Handheld Computing: Picking Devices for Data on the Run

 
 
By Brian P. Watson  |  Posted 2006-05-05
 
 
 

Didn't get the memo because you were on the road? Those days are probably numbered: Companies today are stepping up their mobile computing efforts, armed with new handheld devices and programs to track sales, monitor inventories—and even save lives.

At the same time, vendors eager for a foothold in this fast-growing sector are flooding the market with new offerings that provide wireless access to e-mail, Web sites and corporate applications, and also function as mobile phones. And that's making purchasing decisions even harder for information-technology executives.

Just ask Donna Dietz. When office technology company Pitney Bowes decided to roll out a field-maintenance automation program in 2003, Dietz, vice president of technology planning, deployed about 2,000 handheld computers to service workers worldwide.

Many of these employees work on-site at customers' offices, maintaining the mail sorters, address systems and other devices Pitney Bowes produces. So the company purchased field-maintenance programs from Siebel Systems and Antenna Software that allowed workers to report service issues and schedules wirelessly through the handhelds. The result: The mobile devices helped Pitney Bowes slash the number of repair callbacks from customers by 10% in about a year, Dietz says.

But Dietz and her team didn't put all their money on one handheld vendor. Instead, they built a system, based on software from Antenna, able to support a number of operating systems and devices, including Research in Motion's BlackBerry, Palm's Treo and handhelds running Microsoft's Pocket PC platform.

That wasn't her original plan. She wanted to standardize on a single vendor, but she let the company's half-dozen business heads—in charge of overseeing maintenance activities for different product lines—decide what worked best for them. It turned out that each of them preferred a different device, based mainly on which one their employees were most familiar with.

And in the end, nothing about any of the devices stood out enough for her to crown a victor. "We really haven't seen any substantial difference [in the products]," Dietz says.

Cly Curtis, chief information officer at Crossmark, oversaw a similar project for his company, which provides merchandising and marketing services to the consumer packaged goods industry. His team developed a wireless communications system for field representatives and equipped them with iPaqs, a line of handheld devices made by Hewlett-Packard.

Curtis likes the iPaq's touch screen, which lets employees use just their fingers or a stylus to call up data on the device, as well as its shape and size. But even more, he likes the fact that it runs on Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system, the precursor to its new Windows Mobile platform.

That's because the Plano, Texas-based Crossmark set up its field-communications system on the Microsoft .NET framework for software development, meaning it would be easier to build software for Microsoft-based handhelds. "It was just the path of least resistance for us," Curtis says. That was the main reason he decided not to buy Palm Treos, which ran Palm's operating system when he surveyed the market in 2004. (After Crossmark selected the iPaq, Palm released the Treo 700w, which runs Microsoft's Windows Mobile software.)

For other CIOs, the underlying software is also the key factor in choosing a device. "The devices are changing so rapidly that you have to look at de facto standards," says Gary Weiner, chief information officer at St. Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport, Conn., where doctors and staff use Palm Treos to access patient records and doctors' notes. In his view, Windows is on its way to becoming the ubiquitous standard for handheld computing—just as it is for desktop computers.

But the market leader in this category is Research in Motion, whose pocket-size BlackBerry e-mail and phone devices run a proprietary operating system. BlackBerrys currently dominate the U.S. enterprise market, representing 87% of all devices sold in 2005, according to research firm IDC. Microsoft's Pocket PC platform has been a popular choice on personal digital assistants, but the software giant's Windows Mobile operating system designed for smart phones has only recently begun to pick up traction, according to industry analysts.

In March, Research in Motion settled a patent infringement suit filed by holding company NTP for $612 million, after fighting it for five years. That prompted many BlackBerry customers to look at their options, and Research in Motion is finding itself contending with a tide of new Microsoft-based products—fed by Palm's adoption of Windows for some its products—as well as new devices from Nokia and Motorola set to hit the U.S. market this year.

But BlackBerrys remain popular, and a big reason for that, customers say, is the company's "push" e-mail technology, which routes e-mail straight to the device without the device having to request it from a server.

John Sroka, CIO of Philadelphia-based law firm Duane Morris, was looking for a simple wireless solution to help attorneys communicate outside the office. He went with BlackBerry because of the proprietary technology. "It's a pretty black-and-white implementation—just straightforward wireless push e-mail," Sroka says.

Meanwhile, many information-technology executives still say there's plenty of value in the hardware.

Palm's Treo, for example, has a higher-quality phone than the competition, says Mike Booke, senior director of business information systems with Schwan Food. Executives at the frozen-food company took to the device quickly, Booke says, even though its screen and keyboard are smaller than those of its competitors.

"The productivity enhancement our first pilot group received was so significant that now it's a de facto standard that if you're in an executive position, you've got a Treo," Booke says. The company pays $40 to $50 per month for wireless service for each of its 200 Treos. The devices, he says, let executives access communications at least an hour sooner than without a handheld, which he says is a "no-brainer."

But a glut of options poses new challenges, some technology executives say. Weiner, of St. Vincent's Medical Center, frequently asks software vendors to recommend handhelds for their applications to gauge which devices have the widest reach.

Lately, he says, they're declining—because their applications run on multiple devices. "They say, 'We'll run on the Windows platform or the Palm OS,'" Weiner says. "'You pick the device.'"