Navigation is amongst the most popular of applications for PDA devices, thanks largely to the ready availability of affordable Global Positioning System receivers. There are numerous third party GPS receivers on the market, designed to be plugged directly into PDAs or linked via a Bluetooth connection, and prices currently start at around £100. Used in conjunction with map software such as TomTom Navigator (www.tomtom.com) these systems turn your PDA into a powerful navigation tool, displaying your exact location on a map of the local area and making it virtually impossible to get lost. Delivery drivers, roaming sales reps, service engineers and anybody else who spends a lot of time on the road are likely to make significant time savings using such a system.

While most devices can read popular office application documents such as Word and Excel files, entering large quantities of text and data is a relatively cumbersome process so they are not ideal for content creation. However, you can buy small fold-away keyboards for most devices and these make text entry a much more viable proposition, especially since many PDAs now allow you to switch their screens to ‘landscape mode’ thereby offering a screen format more similar to a desktop monitor.

Management and Security
For organisations rolling out PDAs to their staff for the first time there are of course a number of deployment issues to consider. PDAs are a favourite with thieves because their small size and high resale value, the fact that they’re not locked into the office also means that there are for more opportunities for loss and theft of the devices. In addition to the cash value of the device itself companies should consider the value of the data stored on their machines and the potential damage or loss that could occur should this data find its way into the wrong hands.

There are also manageability issues to consider, particularly in terms of staff abuse. This could include misuse of the devices Internet connection, downloading personal emails becomes a much more serious problem with mobile devices since there is a tangible monetary cost associated with doing so if the device is using a GPRS connection. Like any other computer, a PDA can also be infected with and help to further propagate destructive viruses.

Over the years PDA manufacturers have had to resolve these issues in order to protect their reputations. Many large businesses have not included handheld devices in their IT infrastructure and therefore have no policies in place for the their use, but it’s not uncommon to find that large numbers of employees are using their own PDAs within the company’s network in an entirely unmanaged and uncontrolled way. In the past this has created bad publicity for PDAs with several large organisations banning their employees from using the devices. The manufacturers had to respond to this issue in order to gain acceptance in the business sphere.

Colin Holloway from PalmOne said “The key thing we’d say is “Manage your fleet of PDAs because people bring them in the building anyway”. A lot of IT guys say ‘we don’t have a strategy on PDAs so we’ll just turn a blind eye to that’ – you can do that but actually people are still going to be using them and you ought to be managing them. There are lots of very simple things like encrypting the data and insisting that people have password protection on the devices – managing the whole thing.”

Research in Motion
Businesses have traditionally been wary, if not downright sceptical, over the benefits of PDA usage, but one offering in particular seems to have had no problems in winning the approval of the corporate world. The Blackberry range of devices from Research in Motion (www.blackberry.com) have enjoyed great success amongst business. The original Blackberry handhelds were compact easy to use devices that offered business users wireless access to their emails over a mobile network, although voice capability was not added until later models.

The unique factor for the Blackberry system was that it worked with businesses own email servers to push out users emails to the device as soon as they arrived – so users were not required to dial-in or log-on to find out if they had mail to download, it simply arrived on their handheld. Ronnie Burnett, commercial director at RiM explains, “What we offer organisations in that space is immediacy of information that they would consider relevant, whether it’s email, Internet or voice – it converges a number of requirements into one.”

Another differentiating factor of Blackberry devices is that they are designed very much with email in mind, so the entire product range features mini-keyboards rather than hand-writing recognition for data input. The current range features high end smart-phone style devices featuring wireless data and voice capabilities. Rather than using one of the leading PDA operating system, RiM equip their devices with a home-spun system based on Java. An unfortunate downside to this is that there’s nowhere near as much third party software available for the devices as there is on the mainstream platforms.

While Blackberry was initially targeted purely at corporate clients, it’s trickling down into the small business and consumer end of the market. The devices are now supported by mobile networks such as Vodafone, which means that organisations or individuals that don’t run their own email servers can still use the platform.

Users who want the kind of email-push service offered by Blackberry, but would prefer to use standard Palm OS or Pocket PC based devices might consider Smartner Duality, from Smartner Information Systems (www.smartner.com). Smartner integrates with your existing email system and pushes emails out to your mobile device as they arrive in your inbox. The system works with all the major handheld platforms (including Symbian phones) and different flavours are available for corporate or SME level email servers as well as simple ISP hosted email accounts.

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