Thursday, November 16, 2006

Can Pocket GTViewer be a Usable Viewing Platform?

Many people today still view Pocket PC or Windows Mobile devices as a novelty with little or limited practical use. There are generally 3 arguments against the handheld device for any application: 1) they are not powerful enough, 2) they can not hold enough data to be useful, and 3) their screens are too small to see anything (especially maps). I hope to dispel these myths and attempt to get more people looking at the handheld platform. Pocket GTViewer is an excellent application for the mobile community. If you are not utilizing this application in some way, you are missing out on a rich resource for viewing, data collection, and general accessibility to your GIS information.

Pocket GTViewer has been in existence as long as the desktop version of GTViewer, and it has progressed through several generations of Windows CE. The first version of Pocket GTViewer, introduced almost 6 years ago, supported Window CE 2.11 and the processor of the time was the Hitachi SHO running at 133 MHz. Pocket GTViewer has since supported Windows CE 3.0, Pocket PC, Handheld PC 2000, Pocket PC 2002, Windows Mobile 2003, Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition, Windows CE.NET, and now Windows Mobile 5.0 (Window Mobile 6.0 is coming soon). I list all of the different platforms to show how quickly the handheld devices are evolving.

Let’s go through the arguments against viewing your GIS data on the handheld platform one item at a time and see how they are no longer valid excuses. The first argument is that the devices are not powerful enough. I think this argument has always been untrue. While the handheld devices are certainly not as powerful as a desktop PC, the devices of 6 years ago were more than capable of viewing complex vector map data. Pocket GTViewer was designed from the beginning to work with these slower processors and with minimal resources. On today’s handhelds, with processors 5 times faster, video hardware acceleration, and quadruple speed (or more) memory, Pocket GTViewer screams.

The second argument is not enough storage. Six years ago this might have been partially true. CF cards of that time were commonly in the range of 16M to 40M and a 100M CF card could easily cost more than the handheld device. At that time, you had to be a little more selective with what data you took with you; however, 40M of GTViewer data is a lot of information and rarely did I see a problem with not being able to take all the data along that was needed. Also, the 1G Microdrive provided some relief early on for those who needed extra storage at a premium price. These mechanical drives were very fast and usable even if they were deemed a bit fragile and consumed some precious battery power. Today, storage problems are all out the window; 4G+ memory cards (CF and SD) are common place and 2G cards very inexpensive ($70 or less). Solid state, fast, huge, and non-volatile, what more could you ask for?

The last argument is the usability of the screens which probably carries the most weight when deciding against the handheld devices as a platform. In the beginning, the standard Pocket PC and Windows Mobile screens are usually 3.5” diagonal with ¼ VGA resolution (240x320). If you leave the mainstream, there have always been a variety of screen sizes available; the only downside being that they are usually more expensive and use one of the more vanilla flavors of Windows CE (like Windows CE 3.0 and Windows CE.NET) which do not have some of the built in extras you find in Pocket PC and Windows Mobile. With the addition of Windows Mobile Second Edition, the screens are the same physical size, but they can now have full VGA (640x480) resolution and can operate in either Landscape or Portrait modes. This resolution increase is a much more profound change than it may seem at first. Going from ¼ VGA to full VGA quadruples the number of pixels in the same screen area and gives an amazing amount of clarity to graphics like the vector maps Pocket GTViewer displays. (This is one of those things you have to see to fully appreciate.) With Windows Mobile 5.0, the standard screen size is no long a standard and we see different aspect ratios. For example, the Treo 700w has a square screen.

There are really two issues when it comes to screen size. One is the hardware limitation and the other is thinking “desktop” when you have a “handheld.” The hardware limitation is really not an issue now with the full VGA screens (and really never was with ¼ VGA screens either). The screens are still small, but they are now crisper than your desktop’s screen and can still fit in your shirt pocket. The second problem has to do with doing the right job with the right tool. If you are trying to view all outages in your service area, a 3.5” screen is not the right tool. The tool for this job is GTViewer or GTVx, not Pocket GTViewer. However, the 3.5” screen with ¼ VGA or full VGA resolution is ideal for viewing a map up close. For example, you want to know if there are any underground utilities at an address, or you need to see what equipment is installed on a particular pole. A handheld device is like one of those little notepads with the wire spiraled around the top. You hold it in one hand and write on it with the other. So, what would you use a notepad for in the field? Taking notes, drawing sketches, filling out forms. Couple these tasks with an intelligent map supported by all of your GIS data and you have a very power tool in the palm of your hand.

Desktop GTViewer and Pocket GTViewer work well together. One is not a replacement for the other. GTViewer on your desktop PC can extract data for the handheld to take into the field, and receive redlines and/or collected data. GTWeb is also integrated with Pocket GTViewer allowing a web interface for selecting and loading data. Pocket GTViewer extends your GIS into places that were not always accessible before. I always carry my handheld with me, but I only lug my laptop around when I have to. Having the right information at the right time can make all the difference in the world.

The future is bright in the mobile arena. Beyond the Windows Mobile devices, we have SmartPhones and Ultra Mobile PCs. More and more devices today have built in GPS capabilities as well as cameras. Wireless connectivity is also becoming faster, more reliable, and more affordable. GTI’s product lines adapt to take advantage of the latest technologies available. You will see these new technologies leveraged in Pocket GTViewer, GTViewer, GTVx, and GTWeb.

This article was originally published in COGNET's GIS Advisor Newsletter:

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