November 23, 1998

Mobility Matters

IT managers are increasing their mobile device budgets but want more from handhelds and palmtops

By Tom Davey and Jeff Sweat

Illustration by Lydia Hess B usiness users are going mobile in ever-larger numbers, and IT managers are ramping up to meet their needs. In a recent InformationWeek Research survey of 200 managers, nearly one-third of the respondents said their budgets for handheld computers and palmtop devices will rise in the next 12 months, while nearly half said that was true for notebooks.

bar chart Of course, IT managers have long considered it a priority to supply road-bound employees and telecommuters with notebook computers, and to get them adequate access to their bases of operation. But handhelds, which have keyboards and often run the Windows CE operating system, and palmtops, which require pen input, now have a shot at playing a bigger role in businesses, too. Chalk that up in part to the increasing availability of enterprise resource planning, database, data support, sales-force automation, and other client applications for these platforms from companies such as Oracle, SAP, and Sybase.

Currently, just 2% of users have handhelds and 4% have palmtops (see chart, above). This is partly because of their tiny screens and limited memory for running applications, but also because some IT users have viewed them only as contact managers. "Today, their value is as a scheduling device, and I guess that's not seen as real mission-critical," confirms Mark Brown, an end-user support manager for services vendor EDS, who handles the outsourced IT operation at hard-drive manufacturer Maxtor Inc.

bar chart This has all led to a mediocre return on investment. IT managers' satisfaction with the devices' demonstrated business benefits is tepid when compared with notebooks, according to the survey (see chart). Of sites with a significant number of handheld and palmtop devices (such as 3Com's PalmPilot series), only 29% among the 49 companies with both handhelds and notebooks said these mobile systems provide a higher ROI than desktop PCs, and just 33% among the 82 businesses that have both palmtops and notebooks said the same.

But that poor ROI may not last much longer. For instance, discussions such as those between 3Com and several sales-force automation vendors could produce applications that help companies improve the productivity of their mobile sales staffs. The Caribbean Latin American unit of Nortel Networks, for instance, is adopting Palm III palmtops for its sales, engineering, and installation staffs. Notebooks are too cumbersome an option for the Sunrise, Fla., division's employees, who travel extensively in the Caribbean. But salespeople still need access to business data, and engineers must be able to track repair assignments. "It's crucial that we travel light and maintain accurate information, since we're so mobile," says Martine Chernakov, wireless project coordinator for Nortel CALA.

Similarly, at Trident Data Systems, director of technology Todd Allaria predicts that 15% to 20% of his company's users will be equipped with a handheld or palmtop device for key business purposes within a year. That's up from less than 5% now.

Allaria says running Oracle or Microsoft SQL Server database clients on these systems is a real possibility for the Los Angeles provider of network firewalls, data encryption, and other information protection services. "We're looking at pushing out custom databases to our sales force and engineers in the field," he says, and those users would prefer to work with very lightweight mobile devices.

bar chart Going Wireless
To really benefit from these applications, however, IT managers will need to support wireless access to data from palmtops and handhelds. "There are no real obstacles left for ERP and other applications to work on these mobile devices, but wireless makes it much more compelling," says analyst Rob Enderle of Giga Information Group.

Because these devices are easy to carry and use simultaneously, and also offer instant-on capabilities, they are a natural fit for remote users who need to interact with a company intranet, the Internet, or a private service while walking through warehouses, standing in hotel lobbies, or working in other places where phone jacks aren't available or would limit mobility, say users.

Bankers Trust New York Corp., for instance, has adopted PalmPilots connected to Novatel Inc.'s Minstrel wireless modem, running an application developed by Aether Technology Inc. that feeds its equity analysts stock prices and news, and lets them react to that information.

The bank says adding wireless capabilities to the smaller devices is more useful than adding them to notebooks, chiefly because of the size, which permits use whenever and wherever needed. "You have mobility with this device. You can realistically carry it with you," says Peter Scutt, a Banker's Trust managing director. Another advantage is that users don't have to go through a lengthy system boot-up procedure every time they want to start up the PalmPilots to dial into the network, Scutt says.

bar chart But even though close to one-third of the IS managers in large businesses surveyed say they plan to offer wireless access within the next year, fewer than 20% offer it now, and that percentage is smaller for small and midsize businesses (see chart). And companies have had a few reasons for shying away from implementing wireless access for remote users.

For security specialist Trident, for instance, messages sent over cellular phone networks would be too easy to intercept, while subscription costs for private wireless networks are too high, says Allaria. He also points out that developing the internal framework to support wireless access isn't worth it for companies until palmtops and handhelds reach critical mass. "When you have six people who are using it and 994 who aren't, it's not worth the infrastructure," he says.

Additionally, the 9.6-Kbps data transfer rate of most wireless connections is too slow a download transmission speed for many users. That could change in a few years, however, as new global satellites, slated to start beaming down data around 2002, allow bandwidth of about 2 Mbps.

Some businesses would also prefer devices built from the ground up to be wireless, because such an integrated device would theoretically eliminate conflicts that might occur when users implement add-on technologies. A company called Symbian Ltd., backed by L.M. Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia, and Psion, is working on developing by late 1999 a range of such devices--including smart phones, palmtops and handhelds--that would be able to handle data and voice.

Those devices would let users check E-mail, take orders, stock products, and perform other tasks securely over long distances at low cost. Similarly, Qualcomm Inc. has created a digital phone, due early next year, that uses the Palm OS, providing wireless data and voice capabilities as well as conventional palmtop functions.

EDS's Brown says Maxtor would be more likely to adopt palmtop or handheld devices in force if they incorporate wireless technology for both voice and data. "The combination could decomplicate users' lives," he says; it could cut down on the number of devices they'd carry and relieve them from duplicating information among multiple products.

But even when vendors conquer most of these wireless problems, and myriad applications and databases are in place for handheld and palmtop devices, IT managers know there will be other obstacles. IT organizations' security policies often discourage access to data by nonstandard means. "In the enterprise, one of the main problems is getting to the data behind the firewall," says Joe Sipher, director of product marketing for the Palm Computing division of 3Com.

At LucasVarity, a Dayton, Ohio, manufacturer of brakes for trucks and tractors, director of global information Mike Bohanon acknowledges that issue. The company has about 30 PalmPilot users, and Bohanon says the token-based security measures he must maintain on his remote access servers would make it frustrating to use the Pilot to tap into the company's ERP database. That's because the high-level security software generates a new password for each log-in, which the user must enter--all over a slow 9.6-Kbps connection. If users can't transmit the password within a few minutes, they have to go through the process all over again, and that gets frustrating.

pie chart Management Troubles
Managing these miniature machines can also be frustrating. In many organizations, the move to handhelds or palmtops has been a grassroots movement. The survey shows that while only 17% of notebooks are purchased directly by other departments, 27% of handhelds and 32% of palmtops are bought by individual departments (see chart).

That presents IT personnel with some support challenges, because they often haven't set up the infrastructure to handle the new machines. For example, says Trident's Allaria, "custom applications would have to be recompiled for Windows CE if we buy those devices, and we don't have anyone on staff writing for it at the moment. We can only deal with so many variables."

Brown adds that Maxtor has an official policy of not supporting palmtops or handhelds that individuals purchase on their own. Yet when these users call for help, he tries to tackle the problem. Because it's not an officially sanctioned product, though, he doesn't have access to the practices and knowledge capital that accompanies specifically supported products.

That could also explain why IT managers say these devices are more difficult to manage than notebooks, even though palmtops and handhelds are typically less complex and simpler to learn--and run fewer applications--than notebooks do.

Some companies have found they can minimize problems if they make it a priority to support a particular handheld or palmtop platform. Gregory Stewart, CEO of Grenley Stewart Resources, which runs a network of unattended, automated fueling stations for business fleets, says the Tacoma, Wash., company made a deliberate choice to adopt PalmPilots for its staff. If you don't standardize, he says, users will make their own standards, "and that's a huge mistake. You lose the benefits of having a common platform."

bar chart Analyst Enderle also points out that palmtops, at least, offer one tangible management advantage. "The biggest problem is they're different," he says. "But if one fails, you've got one response. You just replace it." Since these devices can cost as little as $200, IT staff can do so at low cost to the organization.

IT managers say they'd like to see vendors offer solutions for better managing notebooks, as well. "If I never see another laptop as long as I live, I'd be happy," says Larry Creed, VP of IT for Revlon Inc. Creed says the mobile nature of the machines confounds conventional centralized management and adds remote-access problems to the mix. Moreover, notebooks are particularly complex machines, and that means they're more prone to breaking down. Because of the difficulties of notebook management, Creed says it's a better idea to buy two desktops rather than one notebook for users who take work home.

Bohanon of LucasVarity agrees that notebooks present management problems that don't crop up on desktops, sometimes because software-management layers aren't configured to support the hardware vendor's proprietary software. For instance, Intel's LANDesk 6.0 was supposed to be fully compatible with Compaq's Insight Management diagnostic software for its notebooks, but problems arose that forced Bohanon to wipe the hard drive and reload all the applications on some new machines.

bar chart Fewer Notebook Headaches
But Bohanon says that vendors, including Intel, are trying to be responsive to notebook users' management concerns. Version 6.1 of LANDesk, he says, fixed the problems he was experiencing on the Compaq machines. For him, at least, notebooks have become as easy to manage as desktops.

But as handheld computers continue to gain in functionality, IT departments may wind up managing fewer notebooks. Admittedly, less than half the IT managers surveyed expect to deploy, within the next 12 months, new, larger handheld devices that run version 3.0 of Windows CE. But the capabilities of these systems, due in the middle of next year, may have enough users asking for them that IT staff will ultimately have no choice but to purchase them en masse.

In addition to being easier to type on and having better screens, these new devices will have a fully loaded Outlook client instead of the slimmed-down version found in current Windows CE systems. They will also provide salespeople with the ability to create and edit PowerPoint presentations.

James Begin, IS manager for the 2,000-employee Benefis Healthcare pair of hospitals in Great Falls, Mont., says these devices are worth investigating as an alternative to notebooks for use by nursing staff members at his hospitals. Because the devices run Windows CE, they could exchange data with the Windows-based systems most other employees use. He says, "I'd take a look at these if they have mass appeal."

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Copyright 1999, CMP Media Inc.