The usual suspects

The personal digital assistant (PDA) field is set to hot up this year, but many enterprises remain in the cold when it comes to...

The personal digital assistant (PDA) field is set to hot up this year, but many enterprises remain in the cold when it comes to plotting their best course among the confusion of device options and operating platforms. This is the year when, according to many analysts, the PDA market will be boosted by the arrival of third-generation devices offering remote synchronisation over wireless links. This will increase the appeal of a range of corporate applications such as scheduling, e-mail and knowledge management.

Personal digital assistants now incorporate wireless technology and bear a striking resemblance to mini laptops. Philip Hunter reports

The first generation of digital assistants comprised standalone devices where the Psion Organiser led the field. The Palm did a similar job for the second generation, which had the added ingredient of synchronisation with PCs or corporate networks via a cradle. The third generation makes such devices much more useful to users on the move by adding remote wireless synchronisation capability.

Despite considerable publicity and hype, they have yet to really break out of the pilot phase, according to Brian Gammage, an industry analyst specialising in such devices at Gartner Group. "The main driver for growth, which is wireless connectivity, is still to appear," he says. But it will not be delayed for much longer. "We'll see it installed during the second half of this year," he says.

This will be a big boost to the market, fulfilling Gartner's prediction that there will be 6.6 million PDAs in Europe by 2004, compared with 1.76 million last year. Such figures are closely related to even more bullish projections for the wireless Internet, which will both be driven by and, at the same time, stimulate the market. Analyst company IDC predicts that worldwide wireless Internet transactions will be worth $38bn by 2003. In 2000, the only significant player in the wireless market was Japan.

Although many enterprises are waiting for wireless connectivity before making a serious commitment to palmtops, there have been a few early adopters for which such devices already play an important role. Among them is the Lattice Group, which was recently demerged from BG (formerly British Gas), responsible for leasing and management activities, including IT strategy. BG originally made a big commitment to PDAs supplied by Palm for applications in knowledge management, providing executives with access to key management information and diary facilities. Users update the Palms by docking them via the cradle with their PC and this can be done at various sites around the world. But Lattice Group is now considering replacing its Palm stock with new models running the latest version of the operating system and equipped for wireless connectivity.

Tom O'Connor, Lattice's director in charge of mobile and PDA strategy, urges other enterprises to jump off the fence and adopt them now, despite the continuing fragmentation of the market in terms of operating platforms and device types. He argues that the wireless-equipped assistants will become as ubiquitous as the PC, and the sooner enterprises get their hands dirty, the better equipped they will be to make the best technology choices in a year or two.

"It is quite a complicated area," O'Connor admits. "You do need to evaluate the options, but act now if you want to act or you could be here this time next year and still be just as unsure of how to proceed."

It is important to keep as many options open as possible, to maximise the number of potential choices of routes at any time. The key factor here, O'Connor says, is not so much the underlying PDA operating system, but the software layer above that provides the connectivity and interaction. The Lattice Group selected software from Avant Go for this, partly because it runs on all the principal operating systems and hardware platforms. "The beauty of Avant Go," says O'Connor, "is that we retain the software even if we change our hardware."

In practice, many enterprises are going to settle for a single platform, with the operating system playing a central role in the decision process. The operating system suppliers are attempting to satisfy all the software requirements of the PDA including applications and connectivity, encroaching on the ground of companies such as Avant Go, rather as Microsoft has done on the desktop in the past.

Potential buyers should consider the range of software available for each platform, not only that which is provided with the operating system but also software from third-party suppliers. In addition, the operating system needs to support multi-tasking so that telephony can run simultaneously with traditional PDA functions, such as diary, and be compatible with the existing desktop and server software that the PDA has to synchronise with.

OS mini-wars

There are three primary contenders for the operating system: Palm's Palm OS, Microsoft's Windows CE, and Epoc from Symbian, a company owned by Psion, Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola and Panasonic.

Of these, only Epoc was designed from the ground up for wireless devices, although all the operating systems are optimised for small portable devices with limited displays and powered by batteries. Windows CE is a stripped down version of Windows with variations for different families of devices. The PDA version is called Windows for Pocket PC. This would seem to have the advantages of compatibility with mainstream PC and server environments and of familiarity, coming bundled with pocket versions of popular Microsoft applications, such as Outlook.

Microsoft compatibility is an obvious prerequisite for any PDA operating system, and the other suppliers have ensured they provide it. And as for familiarity, it is the Palm OS rather than Windows CE that has taken the early lead.

However, as Nokia's communications director Pekka Isosomppi observes, it is not the operating system itself that users are concerned with, but the interface. According to Isosomppi, Nokia did not consider the Palm OS suitable for third-generation devices that combine telephony with traditional functions, such as contacts and diary management, within a single unit. Nokia has opted for Epoc instead, in the belief that this is better equipped for devices that are hybrids of mobile phones and PDAs.

"The trick is to combine the mobile phone and PDA in the same device, with power management and multi-tasking," says Isosomppi.

But Isosomppi admits that the Palm interface has become so well known that it may become a de facto standard for the next generation. Nokia has been in discussions with Palm with a view to hiving off the user interface and putting it over the Epoc operating system.

"Then we can combine the usability of the Palm with the robustness of Epoc," says Isosomppi.

Palm does not claim that its operating system is truly multi-tasking, not even with the latest version, 4.0, due out soon. "But there are some workarounds," says Palm's enterprise channel manager, Robert Keane. He cites a device from Ubinetics designed specifically to work with Palms and provide wireless telephony.

"It's very like the Palm V itself, and slips on the back," says Keane.

This point highlights the fact that the choice of operating system cannot be divorced from the device form factor, particularly in the third wireless generation. Nokia, with its pedigree in mobile phones, will promote hybrid phone/PDAs, or smartphones, in a variety of forms. However, Palm believes that such devices will be unwieldy and that people will still want a dedicated phone and separate PDA, but with a quick and easy way of hooking them up. This brings us to another technology: the Bluetooth shortwave radio standard. This will enable future PDAs to access the wireless Internet via a nearby mobile phone located, perhaps, in the user's pocket. The person would not have to do anything with the mobile phone other than have it within range.

Bluetooth is also likely to make the docking cradle redundant. Currently, PDAs synchronise with PCs via a cradle and although this is relatively quick and easy, it is necessary to have the right cradle for the particular device, and to have it connected to a network. Bluetooth could render the current debate over standards for cradles redundant. All the suppliers will incorporate Bluetooth support with future products but there is a little way to go to achieve the promised ubiquity with completely standard products.

For enterprises choosing PDAs now, the major decision apart from the operating system and software is the form factor. There are three types: the tablet, clam-shell and pocket notebook. They have different pros and cons, but at present there is little choice within each of the three camps. For example, devices running the Palm OS tend to be tablets.

To some extent, the market will be shaped by the unknown preferences of buyers in the third generation. For example, if combined PDA/phones prove popular, Nokia will be well placed and Psion could possibly be poised for a comeback.

As Psion's international sales director Craig Swallow observes, Psion virtually invented the first generation PDA with its Organiser, but allowed Palm to clean up in the second generation with the added synchronisation capability. "All of our focus has not necessarily been on how we draw ourselves level with Palm now, but how we can leapfrog them in the third generation," says Swallow. Psion, armed with Epoc, is well placed to attack with innovative smartphone devices.

Siemens is, like Psion, betting against "clam-shell" devices that open out but is also considering entering the companion notebook arena in co-operation with Casio.

So the third-generation market is up for the taking. Early clues as to likely winners will come not just by watching market trends, but by also observing the deals being struck between suppliers and large infrastructure providers. This is because PDAs may well be tied in with big system sales as part of large contracts. But some, such as O'Connor, argue that they deserve closer scrutiny by the customer, rather than just leaving it to big system suppliers. Either way, PDAs look likely to become standard pieces of equipment, raising a new set of management and back-up issues within the next few years.

Look who's making PDAs


  • Casio

  • Compaq

  • Ericsson

  • HP

  • IBM

  • Nokia

  • Palm

  • Psion

    Operating systems

  • Epoc Symbian (from Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola, Panasonic, Psion)

  • Windows CE

  • Palm

    Form factors, operating systems and market shares

    There are three principal forms of PDA:

  • Tablets, such as the Palm V, are pocket-sized devices comprising a screen and a few buttons at the bottom, but no folding flaps

  • Clam-shells open out to reveal separate displays or a small keyboard, or both. This form is probably most suitable for a new generation of smartphones, as the PDA functionality can be incorporated within a foldaway flap.

  • Companion notebooks are larger than the others and not quite a pocket device but contain the greatest amount of functionality. They need synchronising less often and can run a complete suite of office applications. The question is whether they combine the advantages of a PDA and full-size laptop or falls between the two. Until now, the market has tended towards the latter view.

    According to Gartner, of the 1.76 million PDAs sold in Europe last year, 1.07 million were tablets, 650,000 were clam-shells, and 35,000 companion notebooks. All three sectors are expected to grow, but with tablets increasing their lead slightly.

    By 2004, Gartner expects these figures to have grown to 6.6 million in total, 4.2 million tablets, 1.9 million clam-shells and 300,000 companion notebooks. By then, the picture will have been complicated further by the arrival of smartphones, which could be either tablets or clam-shells but probably not companion notebooks.

    Of the major products, Palm's are tablets, as are the Compaq's iPaq, HP's Jornada and IBM's Workpad. Psion is the main champion of the clam-shell but Nokia and Ericsson may well steal market share. Casio is among the makers of companion notebooks.

    According to Gartner, 1999 figures of the major suppliers, Palm had 53% of the European market, Psion 18%, followed by HP on 7% and Compaq on 5%.

    The market can also be segmented by operating system, with the Palm system accounting for 44% of PDAs in Europe in 1999, Windows CE 27% and Epoc 20%. By 2002, Gartner predicts that Palm operating system will have risen to 45%, Epoc will have consolidated its position with 25% and Windows CE will have slipped to 23% of market share. But Epoc is a Europe-centric operating system; in the US its position is likely to be worse, with Windows CE improving accordingly.

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