$$ - An introduction to mobile computing for clinicians

Introduction

This article is the first in a two-part series designed to outline some of the mobile computing options available to clinicians. According to Wikipedia, “mobile computing is a generic term describing one’s ability to use technology ‘untethered’, facilitated by devices which provide mobile computer functionality”.

In this instalment, the author will outline some of the hardware options designed for mobile use, with a subsequent article to feature in the August 2008 edition of Pulse+IT providing coverage of the various clinical software applications developed specifically for these devices.

Hardware options

Even as late as the turn of the century, the vast majority of computers fell into either “desktop” or “laptop” categories. Since then however, the lines between computer classifications have blurred, with a wide variety of devices of different shapes and sizes deserving recognition within their own computing class.

Following is an overview of some of the mobile computing options now available, arranged (roughly) in form-factor size from smallest to largest:

Smart phones

With similar dimensions and computer processing requirements, Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and mobile phones were always destined to converge. With very few exceptions, traditional PDAs without phone capabilities are no longer developed, the market having been superseded by a booming smart phone industry.

While the term “smart phone” is flexible and difficult to define, for a modern phone to qualify as being “smart”, it would usually have email, Internet, calendar and address book functionality, the ability to synchronise calendar and address book information with a computer over Bluetooth or USB, and the ability to share it’s mobile network connection with a computer using these interfaces.

Smart phones typically feature QWERTY keyboards or allow the user to interact with the device using a stylus, and also feature relatively large screens (over 200 x 200 pixels) compared to less capable and less expensive phones.

Modern smart phones typically run either the Microsoft Windows Mobile operating system, the Symbian OS, or RIM’s BlackBerry OS. Portable versions of the Linux operating system are also beginning to emerge on some smart phone hardware platforms. As these operating systems are more functional than the simple interfaces found in cheaper mobile phones, and because the hardware upon which they run is also superior, developers are able to build reasonably sophisticated applications for smart phone devices.

While not yet distributed officially in Australia, Apple’s iPhone is likely to have a dramatic effect on the smart phone market in this country. Featuring a sophisticated touch screen interface, the device has attracted the attention of millions of consumers overseas.

Software developers have also shown great interest in the iPhone, and indeed, ever since the launch of the device, programmers have gone to extreme lengths to make the iPhone more compatible with new and existing mobile software products.

Noting this interest, Apple has recently released an officially sanctioned Software Developer Kit (SDK) that was downloaded by over 100,000 would-be iPhone developers in the first four days of its availability!

Ultra-Mobile Personal Computers (UMPCs)

According to Wikipedia’s definition, “Ultra-Mobile PCs have “a 20cm or smaller touch sensitive screen with a minimum resolution of 800 x 480 pixels”. They are larger and more powerful than smart phones, and usually run fully-fledged operating systems such as Microsoft Vista or Linux. Users interact with UMPCs using either a stylus or a miniature keyboard.

As their name suggests, the devices are designed for mobility first and foremost. They typically utilise diminutive processors with lower power requirements than those found in laptops in an effort to off set the small battery size and maintain a reasonable running time between charges.

Many UMPC manufacturers are starting to integrate high‑speed mobile broadband Internet capabilities (typically HSDPA technology), allowing the user to get online where ever they may be.

Tablet PCs

Touted as the “next big thing” several years ago, Tablet PCs have, to date, only accounted for a minute fraction of all PC sales. That said, improvements in hand writing recognition technology, falling costs, and more streamlined industrial designs have sparked a resurgence in interest in this class of computer.

Tablet PCs can be generally classified as either being a “convertible laptop”, or a “slate” Tablet PC. As the name would suggest, convertible laptops look outwardly like typical laptops, but allow the screen to swivel 180 degrees horizontally, and then fold down over the keyboard. In this configuration, the user is able to carry the device in one arm, and use a stylus to write directly onto the screen.

Slate Tablet PCs, on the other hand, lack keyboards, requiring that the user interact with the system using a stylus pen or voice recognition software. Slate Tablet PCs are usually thinner and lighter than convertible laptops with the same screen size, and are therefore more suitable for mobile use.

Due to their lack of a built-in keyboard, slate Tablet PCs are usually offered with an optional docking station to allow the user to connect a keyboard and other devices such as an optical drive, which are also typically omitted from this class of device.

Handwriting recognition was first bundled with Microsoft Windows as part of the XP Tablet PC Edition, first released in 2002. Since then, Microsoft’s handwriting recognition technology has improved and is now included in all versions of Microsoft Vista except the entry level “Home Basic” flavour.

Clinical Tablets

Spurred by Intel’s promotion of a “Mobile Clinical Assistant” reference model, at least two hardware manufacturers are producing Tablet PCs designed specifically for deployment in healthcare environments.

Motion Computing was first out of the gate with their “C5” device, however Philips have since developed a competing product called the “CliniScape”. Both devises are similar in appearance to slate tablet PCs, lacking keyboards and relying on digital pen technology for interaction with the device.

Designed for use in Hospitals and Aged Care facilities, they are and sealed to allow them to be wiped down and disinfected. The devices can be configured with RFID and barcode readers, and also feature integrated digital cameras to allow photos to be taken and transmitted to other clinicians in the hospital via built-in wireless networking capabilities.

Laptops

Having been around for over two decades, this form factor requires no introduction.

Despite the rise of more capable smart phones and UMPCs, the balance of power, functionality and portability laptops provide is likely to ensure they remain the form-factor of choice for most mobile computer users.

Purchasing Considerations

While it is easy to get drawn in by a new computer’s “cool gadget” factor, the hardware is actually the last thing you should think about when selecting a mobile computing device.

Instead, it is advisable that you first identify the software applications that you would like to use. Once you have this information, you should be able to identify the operating systems supported by this software, and find out whether the application has any specific system requirements that may limit your options (e.g. a minimum screen size or Wi-Fi features).

Armed with this information, you should then be able to identify the form-factor that will be most suitable for your purposes, and finally, make a decision as to the brand and model of the device.

Conclusion

Never before have consumers had a greater range of mobile computing hardware options to select from. With continually falling hardware prices, a strong Australian currency, and rapidly maturing technology being released all the time, it is conceivable that many consumers will ultimately end up with not one, but several mobile computing devices in their arsenal.

Posted in Australian eHealth

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