A fallback plan in hand

Assessing handheld computers in light of their new role in worst-case scenarios

As pagers evolved into text messaging and then into wireless e-mail tools, devices like Research in Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry became a popular way to keep in touch with mobile workers in the field.

The idea was to enable communication with workers whose jobs kept them on the move, but an unexpected benefit on Sept. 11 was that BlackBerry users were able to reach co-workers and family members. Meanwhile, many people who depended on old-fashioned landlines and even new-fangled cell phones found themselves incommunicado.

And during the anthrax scare in Washington, D.C., later that fall, some federal agencies had to work from makeshift quarters. Again, wireless e-mail devices proved to be worth their weight in gold.

The benefit of having such devices during a crisis is clear, but that application alone will not be sufficient in most cases to justify their expense. For that reason, everyday applications will have to figure into the picture, which will steer federal buyers toward a device that also suits their normal needs, analysts say.

As is often the case with emerging products, there is considerable debate about the best balance of features in the available platforms. Almost every aspect of the wireless e-mail device is open to debate.

The size, the interface, the display, the operating system and the type of wireless communication used are all factors being discussed, as vendors test customer's reactions to different combinations of those features.

Trade-Offs Abound

John Inkley, manager of federal sales at Palm Inc., acknowledged the trade-offs between size, function and battery life among the available products. "People can do different things based on different needs," he said. "There is no perfect solution out there, be it Palm, BlackBerry or PocketPC."

That doesn't mean today's products can't be improved. "As tech evolves, we will get closer to perfection," Inkley said. "But you really can't be a jack-of-all-trades in this kind of environment."

GTSI Corp. officials compare the emergency use of handheld devices to a fire ax stored behind glass, said Scott Rover, business development manager for the mobile and wireless solutions team at GTSI.

Unlike that ax, which is never used in ordinary circumstances, wireless e-mail devices can be used for more mundane tasks daily. This will give users a better working knowledge of the devices when an emergency strikes, Rover pointed out.

"We can find applications that have everyday use, so people are familiar with the device, vs. never using that device and having to learn how to use it in an emergency," he said. The daily applications will naturally vary from department to department, pushing users toward different solutions. But even in a disaster scenario, needs differ.

Some users will be better served by a light wireless e-mail device with a long battery life, so they can constantly receive and reply to messages wherever they may be. RIM's BlackBerry could be just the thing for such users.

Others will need more of a full-featured system, with a bigger keyboard, access to a wider variety of applications and the ability to open Microsoft Corp. Word and Excel attachments.

The Palm i705 could be the appropriate device here. And if running Pocket versions of desktop productivity applications is necessary, then a device running the Microsoft Pocket PC operating system could be better. Wireless phones that run a personal digital assistant operating system are another emerging option (see "Sold on wireless e-mail," Page 34).

"Addressing certain aspects of this are fundamental," said Mark Guibert, vice president of brand management at RIM. "If you don't meet certain minimum standards, people won't carry the product. We believe in the need for an integrated keyboard. Users don't want to carry keyboard attachments or rely on handwriting systems."

Maintaining a small size and weight is also important, Guibert said. "There is a point when the device becomes too large and heavy to carry," he said. "We saw a stark increase in sales when we introduced products that were smaller."

Worst-case scenarios such as Sept. 11 can tax even the fortes of such devices, as officials at the Department of Health and Human Services learned.

"My deputy was out at the time of Sept. 11, and he was using his BlackBerry a lot, but he didn't have a [charging] cradle," said Brian Burns, deputy assistant secretary for information resources management at HHS. "So when his battery went dead, we lost communication with him."

This wasn't representative of the BlackBerry's typical performance; it simply illustrates the strain a disaster can place on systems. "The life of the battery is a major feature of the BlackBerry we like," Burns said.

In contrast, PDAs with wireless e-mail and cell phone-based devices drain their batteries more quickly. "My cell phone has to recharge every day," said Burns. "That can be a pain."

During the recovery phase of a disaster, when a wireless local-area network may be constructed at a disaster site, wireless e-mail works even better than a pager network because of the faster data rate of wireless LAN technology.

At the World Trade Center in New York City, workers employed ruggedized PDAs from Symbol Technologies to share information, said Douglas Dedo, lead product manager for Microsoft's mobility division.

"In the WTC site, you have about a three-quarter-mile reach," Dedo said. "Virtually anywhere on the site, you have access to the Internet."

It isn't the same kind of mobile wireless e-mail provided by other devices, but once a federal agency has set up on a particular site, wireless LAN technology is a better solution.

PDA advocates point out that their devices, which have expansion slots, have the flexibility to work with a pager network, a cellular network or a wireless LAN card, giving users the ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

That flexibility will enable Palm and other PDA vendors to erode RIM's lead over time, predicts Blair Semple, senior business development manager for security specialist Kasten Chase Applied Research.

"RIM has done such a fabulous job of seeding the market here in Washington by giving BlackBerries to very senior people in the government," he said. "But the new Palm [i705] is going to start taking chunks out of the BlackBerry market."

Kasten Chase provides encryption for both BlackBerry and Palm devices, so federal users in sensitive positions can guard against eavesdropping. Using the encryption only adds a few seconds to the time needed to send or receive e-mail, and adds three keystrokes during the e-mail's creation, according to Semple.

Such protection can be critical for even mundane tasks, such as scheduling, for some users. "The more senior you are in the military, everything you do has a degree of sensitivity to it," Semple said.

Isaac Ro, an analyst for Aberdeen Group, a market researcher for business technology, believes that Microsoft will ultimately prevail, so PDAs enabled for wireless e-mail will migrate toward that operating system over time.

"Our research indicates that in the long run, Pocket PC is going to be the winner," Ro said. "In the shorter term, you see a large opportunity to take advantage of rudimentary applications that everyone is demanding."

Of course, RIM and Palm are likely to use that interim period to shore up their market positions, so exactly how the market will shake out remains to be seen.

Carney is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.


Sidebar: "Sold on wireless e-mail"

Web extra: "A closer look at competing platforms"

Web extra: "Multifunction cell phones another option"

"Give yourself a handheld" [Federal Computer Week, July 9, 2001]

"Managing mobility" [Federal Computer Week, March 26, 2001]

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