PDAs Make Inroads Into Businesses

Vendors make handhelds that are easier for companies to manage



Handheld computers have become ubiquitous in business. Yet as common as PDAs are, large companies still rarely purchase and manage them. More often than not, individuals sneak them into the workplace.

But vendors are increasingly trying to convince IT departments that PDAs are not only useful but manageable. Last week, a handful of products highlighted the ways vendors are tweaking their wares to appeal to corporate buyers.

Microsoft led off the week with a version of its Pocket PC handheld operating system. The rebranded product, now called Windows Mobile 2003 Software for Pocket PC, features a number of changes meant to simplify its use. "Most of the cool stuff is under the hood," says Todd Kort, principal analyst with Gartner. "The average end user isn't going to be aware that any kind of major changes have taken place. [Microsoft is doing] a lot of things to satisfy IT managers."

One change is a new configuration manager capable of automatically detecting and connecting to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth networks. That will make it possible for users to connect wirelessly without having to deal with any complicated configurations or setups, Kort says.

Hewlett-Packard plans to expand its popular line of iPaq PDAs. New models include the h5150, a high-end model for business use, which includes support for Bluetooth wireless technology; the top-of-the-line h5550, which has a thermal biometric fingerprint reader to ensure data protection; the h1940, a low-end, slim-bodied model; and the h2210, which HP says is the smallest PDA to include dual-expansion slots.

Microsoft's software also includes improvements to the mobile Web browser, easier E-mail connectivity through integration with Microsoft Exchange Server 2003, support for Windows Media 9 audio and video, a photo-album application, support for stronger security standards, and better functionality for running on hybrid mobile phones.

Gaining GroundOther hardware vendors are rolling out devices to take advantage of the new features. Gateway Inc. next month will launch its first branded PDA, the 100x. It will be geared toward business professionals and be included in Gateway's bundled mobility system for small and midsize businesses.

JVC Co. of America also disclosed plans to enter the handheld market. The JVC iO Pocket PC line of PDAs emphasizes the audiovisual capabilities of Windows Mobile, promising to provide advanced multimedia support. The MP-PV131 and MP- PV331 iO Pocket PCs will be in stores in September.

While most businesses haven't embraced PDAs, a few--like logistics companies--have been using them for a while. Global freight company Menlo Worldwide Forwarding recently equipped more than 800 drivers with Pocket PC devices. The Symbol Technologies 8146 portable data terminals receive dispatches over a radio LAN with instructions on when and where to pick up packages. When drivers handle a package, they use the device to scan a bar-code label on the box, beaming tracking data back to the home office.

Menlo has had no problems managing the deployment, says Ron Berger, managing director of IT. "We've had no issues with it whatsoever, and it's been accepted very well by the users," he says. "It's going really well." Because the devices are wirelessly connected, the IT department is able to push software updates and new applications to users, which makes management much easier.

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