The Business Utility of Handheld Devices

By Lynn Haber | Jan 10, 2001 | Print this Page
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Analysts International is an active participant in its own destiny. By choosing to embrace unmanaged Palm Pilot users within the organization, the IT consulting and technology services company is today able to respond more immediately to potential customers, and is subsequently closing more deals.

Founded in 1966, Minneapolis, Minn.-based Analysts International currently has 5,000 employees and 48 locations. About 12 months ago, the company saw the wave of Palm users within its employee base growing. Rather than be buried beneath the wave, AI opted to take a harder look at how this smaller form-factor device could make its more than 250 person sales staff more effective in their jobs.

Today, with well over 100 Palm Pilot users, AI believes it's just scratching the surface of what these handheld units can do to improve business. Fieldforce workers need to be where the action is, and companies need to provide them with the same IT support they get in the office, says Joanne Bocci, TITLE at Analysts International.

Using a mix of Palm Pilot unitsPalm IIIs, Palm Vs and Palm VIIssales staff and some executive managers can access standard personal information management (PIM) applications, such as calendar, e-mail and addresses, as well as the corporate customer relationship management (CRM) system and the employee relationship management system.

Although not all businesses are as aggressive as Analysts International when it comes to the corporate adoption of handheld devices, industry watchers say a growing number of companies are acknowledging that these small computing units are useful business tools. They're just in the process of figuring out how to let them in the front door while doing away with renegade, backdoor, handheld users.

In fact, according to Tim Scannell, analyst at Mobile Insights, a Mountain View, Calif.-based consultancy that tracks the mobile and wireless markets, many Fortune 500 corporations have mobile wireless strategies in place; 10% to 15% have mobile wireless-enabled systems. Ninety percent of handheld use, today, is PIM applications, he says.

Falling into Place

With an estimated 10 million personal digital assistants (PDAs)--Palm and Pocket PCs--already in the hands of users, and an additional six to seven million sold each year, according to the Gartner Group Inc., Stamford, Conn., the use of these devices within organizations is poised for growth.

We're already seeing about ten percent of these units enhanced with some corporate applications, says Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at Gartner.

At Palm Inc., Santa Clara, Calif., Dan Glessner, director of enterprise marketing, reports that in the last 12 months there's been a shift in how the enterprise views handheld devices--from seeing them as toys to serious business tools.

In fact, one way Palm keeps track of enterprise usage is through product registration cards. Based on a review of nine million plus user cards, the company has learned that 80% of all Palm units are synchronized in a business environment. In addition, 40% of all Palm units are being paid for directly by companies, or companies are reimbursing users for their purchases. That represents an increase over the last year, says Glessner.

That last figure jives with figures reported by International Data Corp. (IDC), Framingham, Mass., last spring. According to IDC, 37% of survey respondents said that their departments will pay for their personal PDAs over the next 12 months.

Device Enhancements

Not only are more devices creeping into the market, the devices themselves are maturing to include a broad array of functionality that targets the business community.

For example, Palm continues to introduce functionality on Palm Pilot devices with the enterprise in mind. Palm HotSync Server Software, introduced about five months ago, is a platform for handheld management, integration and development, according to Glessner. The vendor plans on introducing Version 2 next spring. Our plan is to integrate this product with system management products from companies like Computer Associates and Tivoli, he says.

Palm also introduced the Palm Ethernet Cradle and extended its levels of customer support. According to the vendor, the Palm Ethernet Cradle is designed for use by networked corporations to provide handheld users full data synchronization services from anywhere in the business facility, such as a central location like the lobby of a building. This product allows mobile workers to synchronize away from their desks, says Glessner. Finally, the vendor now offers escalated multi-tier support, 24x7, help desk, training, replacement parts and extended warranty.

At IBM Corp., the company continues to improve its WorkPad product for enterprise use. The vendor's WorkPad C3, equivalent to the Palm Pilot Vx, was made available earlier this year. Three features differentiate IBM's handheld device from competitors' Palm OS devices, according to Robin Marley, manager market development for mobile brands at IBM: easy synch for Lotus Notes, DB2 EveryPlace, and IBM Mobile connect.

DB2 Everyplace Version 7.1.1, for example, is a small-footprint relational database of about 150K designed for low-cost, low-power, small form-factor devices such as PDAs, handheld personal computers or embedded devices, according to the company.

Like other industry players, IBM's Marley notes that the over the past 12 months, he's observed Fortune 500 companies endorsing handheld devices. Companies are testing the operating system and connectivity and they're making corporate purchases in orders of magnitude, he says.

Replacing Laptops

Countrywide Home Loans Inc., one of the largest independent home loan lenders in the U.S., based in Calabasas, Calif., is another enterprise exploring and expanding the way its employees use handheld devices. According to Mike Taliaferro, executive vice president at Countrywide, the company initially got its feet wet with Palm Pilots as a direct marketing scheme. A year ago, the company developed a Countrywide application that mimics its Web site, where customers can find out about the different types of home loans offered, interest rates, and branch locations. The application is now standard issue on all Palm VII units, as part of the Web clipping feature.

This application is great for direct consumer marketing reaching millions of users, he says.

However, Palm users can be found inside Countrywide, as well. According to Taliaferro, many of the company's 1,000 sales staff have purchased the devices themselves and use them for business purposes, such as wireless email, to check on loan rates, and to communicate with customers.

Although the company doesn't reimburse these employees for handheld device purchases, it will in the near future. In fact, according to Taliaferro, Countrywide announced that it plans to make Palm Pilots standard issue. Today, the company has a laptop reimbursement program but, according to the executive vice president, as soon as Countrywide adds an application-taking feature to the Palm devices, they will have the functionality to be as useful in the field as laptops are today. It's just a matter of dedicating the resources and time to developing the application, says Taliaferro.

Countrywide isn't the only company with plans to replace laptop units with Palm devices. Analysts International has already begun to do so. As we need to replace our field staffs laptops, we're issuing Palm Pilots instead, says Bocci. The company is actually replacing the laptop unit with a Palm device and a desktop computer. In the process, the company saves about $1,500 per user, she notes.

More Action

Although Palm OS devices today seem to be the unit of choice in the enterprise, according to industry watchers, they're not alone. In fact, Compaq Computer's iPaq seems to be hitting its stride, says Gartner's Dulaney, noting that Windows CE 3.0 is becoming more of a player thanks to improved developer tools and improved run time.

Vidur Luthra, product manager enterprise markets at Microsoft Corp., reports that the company is seeing two types of enterprise deployment for CE devices: horizontal, with companies distributing devices across the board to knowledge workers; and line of business, or vertical deployment, such as in the healthcare industry or financial services.

Gartner estimates that by the end of 2002, CE will own a 30% market share, with Palm garnering 50%, Symbian owning 15%, and a variety of other operating systems making up the remaining share 5% of the mobile operating systems market. Dulaney doesn't believe that Linux will make big inroads in the handheld market, primarily because it lacks a single vendor to promote it.

That said, Linux is getting interest as a development platform for mobile devices. According to Evans Data Corp., a Santa Cruz market researcher, a recent poll of 300 Linux developers indicated that 20% of them are building applications on mobile devices, representing a 50% increase in mobile Linux application development over a six-month period.

A couple of months ago, Olivetti SpA subsidiary, Royal, Bridgewater, N.J., said it expects to be the first vendor on the market with a Linux-powered PDA. The vendor plans to introduce two daVinci model devices in Q1 2001. Others vendors are expected to follow.

Although some vendors are clearly in the race to shape handheld computers as a business tool, others are still getting their houses in order. For example, both Hewlett-Packard and Handspring, the Mountain View, Calif.-based manufacturer of the Visor, are still in the process of putting the pieces together to attract enterprise customers.

An HP spokesperson says that the current focus for the Jornada is currently in retail, but the company has enterprise application in the works. Handspring is reportedly putting together a sales force and strategy for the enterprise market. Dell Computer Corp., on the other hand, has publicly announced that it is waiting for the handheld market to stabilize before taking the plunge.

Management Comes Together

A year ago, managing handheld devices was a big problem for companies using them. A lot has changed in a year. Today, a number of vendors offer mobile management, which helps enterprises reduce the total cost of ownership.

Big network and system management vendors like Computer Associates International, Islandia, N.Y. and Tivoli, this year, stepped up to the plate to offer management options for handheld devices. Tivoli, for example, offers Tivoli for the Palm Computing Platform. CAI offers the UniCenter TNG Software Delivery Option 3.0, which includes support for Palm OS and Windows CE devices. CAI's latest version of the UniCenter TNG Asset Management Option V3.10 also tracks Palm OS and CE devices when plugged into the network.

In the 1980s, enterprises deployed laptops en masse, then asked how were they going to manage them. Companies don't want to go down that road again, says Joe Pascal, director of marketing at CAI. At the end of November 2000, the vendor also delivered a version of its InoculatIT antivirus and Trojan-detection product for the Palm OS.

In late October 2000, McAffee.com Corp., the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based subsidiary of Network Associates Inc., announced a beta release of its first antivirus scanner resident on the Palm OS.

Mobile management system vendor Xcellenet, Atlanta, Ge., delivered its commercially available Afaria product, with support for handheld devices, this year. Alpharetta, Ge.-based Synchrologic Inc., offers its iMobile Suite for Palm OS and Pocket PC devices.

Work to Be Done

Despite the swelling interest by businesses in handheld devices, a number of holes in the platform's robustness as an enterprise device need to be plugged before a more broad-based adoption takes off. Major areas of concern include security, backups, and recovery.

When it comes to the security issue of information assets, Analysts International sets a clear policy for its users. There are corporate information assets on our users devices and they're confidential in nature. We hold our users responsible for those assets, says Bocci.

At Verizon Communications, Irving, Texas, a telecommunications company, where 2,500 Symbol 1700 ruggedized handheld computers have been distributed to the company's field technicians, Todd Williams, network services specialist systems support, says that users are responsible for their units. The handhelds are handed out as a business tool, the user signs them out and if they're missing, the user is responsible, he says.

Verizon is in the midst of a five-year rollout plan, which got underway in calendar year 2000, to replace 6,000 older barcode units with the Symbol device. The company's technicians use the Palm OS-based devices to track the assets of the equipment they're installing out in the field. Users also have access to standard PIM applications, such as notepad, calendaring, and scheduling.

Industry watchers note some additional issues that the handheld market needs to address. Enterprise market growth is also hindered by a lack of platform stability, says Dulaney, noting that what's hot today may not be hot tomorrow.

IBM's Marley adds that wireless is still an issue because network speed isn't there yet. Users can get 10Kbps over a Mobitex or CDPD network, and if they want to do Web browsing over a wireless connection they can at 1000Kbps, he says. Those speeds are a far cry from today's wired network speeds.

Product wrinkles aside, it appears that companies have no alternative but to look at the value of palm and handheld devices, as employees opt to use them whether or not they're sanctioned by the company. Everybody loves a laptop until you have to cart it around, says Bocci, noting that the handhelds are truly portable--and there's no powering up. //

Lynn Haber writes on business and information technology from Norwell, Ma.