The mobile space has garnered much attention in recent years as content providers position themselves to take advantage of this nascent yet burgeoning market. Most of that attention to date has centered on the sex appeal of distributing rich streaming media to smartphones and PDAs. Yet at the same time, these handheld devices are becoming increasingly useful by freeing business users from the constraints of the desktop to—for the most part—view decidedly less sexy text-based documents.
Verticals ranging from healthcare to the legal profession have already begun to realize significant improvements in efficiency as a result of the mobile delivery of documents. Enterprises are deploying large-scale mobile initiatives that extend SAP solutions beyond the firewall and onto mobile devices. Specific types of documents, like forms, are gaining tremendous utility by taking on a mobile, digital form.
Yet mobile handheld devices all share common limitations, particularly a screen form factor that rarely coincides with the much larger design of most documents, the state of wireless networks, and short battery life spans. Here's a look into what's being done by some of the leaders in the mobile device space to overcome these shortcomings, how the spectrum of handhelds differentiates itself through document handling, and the reality of mobile document delivery today.
Big Documents, Tiny Screen
The most obvious limitation of mobile devices is screen size. With the average cell phone screen not measuring more than two inches square and those of PDAs only marginally larger, documents are inevitably formatted for a different viewing area. "These devices have a very limited screen capacity," says Ridwan Huq, the product manager for Adobe Reader on mobile platforms. "If you were to look at a PDF file that contains a large image, the best user experience in that case would be to look at a section of the document and pan and zoom around."
Originally, the BlackBerry handheld wasn't able to handle larger images in this manner, but it was actually a fusion of new and old technology that caused them to rethink things. "What we found is that a lot of our customers had systems that automatically translated faxes into PDFs," says David Heit, senior product manager for Research in Motion (RIM). After getting requests from customers, RIM introduced large imaging viewing in version 4.0 of its software. "You can pull in an image slightly bigger than a thumbnail. What you can do then is start zooming in to the full resolution of the document. I've seen examples of everything from blueprints to schematics," Heit concludes.
"When it comes to text, the user expectation is that they don't want to scroll from left to right," says Huq. "This is where a technology like Reflow will enhance the experience." Reflow allows a user to reflow PDFs into a new view formatted to the width of the screen or view the content as it comes to the device. "Your thumb is only on up and down, so your interaction with the keyboard comes down significantly," says Huq.
BlackBerry and Palm reformat documents in a similar way to avoid the need for left and right scrolling. At the same time, they're also worried about capturing the look and feel of productivity stalwarts Microsoft Word and Excel. "If it's a spreadsheet, it looks like a spreadsheet. If it's a Word document, it looks like a miniature window of the Word document," says Heit about viewing documents on a BlackBerry handheld. "You are actually scrolling through a representation of the document."
Part of the trouble with current mobile device screens, though, is the even-sided nature of their displays. "Because it's a smaller screen, a spreadsheet doesn't look as good on a square display as it does on a rectangular screen," says Stephane Maes, director of product management for palmOne. "You're basically forced—when using a Treo, Tungsten, etc.—to view documents in portrait mode, whereas landscape is a more natural way to view Word, Excel, etc." This is something that palmOne has set out to solve through its introduction of a new LifeDrive Mobile Manager class of handheld devices.