Lack of standards and strategies on PDAs means PC history will be repeated

Wireless network-connected personal digital assistants such as the Blackberry, the Windows Mobile Pocket PC, Palm SmartPhones and Java-enabled cellular phones are going to reach new levels of adoption this year. Not long ago they were considered far too costly to be issued to any but the executive level of management. Prices have come down, however, to the point where wireless PDAs can be issued to all levels of staff. Thanks to ever-increasing levels of capacity they have also become practical computing devices for use in remote business applications. For local governments, this is great news. Our workers consider the entire community to be their workplace.

But these devices represent a growing management challenge for local government technology managers. Cell phones and devices such as the BlackBerry, which have cell phone capability, have not been recognized as part of the IT infrastructure by many public sector organizations. Due to the way that wireless PDAs have crept into the organization in the pockets of senior executives, few organizations have had any opportunity to develop a strategy for their use in advance of the first purchases. The computing power of wireless PDAs has improved significantly since the first generation and there is a growing inventory of database-driven, local government specific applications available. There are vendors offering applications for building inspection, bylaw enforcement, parking tickets, emergency preparedness and law enforcement. Without standards in place we could wind up with a whole infrastructure of devices incompatible with each other and the applications our suppliers are offering. In setting standards for PDAs there are two primary issues that must be addressed.

The first is one that we haven’t had to deal with for a long time. Just as in the early days of the PC, the PDA market offers a variety of architectures and operating systems that are not compatible with each other. Many of the applications on the market are currently offered for only one of these operating systems. This situation leads us to select the application first and accept the PDA that goes with it. The second issue is associated with the fact that the user appeal of the PDA is fragile. When setting standards we must not forget that the ā€œPā€ in PDA stands for personal. Wireless PDA users will tend to think of how and where they will use it and how they will carry it. Those who select larger devices such as the BlackBerry or Windows Mobile PDA generally don’t mind carrying it on their belt, whereas those who don’t wear belts are going to look for something that fits in a pocket. In either case, the imposition of a strict corporate standard is going to leave one of these two users dissatisfied, resulting in a PDA that tends to get left behind in the office.

It is clear that when setting standards for PDAs it is important to balance the need for consistency with the requirement to leave room to satisfy individual preferences. Unfortunately, this means that IT staff may have to accept the burden of maintaining and supporting multiple system architectures, since none of the alternatives offer enough variety in terms of sizes and shapes to satisfy the needs of every user. This may be a short-term problem, however, as PDAs will likely repeat the historic pattern that we saw in personal computers. Some architectures will become dominant through popularity while others may drop out of the market. The technology is still far too young for anyone to be able to predict which will emerge as the defacto standard.

Local government IT managers have become very cautious over the years about avoiding any appearance of wasting the public’s money on orphan technologies. In the case of PDAs for business applications, the purchase of such orphans is almost unavoidable at this time. Unfortunately, we are going to be forced to add a few PDAs to the pile of CP/M systems and dot matrix printers at our local landfill.

Rob Carnegie is the director of corporate services at the City of Chilliwack, B.C. or

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