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Mobile Strategies

Sculley was right

By Dominic Giangrasso
April 2000, issue 33

Just to make sure we're on the same page, the Sculley mentioned above is not the ever skeptical X-Files agent but Apple's ex-CEO. History credits him with coining the term "PDA" with the introduction of the Newton Personal Digital Assistant. Try as they may, manufacturers and clever marketers never managed to replace the term, and now it's back in full force.

There may still be folks who have never heard of a PDA, but most business people are not only familiar with the term, but most likely have one. The large amount of coverage PDAs get here at Pen Computing isn't primarily because PDAs use pen interfaces but because they have become incredibly useful and a market force to be reckoned with.

The end of 1999 and the first few months of 2000 saw a great amount of PDA activity and we've barely been able to keep up. Our platform editors take their individual stands and defend them with the fervor of a particularly tenacious crusader. I'll leave that to them and instead try to look at the business realities of PDAs without playing favorites.

My involvement with Pen Computing Magazine allows me to get my hands on many cool new devices much more so than the average person can. I like to believe that I deserve that benefit by taking it one step further than most reviewers: I don't just test the devices, I use them. Real honest-to-goodness-long-hours-bleary-eyed use. PDAs are part of my business day and I use them for everything from executive support, facility and project management, to the financial management of my $17M department budget. I use the software that comes with each PDA, I install commercial software, and I download freeware and shareware as well. They help my PDAs help me manage my work and my list of 600+ contacts, and the software gets a good workout in the process.

Despite the resurgence of cartoonists mocking PDAs, the darn things are useful and getting awfully close to being indispensable. I know what they can do for me as a manager who walks the deck to do his job. Think of the workload of other mobile workers and it's easy to see how small, inexpensive PDA could open entirely new ways to both distribute data for decision support and capture information at the source.

You are doing yourself a disservice if you don't check out the PDA phenomenon. If you don't have the time, make it. If you really don't have the time, get someone else to check it for you. Then start looking beyond the old organizer paradigm and towards true mobile computing.

This is likely where you'll start worrying over picking the right platform. Here in the United States, PDAs based on the Palm OS enjoy a commanding marketshare, with Microsoft's various Windows CE platforms being a distant second. What do they offer to the enterprise?

Both platforms now have monochrome and color display models. Monochrome still looks good outdoors and under bright lighting conditions, but color will win in the end as it always does. Monochrome PDAs get better battery life, too, with those thrifty Palm OS devices leading the pack. Windows CE devices have (and need) much faster CPUs and much more memory, and they are more closely related to the Windows 95/ 98/2000 computers most of us use at work. The complexity and richness of Windows CE is both a blessing and a curse, with the new generation of Pocket PCs promising a more streamlined user interface.

Color screens used to be the exclusive province of Windows CE, but Palm has now followed suit with the new Palm IIIc. Make sure you pick the right color screen: Regular TFT displays are great indoors but literally disappear in bright daylight. Reflective TFTs, as used in Compaq Aero color PDAs, are readable in direct sunlight but they are not nearly as bright indoors standard TFTs. The price is color is battery life-a fact that even Palm had to acknowledge with their first color device.

If you envision your PDA tying into the corporate database, check with your IT folks. Win CE devices work with Oracle and Sybase as well as just about every native Microsoft application. The Palm OS is also supported by IBM and Oracle, and SAP and PeopleSoft are in the pipeline. In mid 1999, Palm and Sun Microsystems announced efforts to run JAVA on the Palm OS platform.

If you want off-the-shelf wireless, the Palm platform currently has an edge with devices like the Palm VII and the CDPD Minstrel Modem for the Palm V. Microsoft's Connectivity Pack provides the same capability to Win CE devices via cellular, but it's more of a patchwork solution. Both platforms are also targeting the Bluetooth wireless standard for local connectivity in the near future.

The beauty is that all of this applies to PDA devices retailing for less, and often much less, than $500. Whether you think PDAs are right for you or not, you must start thinking of how they can benefit you and your company.

The Personal Digital Assistant is here to stay. John Sculley should be proud of what he started. He had been right after all.

Dominic Giangrasso can be reached via e-mail at

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