Friday, December 1, 2000

Real world opportunities for pervasive computing


By David Gewirtz

This month, we're thrilled to be able to bring you a fascinating interview with IBM's Jon Prial, Director of Marketing for what IBM calls "pervasive computing." When you read my interview with Jon, you'll have a unique opportunity to get inside this most amazing of companies and see how they view handheld devices. Unquestionably, when you think about enterprise computing, IBM is definitely the BMOC (Big Man on Campus).

To be honest with you, when I first found out about Jon's title (the "pervasive computing" part), I figured it was just another cool buzzword. But ever since I spoke to him, I've been thinking about the idea of pervasive computing, what it means, and what it means for the enterprise.

To some, pervasive computing may seem more like "perverse" computing. After all, with computers everywhere, it sometimes seems like a challenge to keep track of them. But let's get serious for a moment and think about just where computers could go and how they might be used within the business world.

First, of course, there are the traditional MIS-style (Management Information Systems) business applications. You know, stuff like payroll processing, MRP (Materials Resource Planning), and whatnot. These are often run on big iron or at least a server. Clearly, they're highly centralized and not candidates for mobilization. Or are they? You might want all your data centralized. But, with current technology, you could allow management to check status from a Palm VII. Or you might outfit a warehouse guy with a Palm device to do inventory and have that data uploaded from a Palm device into a central repository.

So, clearly, even traditional business applications, with the right adjunct satellite applications, can be available anywhere. More importantly, it's organic. What I mean by this is it's not technology in search of a solution. It really does make sense for mobile managers and workers to be able to input information and get at information from any location.

Of course, there are also the more standard office-productivity business applications. You know, the calendar/address book type stuff. I'm not going to talk about them here because we're all quite familiar with "the big four" and because we're discussing other office productivity tools in-depth elsewhere in the issue.

So now, let's go on to the naturally mobile applications. If you've recently gotten a package from UPS or FedEx, you know the delivery folks carry their own special-purpose mobile computers. Pretty much anywhere you have a mobile workforce (delivery people, waiters and waitresses, field service technicians, medical staff, airline personnel, lawyers in courtrooms, etc.) you have a need for a mobile application. These mobile applications could be reference-only, requiring only an occasional, HotSync-like connection to a central resource. Or mobile applications could require constant, wireless interaction.