Hands off

With IBM and Palm Inc. launching a new joint initiative in the handheld business market, corporate users are continuing to voice their concerns about the long-promised benefits of PDAs.


demand remains high for devices that have long been touted as a business tool nirvana, some companies are having to develop in-house solutions while others are still holding their breath for crucial hardware and software standards to emerge.

According to a January 2002 study conducted by IDC Canada Ltd., the Canadian handheld market grew 19 per cent between 2000 and 2001, and the desire to implement a corporate handheld solution remained strong with 62 per cent of medium-large companies saying they have a policy for purchasing PDA units.

But many companies, according to the study, remain concerned about a lack of clear handheld technology standards, poor wireless transmission speeds and still-limited applications. Other concerns include data security and loss of devices that cost companies an average of $564 each.

Attempting to address the key issue of integration, Palm — which currently dominates the handheld market in North America — has launched a middleware initiative with IBM. Under the arrangement, select Palm models will ship with IBM’s WebSphere Everyplace Access software, enabling a series of jointly developed future applications for businesses.

“CIOs want to reduce costs and increase efficiency. We come from an enterprise solutions perspective and Palm leads from a user perspective. This middleware partnership is about future integration,” said Eric Johnson, wireless executive for IBM Canada.

Michael Moskowitz, president and general manager of Palm Canada, is also looking to the future. “A standard operating system is the key. In the future, the wireless environment will increase. There will be much faster processors and greater synchronization,” he said.

But while these key industry players talk the talk of future convergence, companies are facing a range of handheld requirements that need to be met today. And, for many, the available off-the-peg solutions don’t meet all their needs.

“The biggest challenge with handhelds is tying them in with existing databases. There are lots of products that supposedly help in this but we haven’t found one that does everything we want it to. Through trial and error, we’ve had to develop the software ourselves,” said Michael Jagger, president of Vancouver-based Provident Security and Event Management Corp.. The company has been using Palm and Handspring devices for five years to enable its team of more than 80 security staff to manage information in the field.

Yvan Champagne, director of national accounts at Web site developer <font color=redBlast Radius, is also skeptical of the promises made about current handheld devices. While the Toronto-based executive happily uses his Palm for tracking appointments, contacts and travel itineraries, he relies on a cell phone for text messaging.

“One of the problems is that, despite promises of a convergence product that does everything you want it to, that device hasn’t emerged,” said Champagne. “The bottom line is that, when considering handhelds, there has to be a real return for the company.”

These concerns don’t surprise Warren Chaisatien, IDC Canada’s senior analyst, mobile and telecommunications market.

“The current barriers to expansion in the business handheld market are integration, security and speed. Companies want to improve operations efficiency, increase workforce mobility and increase timely access to company information, but the reality is that improvements such as 3G and Bluetooth are not happening fast enough,” said Chaisatien.

For businesses looking to make the right handheld choices, Chaisatien predicts that converged devices — which currently represent a minority of sales — will overtake sales of traditional handhelds by 2005. He also expects the confusion over operating systems to be resolved during the same period, with Microsoft becoming dominant.

“(The Microsoft-supported) Pocket PC is currently around double the price of traditional handhelds but it holds greater promise for future compatibility,” said Chaisatien.

John Lee is a freelance writer based in Vancouver and a frequent contributor to ITBusiness.ca.

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