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Mobility for the working masses

It's only a matter of time before large companies go mobile, but many issues still need to be worked out. Photos: Wireless networking at CTIA

SAN FRANCISCO--It's not a question of if the mobile worker is coming, but when, according to executives from Microsoft, Nokia and Intel speaking at the CTIA trade show here.

"Mobility up to this point has been an executive toy," Mary McDowell, senior vice president and general manager of enterprise solutions for Nokia, said during the CTIA keynote address on Tuesday. "Now it's time to bring it to the masses."

Many large companies see mobility as key to improving productivity. Mobile devices, smart cell phones and Pocket PCs will let workers on the road stay connected to the corporate network and use many of the applications they depend on at their desks.


Peter Johnston, regional vice president of IT Asia Pacific for WPP, a multinational public relations and media company, said he'd like to give all of his 6,500 employees a mobile device that would allow them to check e-mail and download applications. But he isn't so sure the technology is ready to go just yet.

Johnston, who spoke as part of the keynote, recently took Nokia's new 9300 mobile device on the road for a test drive. He traveled to four different countries on eight airplanes and was in six different airports using the device to access e-mail, respond to messages and open attachments. Traveling from Hong Kong to Thailand to the Netherlands and then to Spain, he accessed nine different mobile operator networks. The final assessment? Nokia and the operators offering the 3G service that enables the devices still have a long way to go.

"It's just not dummy-proof yet," he said. "But it's an exceptionally powerful tool. We believe it will be an even more powerful tool once the service is seamless."

One of the big hurdles Johnston found was getting the device to work on different carrier networks. While some operators offered great service, others in the same region didn't. In Thailand and in Barcelona, Spain, he found himself having to manually switch providers to find a suitable signal. While this may not be a big deal to a CIO or an IT administrator, manually changing settings is unacceptable for regular employees who expect the technology they use to simply work, he said.

Mobile wish list
Johnston put together a wish list for Nokia and other device makers. He said he wants to see more functionality for downloading attachments. He wants integrated USB ports to store large files. He also emphasized the need for stronger security, particularly virtual private network certificates. And he'd like to see browsers improved.

Nokia has promised that these features and more will be added or improved in the next version of its products. But Johnston's critique highlights the fact that bringing mobility to the masses is still very much a work in progress.

Technology executives addressing CTIA attendees said new advancements are in the works. Companies such as Microsoft and Intel are announcing new initiatives and alliances every day. The list of new devices is growing, giving users more and more choices.

For example, Microsoft, the world's No. 1 software maker for PCs and servers, has been busy striking deals with device makers and mobile operators to get its products into the cellular market. On Monday, Microsoft and Palm announced that they're teaming up to put Microsoft's Windows Mobile 5.0 on the Palm Treo devices. In July, Microsoft announced a similar deal with Motorola, which would put its mobile software on the popular Razr slim phone. And last week, Sprint announced availability of its Pocket PC phone that runs Windows Mobile 5.0.

Other companies are beefing up their offerings as well. Research In Motion, maker of the popular BlackBerry devices, announced on Tuesday that it will use Intel processors in its BlackBerrys.

More devices are on the way, Sean Maloney, executive vice president and general manager of the mobility group for Intel, said during his portion of the keynote address. "Even the dumbest phones will get smart as they get embedded with microprocessors."