EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES : Handhelds Reach Out

Handhelds have arrived. These diminutive devices, born as electronic replacements for daily planners and address books, are maturing into powerful pocket-size tools that offer CIOs the opportunity to lighten mobile employees' load and improve their productivity.

You've seen this movie before. Like PCs and cellular phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) sneaked into the enterprise through the back door. Now they're seemingly everywhere, used to schedule meetings on the run, to read and reply to e-mail, to track expenses and perhaps-surely only on rare occasions-to play games.

But the role of PDAs -- PalmPilots, handheld PCs running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows CE operating system, Psions and their relatives -- is evolving.

Handhelds can now link not only to a user's desktop but to corporate servers; major database vendors are planning to market tools that will allow handhelds to download company data for use away from the office -- on a sales or service call, for example -- and then synchronise updates to that data. In a striking extension of PDA use into core business operations, an alliance of 3Com Corp., Symbol Technologies Inc. and ?baco International Group is working to develop a PDA link to SAP AG's ERP software.

Handhelds today provide New York City-based Bankers Trust Co. employees and customers with real-time access to market activity data. They simplify project billing at Aztec Systems Inc., a Dallas-based systems integrator, by allowing engineers working offsite to enter start and end times and work notes that are imported automatically into the company's project tracking systems. They make it possible for independent truckers to find loads to carry by synchronising their ruggedized PalmPilots at truck stops, courtesy of TruckNet Inc. in Lebanon, Missouri. They ensure that data from Harley-Davidson Motor Co.'s frames assembly shop in York, Pennsylvania, gets back into its manufacturing databases.

The Incredible Shrinking Data

Why are handhelds so appealing? In a way, it's because they're everything laptop computers aren't: small, lightweight, easy to learn, with miserly power requirements that let them run for a month on two AAA batteries. They're also inexpensive, costing US$400 at retail, less in bulk, more if you need the ruggedized version being produced by Symbol Technologies. Yet they can perform many of the same tasks.

But the key to their emerging appeal as an enterprise tool is their increasing ability to deliver and record current data anywhere. At New York Life Insurance Co. in New York City, for example, Assistant Vice President Susan Farkas says a recently completed pilot project indicates that the PDAs lead to increased productivity because Lotus Notes-resident information is available where and when it's needed by employees in home offices.

At the same time, many enterprise vendors have announced tools to enhance handhelds' ability to play well with others. Companies such as SAP AG, Oracle Corp., Sybase Inc. and Computer Associates International Inc. have announced options for access to corporate information. Remedy Corp. in Mountain View, California, will offer a help desk solution. Advances in synchronisation are also in the works from companies such as Puma Technology Inc. in San Jose, Calif. One is remote synchronisation, which allows users to update data without returning to their desks. Another method circumvents the client desktop computer entirely and synchronises data directly into enterprise data servers.

On the hardware side, IBM Corp. relabeled 3Com Corp.'s Palm PDA (the company recently dropped the "Pilot" name, although that's undoubtedly what they'll still be called) as the WorkPad PC Companion.

For users, the arguments in favour of PDAs carry a lot of weight precisely because the PDAs don't. "Picture this," says Eric Martin, LAN/WAN lead engineer at Harley-Davidson's final assembly plant in York, Pennsylvania. "A two-inch-thick laptop, a corporate phone directory, a typical planner plus a couple of operating system manuals. It's close to a foot high. I can fit all that in my PalmPilot.""No one wants to lug around a laptop to do inventory," says Dan Stratton, a database analyst with Eagle, Idaho-based Quality Design Systems Inc., which develops point-of-sale and inventory systems for tire stores and chains. "If we could somehow get rid of all the keyboards and mice, we'd love it. We've got people here who need to use the machines who aren't real technologically advanced."Being able to dispense completely with the heavy, expensive laptop is a vision for the future, though. The economics are appealing, but at the moment handhelds don't provide broad enough functionality. At New York Life, the PalmPilots being used by both telecommuters and remote agents are supplemental tools, says Farkas. But they contain enough information to allow employees to leave the laptops in their offices.

CIOs concerned about their staffs' productivity also note the handhelds' value in help desk scenarios. Even before Remedy announced its product, Napone Phommachakr, IT support manager for the city of Palo Alto, California, ran his help desk with PalmPilots.

"Our four techs each carry a handheld. Every morning they come in, download their service requests for the day and off they go. When they complete a job with a client, they open the PalmPilot and close off theticket, giving the exact time of closing and one or two sentences on how they resolved the call." The synchronised data, entered on the handhelds using forms customised by Phommachakr's staff, updates the database.

While ready-made solutions are helpful, CIOs may get more from handhelds by taking their capabilities a step further. "In figuring out how to use a tool like the PalmPilot," says Harley-Davidson's Martin, "you have to think out of the box. You can do so much more if you add a little bit of programming. When you customise it-adding forms for the specific types of data -that's when it really starts to shine."The motorcycle manufacturer's PDA-based solution may petrify the CIO who believes in policy manuals and centralised controls. But at Harley-Davidson, it's made a big improvement on what went before. In the frame shop, for example, production data used to be collected on slips of paper; the data was entered into the company's databases only when those slips made it back to desks unscathed. Now PalmPilots are used and the data is entered into custom forms that have been written by one of the workers on the line.

What's Missing

Assuming Moore's law about computer power holds true even in smaller computers, handhelds should continue to improve. That's important because some facets of the technology are still in their infancy. Wireless connectivity, for instance, is still a slow, expensive power hog. "We looked at wireless," recalls New York Life's Farkas. "Initially, when we started the project we were hopeful, but it became clear doing the pilot project that some things will be here real soon but will not be viable for large-scale implementation. The Novatel modem does work, but services provided nationwide are not in place and not reliable. And the cost factor [$399] is at this point prohibitive."Nonetheless, Palm and Motorola Inc. have collaborated on a pager card that could form the basis for a wireless ERP system, delivering enterprise data in real-time. Reuters is using Novatel's wireless CDPD modem to deliver market data for its MarketClip service, which uses as platforms the PalmPilot and Hewlett-Packard Co.'s 360LX handheld PC running Windows CE 2.0. And Qualcomm Inc., the wireless phone manufacturer, has licensed the Palm platform and is expected to integrate that with its CDMA-based wireless phone technology to produce a PDA that could place and receive calls (or, if you prefer, a wireless phone with robust data access capabilities).

Users are also looking for displays that come closer to what's seen on a desktop or laptop computer. While handhelds running Windows CE offer colour displays, the new Palm III, for example, cannot yet display gray shades, much less colours. Compatibility with office productivity suites is also an issue that needs to be addressed to smooth the road to enterprise deployment, particularly for those devices not running a Microsoft operating system. And programming for handhelds needs to become more uniform.

From an enterprise point of view, though, one of handhelds' biggest weaknesses is the lack of security they offer for enterprise data. At the moment, the best a technology manager can do to protect data on a Palm device is to enable power-on password access -- a level of security that on a laptop would be dismissed as inadequate to safeguard sensitive business data. "We've had some companies that field-tested handhelds but said they wouldn't deploy completely until they could be sure the data on the devices was secure," says David Rensin, who manages the mobile computing group at Noblestar Systems Corp., a systems integrator in Falls Church, Virginia. The answer, he says, is data encryption, but that will be a challenge because it is so processor intensive.

3Com has been working with Certicom Corp. to develop enterprise-level security for the Palm platform, but availability has not been set.

The Future at Hand

Corporate executives are finding that deploying handhelds can have benefits that extend beyond business processes. Providing them to employees can, for example, be a good morale-building move. "People like the technology," says Aztec Systems Inc. President Andrew Levi. "It's good for the relationship between the company and the employee." Unfortunately, that argument isn't likely to satisfy a company's financial managers, who will ask for a more quantified justification.

Nonetheless, the potential of PDAs bears watching. As a CIO, you may bemoan the ever-expanding boundaries of enterprise data. The fact remains that the closer employees can be to their data-no matter how far they are from their desks-the higher their productivity is likely to be.

(Alan S. Kay covers business and consumer technology from San Francisco. He can be reached via e-mail at ask@well.com.) Sprint Sprints ForwardBy Howard BaldwinNew technology promises simultaneous use over single line.

In the immortal words of Arthur C. Clarke, a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Every so often, you hear some ballyhoo that seems to fit that description. Take Sprint Corp.'s new Integrated On-Demand Network (ION), which promises multiple phone calls, Internet access and fax receipt over the same phone line for business or home. If it works, who cares how they pull the rabbit out of the hat? It sounds like a big boost for IT in terms of security and reliability.

It's not news to CIOs that telecom needs are exploding, fuelling bandwidth requirements. You can recite them in your sleep: electronic commerce, extranets, a dispersed workforce. "CIOs are also driven by speed-to-market and customer responsiveness," says Sue Sentell, vice president of marketing for Sprint Business in Dallas, citing the need for multimedia applications such as collaborative product development and interactive customer care. "The result is that CIOs need to establish multiple networks to meet multiple needs, which increases complexity and cost."With its single-line capability, ION obviously is designed to eliminate this problem, both in the enterprise and in the realm of home use for telecommuters.

ION is rolling out to enterprises at the end of this year. Sprint will then target smaller offices of current customers in early 1999, and then market to other small businesses and homes in the second half of next year. The first cities slated for the capability are Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Missouri. (where Sprint was founded), and New York.

According to Sentell, customers won't need new wiring and won't need to swap existing telecom equipment. ION requires the installation of what Sprint is calling an integrated services hub, a device that accepts multiple kinds of communications-voice, PBX (private branch exchange), ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) and frame relay-and integrates their protocols, subsequently sending them speeding over an ATM network. The size of the hub differs depending on the installation: In the home, it may be the size of a notebook computer; in an enterprise, it may take up a rack as tall as Michael Jordan.

Sprint has not determined pricing for its offering, but Sentell estimates that CIOs would see a reduction in overall IT costs because they'd be paying for bandwidth when they needed it rather than at a constant level. Sentell refrained from estimating the competitive advantage this might give her company in the marketplace, but she did note that ION represented approximately five years of work and "scores" of patents. ATT Corp. reports that over the last two years it's invested some US$14 billion in technology to provide simply integrated, high-speed services; MCI Communications Corp. did not respond to requests for information about its plans.

The problem with magic is, if you don't know how it works, you can never be sure ahead of time if it's really going to work. Here's to sawing telecom complexity in half.

Middleware for Middleware

By CIO staff

1 2 Page 1
Page 1 of 2
7 secrets of successful remote IT teams