Commentary: Can PDAs fill corporate needs?

With the Palm OS devices dominating the PDA market, the battleground between Palm and the Microsoft CE family of personal digital assistants is shifting to the corporate market.

3 min read

With the Palm operating system devices--including Palm, Handspring Visor, TRG Pro and Sony Clie handhelds--dominating the PDA market, the battleground between Palm and the Microsoft CE family of personal digital assistants is shifting to the corporate market, which is largely untapped.

The big question concerns what functionality either PDA family can offer businesses beyond moving individuals' schedules off their desktops and into their shirt pockets.

PDA functionality is limited by two factors: battery technology and the lack of pervasive wireless connectivity. However, both of these problems are being solved. Several chip manufacturers, including Intel, are developing new higher-capability, low-power processors that will enable the next generation of PDAs to support more functionality while maintaining present battery life.

Meanwhile, corporations are installing wireless LANs that PDAs can use inside plants, and major cellular carriers are extending their data service coverage in terms of both geographic area and functionality. In another year, for instance, AT&T will start installing its 2.5-generation Edge wireless service, and OmniSky covers most major U.S. cities with its wireless email and Web-browsing service for the Palm V and Handspring Visor.

Even with these advances, however, the PDA remains a limited device for enterprise applications. Despite more powerful processors, the devices will always be limited by the needs of the human interface; small screen size, in particular, will always limit their usefulness.

Although PDAs could prove useful for wireless, automated notifications from enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems--and they can also be useful for short emails--they are not capable of handling the large attachments that are becoming increasingly common elements of corporate email. In their current form, they will have a hard time moving further up the corporate ladder.

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Once wireless connectivity becomes pervasive, the PDA may also become popular as a two-way instant messaging device--a step beyond today's pagers. This could drive corporate demand. However, PDA developers for both the Palm and Microsoft operating systems may have to battle the cell phone makers to capture that market. New cell phones in Europe, several based on the Palm OS, feature fold-out screens and other improvements that will enable them to compete directly with PDAs for that and other wireless communications applications.

Symbol of change
One form of the Palm is already in common use in some businesses. Symbol Technologies has built a strong business by repackaging the Palm III series PDA into an industrial-strength design that has become popular for scanning-based applications--for instance, warehousing, delivery tracking and tracking supplies within hospitals. Hundreds of thousands of these devices are in use.

The Symbol device is longer than a normal Palm III but includes all of the Palm's basic functionality, plus a scanner and Symbol's own technology for maintaining a bar code database and capturing scanned-in bar code information.

For mainstream business users, IT organizations should not ignore that large numbers of Palms and Visors--and lesser numbers of Windows CEs--are entering enterprise doors, carried by employees who already own these relatively inexpensive, portable systems. These employees are using them for personal record-keeping connected with their jobs--such as tracking business expenses, maintaining business contact information, and managing their schedules.

Given the low cost of most Palm software--which has an average price of about $20 and can usually be downloaded from developers' Web sites--many of these PDA owners will expand their corporate-related use of these devices, and some will demand more connectivity to support access to often-sensitive enterprise information when they are away from their desks.

Therefore, IT groups must manage these devices as they do other systems, starting by developing clear policies about their use and the software and hardware that IT will support. Over time, these systems will become more useful for distributing notifications--such as manufacturing schedule changes from corporate ERP systems--and for instant messaging. However, corporations will still need to rely on desktop systems and servers to support more demanding processing loads.

Meta Group analysts Dale Kutnick, Val Sribar and William Zachmann contributed to this article.

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