AvantGo chief: Forget convergence

The chief executive of AvantGo is sceptical about whether PDA-phones can ever make it in the mainstream

Despite the rampant industry interest in "converged" wireless handheld computers -- which combine the functions of a mobile phone and a PDA -- at least one industry chief believes the barriers of price and functionality are likely to keep such devices from becoming very common.

In an interview with ZDNet UK, Richard Owen, chief executive of AvantGo, which makes software for synchronising data between Internet servers and handheld devices, said that wireless devices like Research In Motion's BlackBerry are likely to remain popular only at the higher levels of corporate management.

"There are a lot of mobile devices in companies, but only a few of them tend to be high-end connected devices. A lot of them are very low-end and basic," said Owen. "The extra charges for wireless are often not worth paying. RIM is working on getting BlackBerry pushed further into the organisation, but they are running against the barrier of high price points, and that story has played itself out over and over again."

Contrary to the usual thinking, which predicts that wireless handhelds and smartphones will come to permeate businesses and find consumer success, Owen believes that such devices may be inherently limited to the high end of the market. They are often used in addition to a mobile phone, which means two wireless subscription fees for each worker.

Combining data and voice into one device is proving more difficult than expected, Owen told ZDNet UK. "Some people like the combined devices, but it's hard to make a phone-plus-PDA that's good at being both of those things," he added.

Manufacturers in the PC, PDA and mobile phone businesses have all come up with their own variations on the PDA-phone, but none has proved a hit with the public so far.

Two technologies, 802.11b wireless networking and Bluetooth, are proving more promising in the near term, however, Owen believes. In North America, particularly, there is a rush to build 802.11b hot spots, which allow users with a compatible laptop or PDA to establish a high-speed wireless Internet connection in public places. Bluetooth, on the other hand, is generally used to communicate with a mobile phone, which then establishes its own data connection.

"The Bluetooth model trumps the combined PDA-phone every time," Owen said. "You use your phone a lot more than your PDA, and with the two-device solution you have only one service plan."

Both systems have their flaws, however. 802.11b communications can drastically shorten the battery life of a PDA or laptop, and public networks are difficult to set up and run as a business. The Bluetooth-mobile phone solution is most effective used with a wireless technology called GPRS, which is not yet in wide use.

The most effective way of synchronising data between a remote server and a handheld remains the old-fashioned connection to a PC, Owen said: "Cradles -- that might be a dirty word now, but that's what's up and working today."

AvantGo's strategy is aimed at helping corporations bring business functions to handhelds. Last year the company began selling its first packaged software, AvantGo Mobile Sales, after it realised that many of its corporate customers were looking to fulfill similar needs. Prior to that, the company customised software for each client. In March AvantGo introduced a programme geared toward sales representatives of pharmaceutical companies.

The company's software runs on multiple platforms, including Palm OS, Windows CE and BlackBerry's OS.

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