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Running In the Field: How to Make Your Handheld Your Best Friend

Enterprises take note: as handheld devices become both more capable and more user-friendly, they're also becoming "must-have" equipment for people who work away from the office, replacing their heavy laptops with smaller and lighter but still fully-functional equipment.

any people no longer even own a desktop; instead they love laptops, whether entry-level or expensive mobile workstations, and work on them exclusively. But laptops are too heavy to carry all the time, and too slow and cramped to be the equivalent of a desktop. Personally, I keep a desktop for heavy tasks, but carry a handheld with me all the time for less-demanding tasks—because modern handhelds are capable enough to handle many of the tasks I need to do. Sure, you can't (or wouldn't want to) write a long document or browse the web and get the full desktop experience, but the handheld can run my IMAP client and, most importantly, it can run specific vertical applications that make performing out-of-office field tasks fast and simple.

Mobile Devices and Mobile Workers
Most mobile devices today are mobile phones, or—if you prefer—many mobile phones are also powerful handhelds. However you prefer to think about the devices, they all provide a mobile computing platform with communications capability. I live in Italy (for now, at least until I can afford to move), where there are more mobile phones than people. Essentially, everyone has a mobile platform available. Therefore, everyone can run applications to handle some tasks without needing a laptop or desktop. In addition, most mobile phone can take good photos, and some can even detect your location, using an integrated GPS. Finally, most modern handhelds can connect to a Wi-Fi network and, of course, can connect to the Internet with wireless technology (for example Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS), which provides several megabits per second of bandwidth).

While many people need to work away from the office, not all are truly mobile workers. Instead, when in the field they typically need to complete some specific task: collect sales orders, check product availability, create invoices, collect field data, and so forth. And what they're finding is that the more specific the tasks, the easier it is to eschew heavy devices and use a lightweight, simple, handheld device with custom software.

Windows Mobile and NET CF
Microsoft has a complete line of operating systems ranging from small devices that run a full copy of Windows Embedded, to those that run the lighter-weight Windows Mobile, which has been a strong applications platform since version 5.0 (the current release is version 6.0). Microsoft also provides a .NET framework compliant runtime for Windows Mobile, called the ".NET Compact Framework", or .NET CF for short, now at version 3.5. .NET CF is a subset of the full .NET framework, but still includes most .NET features. The result is a platform familiar to millions of developers, programmable with Visual Studio, that uses the same software models and languages those developers use to create Windows laptop and desktop software.

For .NET developers, these features make getting into mobile software a breeze.

Connected Applications
The biggest problem in using handhelds for work-related tasks is that the generic software available for handhelds doesn't match their needs. Some applications fail because they aren't specific enough; others fail to meet business needs because they assume users must complete all tasks using only the mobile device. That's a mistake: a handheld becomes truly useful only when it's running "connected applications;" otherwise, it's suitable only for maintaining schedules or for playing games. A "connected application" is essentially a client-server application; the smart-client software runs on the handheld device, using a rich GUI, and provides some of the application functionality, but it's connected to a remote server, where the bulk of the application runs. When you start thinking of mobile devices as platforms for running connected applications, you open up a whole new world of software possibilities.

For example, some time ago I wrote an application ("PalmBUS RW") that bus ticket inspectors use to collect reports about bus status and to issue paper fines. The handhelds print fines immediately, using a small mobile printer, then transmit the collected bus status and fine data to a central server when each bus inspector returns to headquarters, using a standard Wi-Fi connection. This application makes data collection both more affordable and keeps records more up to date than using a hand-written paper system, where data had to be typed into the main system by hand. The bus inspectors have adjusted well to the handhelds; their light weight makes them perfect for a "real mobile" application such as this.

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