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IT Decisions - a personal touch

Personal digital assistants are simpler, cheaper and easier to carry about than notebook PCs. It's hardly surprising then, that more and more corporates are rolling them out for mobile executives.

Personal digital assistants (PDAs) were once viewed as executive toys, useful only for personal information management. Now though, they are marketed as enterprise tools for the mainstream business market.

Manufacturers, such as Hewlett Packard, Compaq, Handspring, Psion and Sony, claim today’s models, which are the size of a flattened mobile phone, offer almost as many functions and features as a desktop PC. The HP Jornada (pictured) is typical. It has a colour screen, 206MHz 32-bit processor, 64Mb RAM, and a built-in MP3 player. Carrying spreadsheets around is not a problem because there’s plenty of memory and data entry is simple using the built-in keyboard. However, sending and receiving emails or connecting to a corporate network is not particularly straightforward – and non-technical users may require assistance from an IT department.

Mobile FDs may wish to consider a PDA for personal information management.

However, on the small screen, spreadsheet views are restricted to a section at a time (four to six columns across by eight to ten lines, with the zoom set at 50%). FDs requiring anything other than simple spreadsheets will find this annoying.

But PDAs have many advantages over laptop computers. Battery life is considerably longer (three to four days in some cases, rather than three or four hours). They’re smaller, lighter and less expensive (prices from £99 to £550 and falling, where laptops start from £750). Then again, users expecting the same options and functionality as a laptop will be disappointed.

Experts say companies should choose PDAs or laptops depending on their objectives. “If you need the workforce to be productive then the advantage of having computer resources available would far outweigh the expense,” says Peter Bancroft, head of communications at Psion. “However, if productivity is not an issue and you want an inexpensive solution for mobile messaging and data access, then the PDA route is the way to go.”

Neville Street, spokesperson for mobile network provider mm02 believes users are looking for killer applications that will persuade them to buy PDAs. His company’s big idea is to make the PDA an electronic messaging centre. Using the new fast GPRS mobile phone network, PDAs such as RIM’s BlackBerry can deliver email instantly to mobile executives.

“If your primary requirement is for voice and basic wireless messaging, then something like a smartphone running on the old GSM mobile network is fine. But if email is most important, then something like the BlackBerry is more appropriate,” Street says. Because the BlackBerry is always on it also has a fixed cost (£40 per month), whereas mobile phone charges vary. Jurgen Antoni, HP’s European wireless digital systems marketing manager, argues that, while notebooks are getting smaller, PDAs are becoming more functional. They can be used as information reference tools to access most back-end systems without a great deal of IT work, so RoI is on average twice as fast as with notebooks. “Research indicates notebook users only utilise 25% to 30% of the hardware capacity they have,” Antoni says. Although extensive research has not yet been carried out, it is estimated that figure will be much higher (over 50%) with PDAs. Experts say it takes three to four weeks to develop a corporate solution using PDAs and around four months to implement it. Once up and running, access via PDAs is simple and running costs are fixed. Many companies are looking at such solutions for sales departments or field service engineers. One potential problem with PDAs is security. Not only do you have the risk of the device being mobile and therefore susceptible to being lost or stolen, but it could give access to corporate information. However, Annemarie Duffy, Microsoft’s UK wireless marketing manager, says the security on a PDA is the same as on a PC. “A criminal would be able to open an application if they got past the password encryption but they wouldn’t be able to access corporate data,” she says.

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