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Small and Smaller

Are PDAs the new laptops?

For years, PC makers have trumpeted the coming mobile-computing revolution. In that lilac-scented world, tanned, svelte executives tote around feathery-light, powerful notebook computers, accessing E-mail and office files from bullet trains and Michelin-recommended hotels.

A lovely vision, but one that has failed to materialize on any grand scale. The problem: in the struggle to balance usability and portability, computer makers have almost always sided with usability — sciatica be damned. In fact, the majority of luggable computers sold over the past five years have weighed in at more than five pounds each (including adapter) — hardly portable computing.

Not surprisingly, business users have figured a way around this weighty problem. Many are turning to personal digital assistants (PDAs) to help them conduct business on the road.

In the past, the knock on PDAs — initially, glorified address books — was their inability to handle standard business applications like Microsoft Windows and Excel. But with advances in processing power and middleware, companies are now able to port many network applications to the tiny devices.

At payment-processing specialist Litle & Co., vice president of sales Michael Shatz dumps his entire ACT sales contact database into a Treo 650, from Palm Inc. That lets him look up a client’s contact information while he is away from the company’s headquarters in Lowell, Mass. “Now there are trips where I don’t have to take my PC — and that’s huge,” he notes. “Who wants to lug around a big device?”

Therein lies the allure of PDA computing: users don’t mind taking the small wonders along for the ride. Says Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at research house Gartner: “People want zero-pound laptops. And they are trying to turn PDAs into just that.”

The Importance of Being Hernia-Less

It’s doubtful that PDAs will ever fully replace notebook computers. Handheld devices are still unable to run full-blown versions of many applications, including Microsoft Office. And until virtualization technology improves, keyboards and screens will remain too small for a true desktoplike experience. “People think [a PDA] can do what a laptop can do, but it can’t,” insists Dulaney. “That will just never exist.”

Maybe not. But in a recent research report, Todd Kort, principal analyst in Gartner’s Computing Platforms Worldwide group, stated that “wireless PDAs are increasingly seen as an adjunct or alternative to notebook computers.”

Business users seem to be finding all sorts of uses for these mighty mites. Gary Sender, CFO of regenerative-medicine specialist Tengion Inc., uses a Blackberry 7780 (from Research in Motion) to open and review Word documents and Excel spreadsheets. On a recent train trip from New York to Philadelphia, he used the device when closing a critical financial transaction for the company. Says Sender: “Since we have a small staff of people trying to juggle many projects at the same time. Blackberries allow us to move at a much faster pace.”

In business, faster is generally good. Law firm Keesal, Young & Logan has deployed proprietary applications that allow attorneys to quickly access financial information and workload reporting via their Treo 650s and GoodLink G100s—all from remote locations. “Even the most cost-conscious partners here recognize this is of significant and noticeable benefit to our clients,” says Justin Hectus, director of information at the Long Beach, California-based firm. “You don’t have to do any ROI on this to know it makes sense.”

Esther Shein is a regular contributor to CFO.

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