The Matter at Hand

Should companies underwrite personal digital assistants?

From medical schools to law firms to animal-feed companies to the halls of Congress, personal digital assistants (PDAs) are proliferating. The handheld computers that were once no more than gimmicky phone books are evolving into important business tools in a select group of workplaces.

But the emphasis remains on select. Broad acceptance (that is, bulk purchases) has been a dream deferred for makers of PDAs, which continue to harbor hopes that corporate clients will augment or even supplant the consumer market that thus far has been their mainstay.

Global PDA shipments fell 21 percent year over year in the first quarter, according to researchers at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Massachusetts. IDC attributes the slump largely to individual buyers who haven’t purchased or upgraded PDAs as quickly as expected. So as the consumer market cools, PDA makers and software developers have focused instead on convincing companies of all sizes to equip their workforces en masse.

They’ve got plenty of convincing to do. Right now, corporate purchases account for just 27 percent of conventional (nonvoice-enabled) PDA shipments in North America, says Kevin Burden, IDC’s program manager for smart handheld devices. That’s because as the economy faltered, the seemingly inevitable march toward the mobile workplace took a lengthy detour as companies opted to spend technology dollars for more-prosaic purposes, such as upgrading desktop PCs and increasing network security.

But Burden believes that as the economy recovers, so will corporate interest in PDAs. By 2006, he says, the “enterprise” share of the PDA market will rise to 46 percent, while consumer sales will drop to 54 percent.

Don’t look for across-the-board adoption, though. Analysts expect to see growth concentrated in a handful of industries, including health care, education, government, law, manufacturing, and logistics, driven largely by the specific applications aimed at those industries and the fact that vendors are concentrating on them.

Companies that have embraced PDAs have found them to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, these early adopters have come up with plenty of ways to use the devices on the job — and on the road, with the proliferation of wireless applications and a growing number of high-speed Wi-Fi access points.

Even simple features, such as “instant-on” capabilities, win raves from employees weary of the downtime that laptops impose as they boot up.

But they also report that PDAs have their pitfalls: they’re far less powerful than laptop computers, and much easier to lose or break. They come with a whole new crop of security woes (see a summary of management issues in the box below). Their tiny screens, especially the monochromatic ones, can make for mighty tough viewing. And some people just can’t, or won’t, adjust to the pixie-size keypads on some PDAs and the special handwritten codes or techniques required to use others.

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In the beginning, aka the ’90s — when Apple Computer struggled to market its doomed Newton and Palm launched its first Pilots — PDAs were billed as lighter, neater alternatives to the brick-size personal organizers that many executives hauled everywhere. Early handhelds typically offered a limited menu of features: address books, calendars, notepads, simple document files, calculators. For some users, that was enough.

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