PDAs becoming critical business tool

Companies may one day provide handheld devices like the way they provide notebook computers today. The challenge, however, is to develop enterprise-wide standard and supporting the applications that run on them.

The nearly ubiquitous personal digital assistant has begun to take its place among wireless phones and notebook computers in the arsenal of mobile business tools

"Corporate users have been accepting handheld devices more and more," says Ian Cullimore, president and chief executive at Informal Software in Santa Clara, Calif. "Although early adopters started buying them as novelties, we are finding that more corporate users are investing in them as productivity tools."

Today, corporate information technology managers recognize the power of personal digital assistants (PDAs) as business tools. The challenge is developing an enterprise-wide standard and supporting the applications that run on them.

Palm, which controls 75.9 percent of the PDA market worldwide, estimates that 30 percent of enterprise-level customers will have standardized on some sort of handheld device in 2001.

"2001 will be an important year for Palm and companies involved in handheld computing," says Glenn Bachmann, president of Bachmann Software and Services in Sparta, N.J. "In 2000, we saw the beginnings of a great sea change as companies started to support the Palm beyond the hobbyist level and build in serious enterprise-ready capability."

In the coming year, companies will increasingly choose to provide these handheld devices to their workers in the same way that they provide notebook computers today.

Will PDAs become a pervasive business tool? YES

"The vast majority of chief information officers see the advantage of creating a standard," says Richard Owen, CEO of AvantGo in San Mateo, Calif. "Purchasing these devices in a centralized fashion and deploying them within corporation allows them to become a central part of the technology toolset and gives businesses the opportunity to use them for so much more."

The market overall for handheld computers is growing exponentially. According to market research firm NPD Intelect Market Tracking, 3.5 million handheld computer devices were sold in 2000, representing $1.03 billion in sales - an increase from 1.3 million devices and $436.5 million in sales in 1999. The average price of a handheld device dropped from $323.98 in 1999 to $293.51 in 2000.

Meanwhile, the market is being flooded with applications and devices aimed at meeting the particular demands of business users. Today, Palm estimates there are more than 130,000 registered developers who have created more than 7,000 software applications and more than 100 add-on devices for Palm devices.

Recently, these pocket-sized computers have started adding parts of applications normally reserved for full-sized computers, like word processing, spreadsheets, presentations and printing.

"In the handheld and application side, real content is finally finding its way onto the Palm," Bachmann says. "In reality, the world is driven by documents, databases, spreadsheets and applications. As of a year ago, you couldn't say that there was great support, although you access those documents if you worked hard at it. Over the past year, we've really seen exciting growth in richness of content deployable in mobile computing devices." The goal of these applications is to retain the advantages of the palm, including its straightforward interface, streamlined applications and ease of use.

"The focus of the Palm platform has always been very much on ease of use, user experience and the ease of the process of getting the data on the handheld," says Robert Steele, chief technical officer at software vendor Ibrite. "There's also the practical reality of good battery life. These devices don't need to do everything - just do well the certain things that customers want."

However, there's little doubt that these computers, even as their processing and memory muscles increase, will continue as complements to, rather than replacements for, portable computers. The Palm offers the undeniable lure of instant access to information, but the notebook computer remains and will remain the preferred technology for creation of information.

"Anyone familiar with the Palm operating system [OS] knows that it isn't a desktop operating system, and doesn't have all the capabilities of a desktop machine," says Deborah Colton, product manager at FileMaker in Santa Clara, Calif. "It's a different model on the handheld. However, its bidirectional synchronization makes it suited to adding and modifying information and bringing that back to the desktop."

Originally, the Palm provided only personal organizer functions - calendars, address books and to-do lists. Today, users can download a variety of business documents to the PDA.

"The expectations of users are increasing," says Kristen Garvey, spokeswoman at DataViz. "When we came out with Documents to Go, people were using the Palm to track dates and appointments. Now, there's a trend of expecting quick and easy access to documents in formats like Word and Excel."

DataViz's Documents to Go 3.0 lets users bring files onto the Palm from a number of popular formats, including 1-2-3, Excel, Quattro Pro, Word, WordPerfect and Word Pro. Once on the device, the files can be viewed and edited, although not all features - such as Excel's ability to allow formulas within cells - are supported when the files are being viewed on the handheld. However, formatting, such as bold or italics, alignment and tables are retained. The program also includes DataViz Mail, which lets users view e-mail attachments downloaded from Outlook or Notes.

Later versions will support PowerPoint files as well.

Ibrite has already introduced powerViewer, software that lets users export Windows PowerPoint 2000 into a format that can be viewed on the Palm. The program also lets users beam their PowerPoint files to other users from a Palm. The company hopes to start shipping officeViewer, which will provide similar functionality for Word and Excel files, soon.

In April, Informal will ship its Enotate Presenter software that will allow users to make changes to Excel spreadsheets during a live presentation on a notebook or PC by using the Palm as the markup interface.

Although Microsoft has captured the lion's share of the business application market, other large software vendors are also supporting the move toward the Palm platform. In December, FileMaker introduced FileMaker Mobile Companion, which lets Palm users synchronize and transfer data between FileMaker Pro databases on a PC and a handheld. The program must be used in conjunction with FileMaker Pro 5.0 on the desktop. Other companies are less focused on supporting certain existing applications and concentrate more on using the Palm as a way of collecting or disseminating information.

AvantGo, for example, has created an enterprise platform that allows companies to create wireless handheld applications to meet the specific needs of their companies.

"Corporations don't like to rewrite applications for new platforms," Owen says. "The platform that everyone is writing for now is the Web - everything is delivered in some form through the browser. Our technology enables companies to take existing HTML and XML [eXtensible Markup Language] and make it work in the wireless mobile disconnected universe as if it is working on a computer."

For consumers, AvantGo offers a free service that lets users download and browse content from various Web sites, including Hollywood.com, MapQuest.com, RestaurantRow.com, The New York Times' Web site, TheStreet.com, Trip.com and Weather.com, using their Palms, Windows CE-based devices or Web enabled wireless phones.

"Without any advertising, just by word of mouth, we've attracted 1.2 million subscribers," Owen says. "That tells you that there is almost insatiable demand for these types of services, tools and technologies. People want to use the Palm to recapture their dead time."

Today, there are more than 400 content channels that have been optimized for the small screen, Palm reports. Users can download and browse news, stock quotes, flight schedules, movie listings, restaurant reviews and maps.

One key function that has been missing from the handheld space is printing; information has been largely imprisoned on the device until it is synched back to the notebook or desktop computer.

In December, Bachmann Software started shipping a family of products that enable Palm handhelds to do wireless printing. Bachmann's PrintBoy 2.2 is a suite of applets that prints appointments, addresses, to-do lists, memos and e-mail stored on the device clipboard to a printer using infrared communication. PrintBoy Documents allows users to print text, HTML, Word, Rich Text Format and Portable Document Format documents; the deluxe version adds Text Notes and Scribble Notes.

Software vendors say they will continue to add functionality to their programs by supporting more features found in desktop computers and popular applications, while still maintaining the best advantages of the Palm OS.