Thursday, May 24, 2007

Pocket GTViewer on Smartphones - Part 1

I personally haven’t given Smartphones much credit until the last year or so. I have had a Cingular 2125 since around the time they were released. While I loved it as a cell phone, I never gave it much credit as a platform for Pocket GTViewer. However, with the release of the PGTV Control for .NET, something happened. The PGTV Control runs on Smartphone (or Window Mobile 6 Standard) as well as it runs on a Window Mobile device. Developing an application with the PGTV Control for Smartphones is incredibly easy. So easy in fact, I gave the PGTV Control a spin on a Smartphone despite my preconceived notions of the platform. Much to my surprise, I instantly realized how powerful Smartphones can be and how well Pocket GTViewer runs on them.

It seems that I had fallen victim to the same trap that I have preached against in the past. When Pocket GTViewer was released, many people dismissed it as a viable application because the device was too slow, the screen was too small, it didn’t have enough storage, etc. But it turns out that Pocket GTViewer on a Windows Mobile device was in fact very successful and useful. The key to this success was the understanding that Pocket GTViewer on a device is not a substitude for GTViewer on the desktop or a laptop. Pocket GTViewer has its own specialties that are not available on the desktop and thinking “Desktop” on a device will never succeed, but thinking “Device” on a device opens up a whole new set of solutions for your problems.

This very same thinking is true for Smartphone. Let’s skip the comparison between the desktop and the phone. The problem with adopting Smartphones is that it is competing against the Window Mobile device idea, not the desktop. Nevertheless, familiar arguments from the past have surfaced again. The phone has too small of a screen (compared to a Windows Mobile device), it is not powerful enough to run a GIS application, it doesn’t have enough storage, and there is no touch screen. Well, these points may be true, but maybe not as true as you might think. First, most Smartphones today have QVGA screens (320x240) or Square screens (240x240 or 320x320). The physical area of the screen is less than that of the typical Windows Mobile device, but the resolution is the same as most Windows Mobile devices we have seen so far (the HiRes Windows Mobile devices are still few). Smartphones are also not as fast as a typical Windows Mobile device; however, Pocket GTViewer has been around for almost 7 years and the devices back then were much slower than the typical Smartphone. Storage is not an issue either since Smartphones use MiniSD or MicroSD cards that can inexpensively be 2G or more. The last item of contention is the touch screen. Smartphones by definition do not have a touch screen (this is becoming one of the only real ways to differentiate a Smartphone from a Windows Mobile device). All inputs must be done with the Softkeys, the joypad, or the D-Pad. Some Smartphones have a full keyboard, but not all of them. So, the touch screen is really the only limitation the Smartphone platform really imparts and even this limitation can be overcome with some creative thinking.

Just as our thinking had to be “device” instead of “desktop” to make a successful Windows Mobile application, we now have to shift our thinking from “device” to “phone.” In some ways this shift is harder to do than going from desktop to device because a device was easily viewed as being different from the desktop. Smartphones and devices are much more similar in appearance, but our thinking really has to change to exploit the differences and create a useful application appropriate for the Smartphone. I think in many ways, an application for the Smartphone must be scaled down in features and functionality not only from what the same application on the desktop does, but also the same application on a Windows Mobile device. But this attenuated feature set for the phone is not necessarily a bad thing and generally results in more focused apps that perform more precise portions of your workflow.

Another topic not mentioned so far is what a phone offers over a device. 1) Typically, you always have your cell phone on you. Windows Mobile Devices are small, but they are not omnipresent like a cell phone. 2) The phone is half as large as a Windows Mobile device or even smaller. Maybe this reduction in size causes them to have a smaller screen, but the smaller the better when you carry it with you at all times. 3) The phone has built in connectivity which offers a variety of options for communicating with servers, sharing information, etc. 4) The phone typically has a built in camera which can be used for many tasks in a GIS environment, and 5) let’s not forget it is also a phone.

The latest trend in the Device and Smartphone arenas is a coalescence of the two platforms. At the MEDC conference in May, Microsoft gave a pretty strong message that devices without a phone built into them will soon be a thing of the past. They even use the term “Classic” to identify a device without a built in phone, and “Professional” to identify those that do. They also instilled the idea of building applications that will support both Device and Smartphone platforms, and they provided new design guidelines that make it easier to make an application work on both platforms.

Even with the limitations that the Smartphone platform imposes (primarily the lack of a touch screen), I believe that the Smartphone does provide a viable platform for applications like Pocket GTViewer. I also believe that the users of a Smartphone version of Pocket GTViewer may very well be different than those who typically use Pocket GTViewer on a Windows Mobile device (as well as being different from those users of GTViewer on the desktop or laptop). Smartphone does have a place in GIS and in my next posting I will show how the simplicity of Pocket GTViewer for Smartphone really does provide a powerful tool you need to have in your solution.

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