Palm eyes services to woo enterprise

Palm ups the ante on corporate-friendly features -- but tries to avoid the "man-purse" factor.

If the key to an enterprise customer's heart is service and support, then Palm Computing is on the right track.

Within the next few months, the 3Com subsidiary will start rolling out formalised service and support programs for large-business customers deploying its Palm handheld devices. "If you're a CIO and you bought 10,000 Palms, then you probably don't want to have to call the Palm 800-number if you have a problem," Palm Computing President Alan Kessler said in an interview this week with ZDNet sister publication PC Week.

Those services, Palm officials said, likely will include "hot-swap" upgrade programs and, in general, more individual support for Palm's larger customers. To help execute on Palm's enterprise strategy, Kessler said he's searching for a vice president of enterprise computing.

In terms of technology for the enterprise, the company is focusing on better ways for Palm users to access their corporate servers. Kessler said to expect more partnerships with management software companies -- similar to the relationship Palm now has with Computer Associates International, which enables IT managers to keep track of Palms through CA's Unicenter.

"A lot of what we're doing at Palm today is minimising the reliance on PC-based technologies," said Dave Vadasz, Palm's senior manager of enterprise marketing. "We're working on... back-end work on server synchronisation, better cradle solutions, and there's a whole slew of wireless solutions coming on board."

The forthcoming Palm VII will provide a big boost in wireless access when it launches nationally this autumn by including access to corporate email accounts. Around the same time, Palm plans to introduce add-on hardware for the Palm V to enable it to go wireless as well. The company plans to stick exclusively with BellSouth Wireless for carrier service for the Palm VII, Kessler said, but Palm is likely to add more carrier partners next year, especially when it launches the Palm VII internationally.

Meanwhile, a separate wireless service venture funded by 3Com could take some of the wind out of the Palm VII's sail. OpenSky, a joint venture of 3Com and Aether Systems, is expected to launch wireless Internet services for the Palm V and Palm III by the first quarter of next year.

Complementing the service, Novatel Wireless has developed a wireless modem that plugs into the Palm V, sources said. Unlike, which offers measured service, the Cellular Digital Packet Data-based OpenSky service will cost a flat rate.

As for the old question of whether Palm will ever support colour, Kessler said, "We'll do it when we can get the price right, the battery life right, etc. It can't be a brick that requires you to carry a 'man purse' with batteries in it."

On the competitive landscape, Palm continues to face competition for the Palm III, its entry-level device. Handspring, founded by former Palm executives Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky, is expected to announce soon a consumer handheld that runs on the Palm OS and costs less than anything Palm currently offers.

And in late September, Compaq Computer plans to introduce a new member of its Aero family, which runs Microsoft Windows CE and supports colour. Sources close to Compaq said the device would be smaller and thinner than anything Compaq offers and is meant to go head to head with the Palm.