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Got Gucci? The Cell Phone vs. PDA Debate Will Be Settled By Function, Not Form

One of the most durable debates in the mobile space centers on the differences between cell phones with PDA capabilities, and PDA-type devices that have built-in communications capabilities. More to the point, is it better and more productive to have a PDA with all sorts of built-in wireless technologies, or does it make more sense to use a cell phone that has been bulked up with a email, instant messaging and personal management applications that would seem to eliminate the need to carry a Palm- or Windows-based PDA device?

In most cases, personal preferences as to which device is the best fit come down to some very basic criteria: Which device has the longest battery life? Will I be responding to long emails and reviewing documents (in which case, the larger screen of a PDA with wireless capabilities might be the preferred model)? Is the device easily transported and does it have a minimal impact on the lean and clean lines of that Italian suit I’ll be wearing (you can refer to this as the wireless ‘Gucci Effect’)?

My personal opinion is that it really doesn’t matter, since most hybrid PDAs – which usually sport a number of communications technologies, from Bluetooth to wide area wireless – have been redesigned to look more like traditional cell phones and less like boxy PDAs.

Good examples of this transformation are the PalmOne Inc. (Nasdaq: PLMO) Treo 650, the BlackBerry Blackberry 7100 Series (although not the higher-speed 8700c, which will be available in the U.S. on Nov. 21, but is a return to that brick-like PDA style), and the slick new LG Electronics Inc. (London: LGLD; Korea: 6657.KS) VX9800, which includes a large Internet-friendly slide-out screen and keyboard, stereo speakers, video camera and business card reader- all in a very pocketable package. PDAs are also transforming into wireless multimedia devices, capable of storing digital still and full-motion images, music, recordings and most anything ale that can be visually or audibly captured.

Most executives will eventually carry both a multimedia- and message-capable cell phone, tucked in a pocket or briefcase and included as an indispensable part of a wardrobe; and a wireless and multimedia-capable PDA, which can be used to scan the latest family photos, or contain a PowerPoint presentation that will soon be displayed to an audience via a Bluetooth connection and Bluetooth-enabled LCD projector. (I’m still waiting for some innovative company to embed a laser pointer into one of these presentation-savvy handhelds to eliminate more of the flotsam and jetsam that haunts those of us on the lecture circuit!).

Or, perhaps some enterprising vendor might come up with a convertible design that allows users to undock the cell phone portion of a wireless ‘smart device’ to be used strictly for voice applications during meetings and at the cocktail hour, which can later be docked and automatically re-synced with the mother ship when the time comes. This would solve the Gucci problem by eliminating those unsightly WWAN bulges in your suit pocket.

Cell phones, or some variation of these devices, get my vote as the devices most likely to accompany most every executive – especially as these devices incorporate multiple communications technologies, ranging from short-range Bluetooth to 802.11 WiFi an even an identity-packing radio frequency ID chip or two. Mike Hackerson, who is with IBM’s Aerospace and Defense Division, believes that the location-based capabilities of cell phones and other cellular-enabled devices will play a major role in the restructuring of supply-chain dynamics, especially as items are tagged with RFID chips and mobile devices are used to instantly feed customer information back into the retail channels.

Mobile phones are already being used to provide access to banking accounts, collect virtual coupons and make mobile purchases. There are also a number of companies that have developed technologies that can transform a cell phone into an authentication device to allow access to sensitive areas or to validate that you are the person who bought a virtual coupon to get into that college football game. One of these companies is Identrica, Ltd., based in Edinburgh, Scotland, which has developed a low-cost two-factor authentication technology that competes with smartcards, tokens, and biometric alternatives (more on this and other security techniques in a later column).

The next logical step is to extend a mobile phone’s ability to perform as a remote control device of sorts, acting as a wireless bridge between what you are doing at the moment and what you want to do or where you want to go. For example, technology is available from a Lexington, MA company called Mobot that allows users to snap an image of a magazine ad with their phones and then automatically get information emailed to them related to that ad. Put an enterprise spin on this and you might eventually use the same system to capture an image of the inside of a broken office copier, have software identify the parts within that image, and then automatically check the supply chain for available parts of the best prices on those parts (much like a hybrid eBay).

The problem right now is that you can only pack so many wireless chips and sensors and cameras into a small device before it grows to unwieldy proportions and takes on the persona of a Swiss Army knife on steroids. While some phone vendors try to pack every possible option and gizmo into a single device, most people will only make use of one or two functions at a time. This leads to the concept of having multiple cellular-enabled systems for different jobs: One to be used when you are shopping for groceries, and another when you are driving cross country and may want something a little more location-centric.

Or, if the wired and wireless networks surrounding us are truly the computer, perhaps all we need is a very small device containing only our identity and vital applications statistics. If the world is a stage then these devices can be the keys that raise curtains to reveal the different information and contacts that we need at the moment, without the added baggage of batteries, poor screen size and resolutions, and rumpled Gucci suits.

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