IBM shrinks DB2 for handhelds

IBM is fashioning a miniaturised version of its DB2 to run on handheld computers, keeping pace with database rivals Oracle and Sybase.

The company is developing an as-yet-unnamed version of DB2 for Microsoft's Windows CE and 3Com's Palm Operating System. Windows CE is offered in several iterations for both handheld PCs and mini notebooks, and the Palm OS is geared toward handhelds.

Although officials at IBM declined to comment on specifics, they did acknowledge that the company is crafting the smaller DB2 at its Santa Teresa Laboratory, in San Jose. In addition, they said an alpha version of the software is currently being tested by potential customers. Sources said IBM is targeting the second quarter for a beta release of the software and the third quarter for general availability.

IBM's entry into the mobile and embeddable database arena will broaden choices for organisations considering outfitting their field personnel with nimble handheld devices that pack a serious data management punch. Although the market remains untested, enthusiasts envision a big demand for handheld databases that offer synchronisation to corporate data stores. With such devices, salespeople, for instance, can access a day's schedule, drill into detail about sales prospects, and synchronise reports to the host database wirelessly or over the Web. "I think it's great, and I think it's necessary," said Ira Trepper, DB2/IDMS unit manager at the Stephen P. Teale Data Centre, in Sacramento, which is the IT service provider for 240 state agencies. "To be able to conduct business -- while you're conducting business -- is the biggest part. Think of how it would simplify being able to do business, right there on the spot, without a laptop."

IBM sees its new, smaller version of DB2 as part of a broader "pervasive computing" strategy, said Jeff Jones, data management program manager at IBM, in San Jose. Last week, IBM announced the availability of its Mobile Connect software, which manages data exchange between handhelds and networks. "It's growing rapidly to the point of being explosive," Jones said of mobile databases. "The mind-set is to take the bullet-proof, industrial strength of DB2 and apply it to these very small handheld devices."

IBM, like Oracle and Sybase, faces a challenge in effectively selling handheld databases to market segments sceptical over restricted functionality and ease of use. "The real problem I have with handheld devices is they're hard to use," said David Thompson, vice president of Internet development at PCS Health Systems. "I find it hard to imagine replacing a laptop with one of these devices yet. Maybe casual users could benefit, but not an intensive user."

Jones said IBM had whittled one iteration of the smaller DB2 to less than 1MB, which resulted in better performance. The speed of similar products from Oracle and Sybase hasn't been stellar, said Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Group. "The best thing these guys can do is give you thin-client access [to a corporate database] -- if they try to give you too much horsepower, it slows you down," Dulaney said. Sybase is beta testing its UltraLite database engine for Windows CE and the Palm OS and is planning general availability of the database by June. Oracle is shipping Oracle8i Lite for CE, with synchronisation to the Palm OS.

Steve Robins, an analyst at The Yankee Group, said IBM's entry ups the ante for Oracle and Sybase. "I think this move is to be taken very seriously by anyone in this space," Robins said. "It helps to validate the market."


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