of their field, revealing new teaching or research methods from which the editors can benefit. "The handhelds allow them to gather information everyone knows is out there but no one internally can get their hands on. An editor might find out something about a professor at a regional sales meeting, but by then it's too late. Some other publishing company has gotten that person to write a book."

... and a Toshiba project
A more conventional area attracting lots of mobile development activity is wholesale distribution. Wisconsin Distributors, an Anheuser-Busch wholesaler, has rid itself of considerable paperwork with an extremely productive, nonwireless mobile app. Thirty salesmen use Toshiba handhelds running Global Beverage Group's Pocket Cooler application to track orders and inventory. Via synchronisation, the Pocket Cooler application sends pertinent data to accounting and inventory-management systems, enabling warehouse workers to start preparing orders for the following day.

Craig Wardle, IT manager at Wisconsin Distributors, would like to equip the handhelds with cellular modems so that salespeople can send orders earlier and get warehouse employees compiling the bigger orders earlier. "We'd like to get the orders for large grocery stores in the middle of the day so that the warehouse crews can build the orders throughout the day rather than doing it in a mad rush starting at 5 p.m." The problem is that in his market, coverage is only a sure thing in Madison. Beyond that, "it follows the highways. If you get off the highway, your chances of a connection are less." As a result, Wisconsin Distributors' salespeople ask bar owners at various stops during the day if they can use the phone to upload information to the company database.