Lose your laptop, bring the handheld

Gartner analyst predicts handheld devices to take over the business world within two years

Relief may be in sight for road warriors weary of lugging 8-pound laptops from city to city, while packing another 10 pounds' worth of batteries, cables and peripherals -- perhaps even a portable slide projector for making presentations.

That kind of load can literally become a pain in the back for business travellers. But within two years, consumer-centric smartphone technologies will emerge to enable the development of lightweight handheld devices that support e-mail, word processing and even slide presentations, according to Nick Jones, a Gartner analyst who spoke Monday at the consulting firm's Wireless & Mobile Summit 2007 here.

"We've found many Gartner clients asking for something to replace the laptop on short trips," Jones said in an interview after his presentation. "Face it -- it's a brick that just sits there."

Already, travelling users can run e-mail and other applications on numerous handhelds. But the inability to run PowerPoint or other slide presentations off of the devices is a big problem, Jones said in his session. "Road warriors can do editing and e-mail on handhelds, but what usually kills you today is you can't project PowerPoint," he said.

But Jones predicted that as early as next year, handheld vendors will begin shipping devices with VGA output ports for connections to projectors. He said several handheld makers have put VGA outputs on their product road maps, including Taiwan-based High Tech Computer Corp. for its upcoming HTC X7500 device.

"In two more years, there will be a good range of mobile laptop and mobile phone devices" to replace the conventional laptop for short business trips, Jones said. He noted that a typical traveller might expect to carry a smart phone equipped with Bluetooth short-range wireless connectivity and a Bluetooth keyboard.

In addition to more functional smartphones, Jones foresees the development of ultramobile PCs that are smaller than the smallest PCs now on the market.

Bob Bracey, a systems integrator at Florida Technology Inc. in Jacksonville, Fla., said he's very familiar with the cry from mobile users for fewer and lighter devices. "We hear that all the time," he said, adding that Florida Technology currently is working with a large company that is rolling out unspecified devices to about 5,000 sales workers.

Bracey said he's hopeful about the HTC X7500, which will have a screen about 5 inches wide -- making it larger than existing smartphone screens but much smaller than the ones on laptops.

Previously, the Sony Vaio notebook PC was sought by many business executives because it's lightweight, Bracey said. But carrying the peripherals that come with the Vaio has detracted from its appeal, he noted. In addition, the Vaio and many small laptops "still take too long to boot and have been fraught with other connection problems," he said, pointing to the instant-on capabilities of smartphones and other smaller devices as one of their big selling points.

Neal Dillard, chief of wide area network management for the federal court system in Washington, said he would like to avoid taking a laptop on short trips but usually must do so because he makes many presentations while on the road. Sometimes, Dillard has been able to leave his laptop in the office and travel only with his BlackBerry device, but that's only if he doesn't have any presentations scheduled.

Dillard and his staff support nearly 30,000 U.S. Courts users, including judges and probation officers, on BlackBerry devices or other handhelds. Like him, he said, "they want to be able to do their work anywhere."

The looming advent of handhelds that can handle all of a mobile user's application needs is a good example of how consumer technologies are really driving what will be used in the workplace in coming years, Jones told the crowd of IT managers at the Gartner conference.

"Consumer mobile technology resistance is useless, so manage it," Jones said, borrowing a line from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. "All the cool innovations come from the consumer side."

Corporate IT shops are beginning to recognize the impact of consumer technologies on their workers, according to Jones. For example, he cited a survey of 100 IT managers in Australia that Gartner conducted last November showing that a majority felt ad hoc collaboration tools such as SMS and instant messaging would be valuable to their companies by 2010.

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