PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) have been with us in various guises for quite some time, but it’s been hard to convince businesses that they offer any tangible benefits. In the past it’s been quite easy to dismiss them as shiny executive playthings with little practical use but thanks largely to new connectivity options, hand-held devices now have a lot more to offer. With a large menu of new technologies to choose from and diverse user requirements, manufacturers are creating something of a Cambrian explosion with dozens of different models and specifications all attempting to find a profitable niche in the business eco-sphere.

As ever, such a wide choice is a double edged sword for business. It is nice to have all these devices to choose from, but how do you begin to make sense of the vast array of options laid before you? Perhaps the most important question is that of connectivity, because it is this that will define what category of device you should be looking at. Most conventional PDAs can connect to your desktop computer via a simple USB cable, allowing you to synchronise your contacts, calendar and email data with popular packages such as Microsoft Outlook. These days, however, wireless connectivity is becoming the norm and it’s here that the confusion starts for most people.

There are three main types of wireless connection that handheld devices might be equipped with: Bluetooth, Wireless LAN and finally a mobile phone network connection. The capabilities and purpose of these different connections are often misrepresented or simply misunderstood, so we’ll try to clarify things here.

Bluetooth
Bluetooth technology can simply be thought of as a replacement for the cables used to connect your personal devices (PC, handheld, mobile phone, etc…) to each other. It has a very limited range of about ten metres. A typical use of Bluetooth would be to transfer diary or contact details between a PDA and a PC.

Wireless LAN
Wireless LAN (Local Area Network) is also known as Wi-Fi, and sometimes 802.11 (the IEEE specification number for the technology). Essentially it’s a wireless network technology designed to be a more convenient replacement for the traditional cable based Ethernet computer networks that are found in most offices. Wireless LAN technology has an indoor range of around 100m. Wireless LAN’s can be connected to the Internet in just the same way as a conventional network – allowing devices connected to the network to access the Internet. In many instances Wireless LANs are set up specifically for this purpose, so devices that are in range can access the Internet but not communicate directly with each other as they might do in an office LAN. These are known as hotspots, and are often installed in public places such as airports, cafes and hotels where, usually for a small fee, get web access via the LAN using their own WiFi equipped devices.

Mobile Phone
A technology called GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) allows devices to connect to the Internet via the existing mobile telephone networks at speeds similar to that of a dial-up modem. Some handheld devices have built-in mobile connections, and since this usually includes the ability to make voice calls they have been labelled ‘smart-phones’.

Kristian Karppi, handheld product manager at Dell said, “The most common question is about wireless LAN and Bluetooth. Customers see the benefit of wireless LAN is that it’s a free service, free technology so customers save a lot of money. If for example people download their emails over GPRS it costs the company a lot of money. Wireless LAN is a really cost effective way of reducing communications costs and it is very efficient, considering the bandwidth and everything”

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