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Air Time: 3G and Smartphones: Skeptical Optimism

Held in Barcelona, Spain, this week, the 3GSM World Congress is billed by its
producers as the world's premiere mobile event. Last year, around 34,000 people
attended the show, taking in the offerings of 685 exhibitors. This year's event has
attracted nearly 1,000 exhibitors and over 50,000 attendees are expected. Has 3G
finally arrived?

The answer to that question is complex, mostly because the value of 3G data
services is tied as much to culture as it is to technology. Late last year, we
published a 3G services cover story analyzing the technology and the business value
and focusing on the use of smartphones and notebook computers equipped with PC
Card 3G modems. In that article, I struggled a bit with my own conflicted feelings
about this market and my predisposition that in IT departments it seldom makes
good business sense to be an early adopter. I was impressed by the progress made
in recent years by service providers and equipment manufacturers, a product of
multibillion-dollar investments. Wide-area wireless service levels have clearly
improved, which opens the door to innovative mobility applications. However, the
business value proposition for most organizations is still tenuous. We have mobile
e-mail, a big win for some, but probably not most, users. And beyond e-mail, it's
mostly promise rather than reality.

On a personal level, I've been exposed to a broad array of network services and
devices over the past two years. The geek in me finds much of it exciting,
reminding me in some respects of the way I felt 25 years ago when PCs hit the
market in volume and the transformational potential of these systems was first
becoming apparent. Compared to those old PCs, these diminutive handheld devices
pack a ton more computing power and lots of bandwidth. It's easy to see all kinds of
potential for the future, to imagine a time when all information systems are
conceived with mobility in mind.

Back in the real world of today, the reception of 3G by seasoned information
professionals is lukewarm. I talk to users and IT administrators who struggle on a
daily basis with emerging mobile cellular technologies. I've been using a Treo 650 as
my personal smartphone for over a year now, with an unlimited CDMA2000 1X (PCS
Vision) data plan. It's an impressive digital device in many ways, and a very nice
phone. However, if you ask me if I depend on it to get my work done, I wouldn't
hesitate to say no, except to the extent that I depend on it for cell phone calls.
Occasionally, I find myself benefiting from mobile e-mail capabilities, but more often
than not I find smartphone e-mail more frustrating than liberating. It's difficult to
read messages, attachments are still a hassle, and the prospect of responding to
messages using the integrated keyboard is largely unworkable despite my
persistent attempts to adapt. To a large degree, mobile e-mail is a lifestyle choice.
Although there are occasions when an immediate response to e-mail is important, in
most cases, I can get away with a slower turnaround. I tote my notebook computer
nearly everywhere I go, and I'm seldom all that far from a Wi-Fi connection (thanks
to all of you who freely share!). And people who do need an immediate response can
usually reach me on my cell phone.

Beyond mobile e-mail, applications for smartphones haven't really taken off. Yes,
there are a number of forward-looking organizations that have developed
applications especially for mobile smartphone users and there is progress amongst
device and middleware vendors that are trying to make application mobilization a
reality. But most organizations are still struggling with basic issues involving device
procurement and provisioning, device management and user support. Device users
are often as ambivalent as IT professionals. I always make it a point of engaging
smartphone users, even total strangers, in conversations about how they use their
mobile devices. In most cases, the response is the same. It's a nice phone, an
effective means of managing personal contacts and calendars and only occasionally
an important resource for e-mail. Despite vendor claims of thousands of
applications, it is extremely rare for anyone to mention a specific business
application they depend on.