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Mobile CoDe.NET: Microsoft Mobility 101

Does Microsoft have a real development solution for handheld devices or will other vendors continue to grab the spotlight? Here in the first installment of Mobile CoDe.NET, we'll describe the OS choices and software development tools and we'll lay out the yellow brick road that you can follow to start building your own mobile solutions.


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obility is one of those fields which everybody knows is a definite part of our future, in 5 to 10 years or so. Think again. Amber steps out of her client's office, enters her car, pulls out her mobile phone and dials the number to her main office. She's calling Martin—her internal sales representative to inform him that she finally closed a deal with her client. She needs him to place an internal order at the warehouse. There are many items on that order, including 500 units of product X, configuration A. After a quick query in the central inventory management system, Martin informs her that there are only 250 units left of that configuration, but there are more than plenty for her order if the client would be willing to switch to configuration B. Amber now needs to call her client back and save the deal. The client will be very disappointed, the whole thing will have to be negotiated over the phone, and Amber will probably have to cut her margins or else she'll lose everything.

This scenario represents one of many that pain enterprises today. The client had several products to choose from and several configurations were available for each product. Amber couldn't have checked for the availability of each product before her meeting, and even if she had, it was possible that another salesperson within the company might have closed a sale the same day for the same product configuration. Had Amber been able to check the inventory status of that product configuration during the client meeting using some remote access, she might have had the option to push for a different option in order to save the deal. A mobile sales software solution connected to the central inventory management system could have avoided this situation and saved Amber's deal. Using a wireless connection to the Internet, she could have logged on her corporate extranet via a mobile application running on her Pocket PC or Smartphone to check for product availability. She could have placed the order online then and there, thus saving her the call to the internal sales employee.

Mobile applications are just one more form of business software you have to learn to design and write. Not tomorrow... today! They open a new realm of possibilities for mobile workers and allow a new level of automation between people, businesses, and processes.

Third-party software packages are usually a good start since they are broadly available and cost a lot less than their desktop equivalents. But if you need software applications that are more specifically tailored to your enterprise needs, you'll need to either build them yourself or have an external firm build them for you.
In this regular column I will explore how you can leverage enterprise mobility and Microsoft .NET to build new types of applications that maximize the productivity of your users and reach out to new users as well. While future issues will address specific topics and present in-depth technical samples and usage scenarios, think of this first foray as your Microsoft Mobility 101 crash course.


What Is Mobility? What Is It Good For?
Mobility—from the perspective of the IT world—is a broad term that binds together many concepts related to using computer devices while on the move. The first concept that typically jumps to mind is the notion of wireless connectivity. While wireless access to the Internet and your corporate intranet is often implied, it is not mandatory. Mobile applications are nothing new; it's just that most of them were designed to operate offline with a local set of data that you synchronize with a central store whenever you reconnect the mobile device to the corporate network. The reason why mobility suddenly becomes so interesting stems from the emergence of new wireless corporate networking standards like 802.11b and the adoption of new standards by national telecom carriers for wireless data access on the road, such as GPRS or 1xRTT. More on those later. The second concept usually associated with mobility necessarily involves various mobile devices. Those devices come in many shapes and form factors, including palm-sized organizers, clamshell-style pocket computers, Internet-enabled phones, and a whole plethora of other devices, from the pervasive iPaq to the more obscure TDS Ranger. Over the last few years, we have been witness to a massive explosion of "smart" next-generation devices, which led to an even greater enthusiasm for the world of mobility.

Those devices nonetheless come with a bad prejudice as being nothing more than overpriced useless toys meant for stuffy executives who seek bragging rights over their counterparts. Especially following the alarming implosion of the dot bomb in late 2000, our fledgling industry is coming of age and wariness has set in. While ridiculous ideas were an easy sell in 1999, solid no-nonsense ideas based on mobility are having a hard time leaving a mark in 2003. It is true that most of these devices can seem pricey when merely evaluated as they stand out-of-the-box. You can get an electronic organizer or personal data assistant (PDA) for less than $100, so why spend $500 and more on an iPaq or a Toshiba e740? E-mail capabilities are a nice add-on but you also need extra hardware like a wireless Internet card and a data access plan with a carrier to fully use them. Read: more costs. Pocket Word and Pocket Excel are useful when you're in a jam but they are pale shadows of their full-featured Windows siblings. So why would you buy such a device, let alone equip dozens of your employees or co-workers with them?

There is a common prejudice that states Microsoft typically gets things right on the third release, and while Windows CE has seen multiple major revisions between versions 1.0 and 3.0, version 3.0 did put Windows CE on the map for good.
The answer lies in the simple fact that while these devices may be pocket-sized they nevertheless remain full-fledged computers. And just like you couldn't expect a simple computer-and-operating-system combo to be economically sound right out of the box, the same applies to mobile devices. The vanilla package isn't good enough. You need to add flavor. You need to add software. Third-party software packages are usually a good start since they are broadly available and cost a lot less than their desktop equivalents. One of the premier Internet Web sites for mobile device software shopping is Handango (www.handango.com). But if you need software applications that are more specifically tailored to your enterprise needs, you'll need to either build them yourself or have an external firm build them for you.

The good news is that developing mobile applications—or mobile development as it is known—is a lot easier than it used to be. Up until the mid-nineties, mobile development was only one step higher than device driver programming. Nowadays—thanks to the proliferation of mobile operating systems—mobile developers can work at a higher level and focus more on the business problem and less on the low-level plumbing. In short, mobile development has finally caught up with traditional Windows or Web programming. Let's begin by exploring the basics of mobile development in the Microsoft world.



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