Can You Hear Me Now?
Have you developed an application for a mobile platform yet? No? Well, why not? Developing applications for mobile devices is drastically gaining importance. Devices ranging from highly portable notebook computers to Tablet PCs are everywhere these days. But perhaps even more importantly, handheld devices such as Pocket PCs and Smartphones are also gaining momentum. While in the past, such devices have been used mainly as PIM (Personal Information Management) devices that allow people to stay on top of their calendars and contact lists, as well as - for the fancier devices - email, they are now being transformed into management and logistics workhorses.
All of this sounds good in theory of course. However, the momentum to develop for these platforms has been slow, especially in the United States. While cell phones are popular in the USA, their popularity is nowhere near the level it has reached in many European countries. And the devices in Europe are just more sophisticated. Why is that?
I suspect that citizens living in the United States know how pathetic the level of coverage and quality is for wireless devices based on cell phone technology! It makes a lot of sense to me that I should be able to access subscriber stats for CoDe Magazine on my PDA anytime, anywhere. But it makes no sense to me that anytime means "when I have minutes left I can afford" and "when I have enough time to wait for the slow connection," and "anywhere" really refers to major cities and major highways (and even then sometimes only under roaming conditions).
I recently experienced the full misery of this situation when I attempted to purchase a new cell phone/PDA. I set out to find a device that could accommodate some of my fundamental needs: I want to connect from practically anywhere I go. This certainly includes areas outside the continental US, in particular Europe. I want to read my email using the device in a way that connects me directly to my Exchange Server, and I want to take advantage of other Exchange features such as calendars and to-do lists. I also want to be able to answer many emails, which basically means I need a thumb-keyboard since pen-based input is out of the question for all but the shortest messages. And, of course, I would like to integrate this device into my enterprise development strategy, which is based on Microsoft .Net technology. I want to be able to reuse VS .NET code I have already developed for "connected" applications, and I want to use rich-client features, such as SQL CE. I also want the device to have a nice display because I make few phone calls but I surf the Internet and use instant messaging all the time. Therefore, I would like to run Windows Messenger, since that is the IM client I use the most. Oh, and of course I want simple features that are now standard, such as an integrated camera.
To make a long story short: I wasn't able to find a device that comes even close. On one hand, it seems that the Pocket PC, Phone Edition, would be ideal, but few of them feature an integrated keyboard. The devices that do have an integrated keyboard are not available from providers that support calls outside the US, and generally seem to involve roaming calls almost everywhere I go. In fact, I was only able to locate one provider that sells the device I found that met most of my needs. Coincidentally, I have a very good understanding of the roaming situation with this particular provider because I already have one of their phones (and I am not happy with the number of times I have to switch into roaming mode). Based on this provider's commercials, I assume they only have coverage in an area that a single QA guy can cover on foot.
Microsoft's Smartphone also sounds promising, but I grew tired of waiting for them to be available. (I had been waiting for one and a half years when I was on this quest.) Additionally, the Smartphone devices lack the keyboard and the display size I crave. (I really am looking for a wireless, Internet-enabled device with phone capabilities, rather than a phone that works well with the Web).
Palm devices come pretty close in many ways, but due to my choice of development platform, I had to rule them out from the get-go. I am a fan of Microsoft technology, but I have to admit that many of the features available for Palm-powered devices are very nice, and Microsoft is nowhere near being able to compete.
I was finally forced into a semi-optimal solution by choosing a device I like that supports most of the features I want, even though it doesn't work outside the US. Or rather, I would have chosen this device, but unfortunately that device seems to be so popular that I have now tried to purchase it one for over a month with no luck. Just what I want: I settle for something I am not too fond of anyway, and then I have to line up for it as if I wanted to buy bread in the former Soviet Union!
I am sure that within a few months I will be able to cruise down the freeway and surf the Web on my new device (while someone else is driving my car). I will have to stay on the main roads or I will be forced into an expensive roaming situation. Can't someone provide me with a PC platform that incorporates cell technology with full coverage no matter where I go in this "most advanced tech-" country? This situation was made painfully obvious to me on one of my last trips to Europe where I visited my home town in the Austrian Alps. I decided to climb a mountain that I used to climb with my grandfather when I was a little boy. I am particularly fond of this mountain because it is extremely remote and away from civilization, offering the peace and relaxation I was craving. (For pictures, check out www.MarkusEgger.com). A friend drove us up an old dirt road and then we started into the multi-hour uphill hike. It was just as beautiful as I remembered (although the climb was much harder to do than it was when I was 10). No sign of civilization at all.
A few hours later, we decided to return and we needed our friend to come pick us up at the dirt road. One of my hiking companions pulled out her European cell phone and called our ride. Out in the middle of nowhere! No ugly cell phone towers for miles and miles. And guess what? The connection's clarity would rival any hardwired line here in the US. I compare that to my cell phone connection in Texas, where I can hardly call my office from my car when I am in downtown Houston, and I am truly disappointed!
So it's no wonder to me that US-based developers haven't developed more applications for mobile platforms. Someone has to fix this mess! It doesn't take a great visionary to understand that mobile devices will become extremely important. But in order for that to happen, a lot of work must be done by pretty much everyone in the supply side of the chain. Developers are ready to take advantage of these devices today. So get moving you hardware guys who need to get the infrastructure going, and you politicians who need to de-regulate the telecom sector! Hello? Can you hear me? Hello...?