Setback won't halt rise of PDAs

While Psion's poor results are bad news for fans of Epoc, handheld computer use is flourishing - probably by stealth. It is time...

While Psion's poor results are bad news for fans of Epoc, handheld computer use is flourishing - probably by stealth. It is time for enterprises to get to grips with PDAs

Paul Mason


The Symbian vision is alive and well - at least in the world of Flash presentations. Log on to the consortium's Web site and the first thing that launches is an animated graph showing inexorable future growth of intelligent wireless devices.

Back in the real world, Psion - a key shareholder in the Symbian alliance which owns the Epoc handheld operating system - announced terrible results last week. It slashed 20% of its workforce and cancelled work on its "smart" mobile phone, codenamed Odin.

Motorola had already pulled out of Odin and the move is a setback for both firms' search for a credible third generation (3G) mobile device. Symbian was the first to market with a workable operating system for handheld computers. Arguably Epoc is still the best bet for the future PDA-cum-mobile phone: it supports multitasking - something the rival Palm operating system is still struggling with - and it was designed from the bottom up as a potential wireless platform.

But Symbian - and Psion in particular - got caught by a double whammy:

  • 3G mobile telecoms have been delayed, causing problems for the handset manufacturers who joined Psion in the Symbian project

  • Meanwhile a device came along that did the original job of handheld computing better - the Palm.

    Palm's operating system does not multitask - but its interface is very intuitive. Its success is based on two strokes of genius. Palm learned from Apple's Newton disaster that it is easier to make humans change their handwriting than try to get a computer to recognise it.

    The second was desktop synchronisation. Palm made one-touch synchronisation with a Windows PC a doddle. One of the top five "wow" moments I have experienced with technology happened when I plugged my 1997 Palm into our huge new Windows 2000 network, found the right directory and synchronised with my Outlook account.

    Network security managers should realise that it is not just a few maverick "power-users" who do this. Palm claims that about 80% of unit synchronisations take place in the enterprise. However, only 40% of Palm units are paid for by the company. That means that up to half of business users are running privately owned Palm software and hardware on business systems.

    Palm is ahead too in the developer stakes. While Symbian claims 35,000 registered developers, Palm claims 130,000. No matter how many of these are teenagers writing Pac-Man clones, the discrepancy is too great to be irrelevant.

    However, until last week it looked as if Symbian could leapfrog Palm by dominating the emergence of wireless information devices (WIDs).

    The project Motorola and Psion canned was to build a smartphone - not a connected PDA. With economics forcing firms to focus on core business, the figures clearly did not add up.

    Meanwhile, Palm took the offensive with a list of announcements designed to protect its position as leader of the 2G pack. And it acquired Extended Solutions - a company specialising in enterprise-level mobile infrastructure.

    But what does all this mean for IT decision-makers?

    There are a small number of IT chiefs who have really got their heads around handheld computer strategy. They seem to be concentrated in unglamorous sectors such as privatised utilities and traffic services, where clunky, dedicated handheld devices have been standard issue for more than five years.

    Their first piece of advice is: get a handheld strategy. Don't let end-users force the pace - but don't resist handhelds unless real security concerns demand it.

    Second, watch the cost of ownership. These things start at about £100 but the big Wintel PC makers have tended to throw their weight behind more expensive models based on Windows CE. Windows CE, in its Pocket PC version, is becoming a clear contender. Anecdotal evidence shows that big Microsoft shops are specifying them - probably more out of familiarity with the suppliers than with the operating system.

    Third, be proactive. IT managers in the health sector are among the most interested in handheld devices. There are plenty of pilot evaluations underway in health authorities - but the tendency will be to develop them piecemeal and to get it all mixed up with big, server-side hospital information systems.

    The handheld revolution has been a quiet one, but these are not just toys - they are the devices that will bring nurses, bricklayers and traffic wardens into the digital age.

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