Give yourself a handheld

How to choose a PDA that meets your agency's needs

Handheld computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs) were once the exclusive domain of the office technophiles and gadget freaks, who were happy to demonstrate to colleagues how efficiently they could plan their schedules electronically. The devices were interesting but hardly significant to federal agencies, their equipment buyers or their network administrators. But like the PCs of 20 years ago—which were equally performance- challenged and of questionable value to prevailing data-processing systems—handhelds are improving quickly and are now being eyed for enterprise-class applications. Agency administrators realize that much of the value of the data collected by handheld devices is enhanced by sharing that data through the agency's network.

For most agencies, the first step in bringing handhelds into the enterprise fold is to select a standard system platform, which simplifies application development and support. There are currently two main choices on the market: the Palm Inc. operating system, used on the ubiquitous Palm devices and handhelds from Handspring Inc. and Sony Electronics Inc.; or the Microsoft Corp. Windows CE operating system, used on Pocket PC devices from Compaq Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and others.

Buyers must also assess the merits of spending money on two technology developments that are transforming the way handheld devices are used. The more important of the two is wireless networking, which enables the devices to share data with a central database in real time. The other is the new color displays, which transformed PC computing despite knocks that users only wanted them because they looked pretty. As these devices, their operating systems and their applications mature, it is becoming common to see handheld devices used for inventory control, vehicle and aircraft maintenance, medical recordkeeping and a variety of data-collection chores at federal agencies.

"The agencies are just now starting to look at these as serious devices, rather than just as calendar-management devices," said Steve Schanzer, director of strategic applications for Compaq's federal group.

For example, the Navy recently bought 200 Palm handhelds for use aboard USS Iwo Jima. All the ship's officers use the devices, but they will also be used for inventory management, said Sylvia McCorkle, a supply technician at the Fleet and Industrial Supply Center in Bremerton, Wash.

Popular Palms

Palm is the company that established this market, and the term "PalmPilot" — an early model that is no longer produced—is often used to refer generically to the entire class of devices, no doubt to the chagrin of the company's trademark lawyers. The company enjoys an overwhelming lead in installed base and market share, which translates into tremendous support from application developers who seek the largest possible market for their products.

Within the federal government market, Palm holds a 70 percent to 80 percent market share, estimates Ken Smartt, business development manager for wireless solutions at federal reseller GTSI Corp. "Palm devices have a tremendous market share in the federal government right now," he said, with devices running Windows CE a distant second. The Palm OS enjoys several advantages that may help the company maintain its lead, said Alex Slawsby, handheld devices analyst for IDC. "Palm still has some price, battery and simplicity differentiation," he said. The Palm interface is regarded as simpler and easier to use by its proponents and customers. Since the purpose of deploying handheld devices is to simplify users' tasks, not complicate them, this can be an advantage.

That simplicity carries over to programming applications. "The [Palm] operating system is cleaner and easier to program," said a federal user in the Defense Department who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"I would say, at this point, Palm has a significant lead in the [application] development community," Slawsby said. The company claims that more than 10,000 applications are commercially available for the Palm OS, and that doesn't include the custom applications many users have written.

Palm devices also tend to be easier on their batteries. "If you need to take your device on the road for five days without recharging it, Palm is your device," Slawsby said.

Finally, while there is some price overlap, Palm devices tend to be less expensive than Windows CE handheld computers. Palm pricing starts at around $130 and climbs to about $450 for a model with a color display. Windows CE devices start at around $350 and climb to about $600.

So why do people buy Windows CE handheld computers? Because, for one, Windows CE users can run "pocket" versions of the same Microsoft Office applications that run on their PCs and laptops. Palm devices can share data with a variety of applications on Windows PCs, but Windows CE devices can automatically synchronize data between the devices from Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook.

"If users are looking for contact management, a Palm [device] might meet their needs," said Doreen Canova, sales development manager for I-appliances at Hewlett-Packard. "But for productivity applications, they need the memory and processor power to run ported [desktop] applications." HP's Jornada and Compaq iPaq handhelds support as much as 64M of memory, compared with 8M for Palm devices.

Palm advocates say the only reason Windows CE devices have more memory is because their less efficient operating system requires it, not because the applications need it. "Do you know that in 8M of memory I can put three unabridged copies of the Bible?" said John Inkley, Palm's manager of federal sales. And the Palm m500 and m505 models support up to 64M of RAM through the use of an expansion card.

But the Windows systems have the upper hand if expansion cards are considered. The Compaq iPaq has an optional PC Card expansion sleeve that supports hard drives such as the IBM Corp. Microdrive, which holds as much as a gigabyte of data. That obviously adds weight, size and cost while draining the battery more quickly, but some users want that option.

The Encryption Factor

Another advantage to Windows CE that could be significant to federal users is the higher level of encryption available, Slawsby said.

The need for wireless networking adds another factor when choosing a handheld platform. The primary type of wireless networking for handheld devices is 802.11 wireless local-area network communications, which gives the device network access in a more limited, campus-style environment.

When users have access to an 802.11 network, they can check their e-mail and even browse the Web using their handhelds. "It adds a lot of capability," said Mostafa Maarouf, an analyst with Gartner Inc.'s Dataquest unit. "You won't browse in the same way you would on a notebook. You would retrieve a particular piece of data."

E-mail, too, is a bit more limited on a handheld. "They are useful in getting e-mails, but not so useful in creating them," Maarouf said.

"As 802.11 becomes more ubiquitous, you are going to see a migration of desktop applications to handhelds," Inkley said. "I've seen aircraft maintenance applications used on the flight line," an application that previously had to be run on a notebook computer.

Despite the popularity and utility of wireless networking, the capability probably won't be made standard on handhelds because of the added bulk and expense, Canova said. Another problem is that different kinds of wireless access are needed by different users. "You have to have an array of wireless solutions for your customers," she said.

"The cost of the radio [for wireless networking] adds significantly to the cost of the PDA," Maarouf said. "An 802.11 radio costs $50 to $70 to integrate. Right now, it makes sense to keep it external because the demand is not such that they should force it on a customer."

Carney is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.

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