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Hand-wringing over handheld support costs

Companies must begin actively supporting and even purchasing handheld computing devices for their employees, or risk losing hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in support costs, a new report warns.

Companies must begin actively supporting and even purchasing handheld computing devices for their employees, or risk losing hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in support costs, a new report warns, to the sure delight of gadget lovers in the business world.

Some large firms are wasting resources by refusing to integrate employee-owned devices into their corporate computing infrastructure, according to the study by market research firm Gartner Group.

The report brings into sharp focus the costly nature of PC support for large companies. For example: A $450 PDA (personal digital assistant) can cost a company nearly $2,700 per year in support costs, the study says. More specifically, devices based on Palm Computing's operating system, such as the PalmPilot and IBM Workpad, cost companies $2,690 per year, in downtime, capital, and administration costs, according to the study. Devices based on Microsoft's Windows CE operating system, which is more complex to use and support, cost $2,790 per year per device, Gartner Group said.

Palm's products were initially purchased by individual employees and executives looking to organize personal data. But now, many software and hardware companies that develop handheld products are targeting the "enterprise," or large organizations, as an untapped but potentially lucrative market.

As they became more popular, Palm-sized devices have been grudgingly supported by some corporate information technology (IT, also called information systems) departments, but the vast majority of large businesses do not yet deploy company software to the devices, nor do they track PDAs as they do other corporate computing assets, the study says.

"The PDA phenomenon has largely caught IS organizations unprepared," said Ken Dulaney, vice president at Gartner Group, in the report. "There are no funds to support such devices, and integration with network resources is being reluctantly given."

By overlooking handhelds, these firms are leaving themselves vulnerable to security breaches, Gartner Group said. Because the PalmPilot and handhelds based on Windows CE are designed to synchronize with data that resides on notebook or desktop computers, companies with unsupported PDAs have no control over corporate information which employees choose to transfer to their devices, along with contact information and datebook data.

"PDAs in most enterprises are purchased by individuals, but as these devices begin to hold ever-more sensitive corporate data, they must become managed corporate assets," Dulaney said in the report. "We recommend that enterprises consider purchasing PDAs for employees to eliminate the uncertainty of who controls the data on the device."

In addition to the security risks, offering only sporadic or triage support for these devices is an inefficient way to spend IT dollars, according to the study.

No longer a niche product, handheld devices are expected to become a popular way to access Internet-based information as well as corporate databases and software. Already, Palm Computing has rolled out its Palm.net wireless Web clipping service for the Palm VII, and Microsoft is hard at work on its own wireless service for devices based on Windows CE.