Embracing the PDA

The PC began in the late 1970s as a stand-alone device that was literally "personal". Initially, many corporate information systems departments resisted it for three main reasons: First, it was a toy for hobbyists and not a real computer. Second, it intruded on their control of most aspects of IT decisions, and third, it threatened the integrity of the company's technology base in terms of security, standards, support needs and operations. Yet people loved PCs and were going to use them regardless of what IT thought.

Twenty years later, substitute the personal digital assistant (PDA) for the PC. Handheld tools like the Palm's Pilot, Handspring's Visor and Compaq's iPaq began as stand-alone personal tools with limited functionality - two of the first three IT concerns. Now that PDAs are becoming able to access corporate data and synchronise information with desktops, the third concern comes into play. PDAs, Web-enabled mobile phones, wearable computers and pagers/e-mail devices, such as Research In Motion's BlackBerry, demand as major a shift in the design, operation and support of the corporate technology platform as did the networked PC. In the early 1980s, IT wasn't ready for the PC. But it must be ready for the wireless, PDA and handheld era.

As with the PC, these new tools don't fit automatically and easily into today's client/server architectures. Nor do they fit easily into the organisational processes for balancing central coordination of the enterprise platform with decentralized use. When a manager brings a Palm to work, adds a communications link, downloads data from the Web and accesses e-mail, all the old PC "problems" return. But they can't be treated as problems; they must be turned into business opportunities and IT responsiveness.

The first need is for policy. It's often unclear who owns the PDA. It may well have been purchased by its owner, not the company. When the PDA is in a briefcase, it's personal. When it's synced to the office desktop, it's organisational. This demands policy, architecture and support procedures. The faster that IT moves to establish the same types of policies the company has for PCs, the better. Some principles:

1. Recommend specific products in order to discourage operating system proliferation, such as the Palm OS, Psion (mainly in multinational companies), Windows CE and BlackBerry.

2. Establish volume purchasing agreements for these products.

3. Select portal software for handhelds so that access to corporate information resources and intranets is coordinated and made secure.

4. Establish support and training upfront, so you don't find your staff becoming PDA doctors for managers and salespeople. Even simple PDAs require training when they're used to access corporate data, sync to Microsoft Exchange and connect to the corporate intranet.

5. Get ready to address the coming single-most-complex issue for IT in the mobile commerce era as the extension of e-commerce, PDAs and handhelds: translation software and portals. All the new devices involve the Web, but they either use particular standards for displaying Web information, or their limitations of speed and screen size require Web pages to be simplified, tweaked and reformatted. To meet users' needs here, IT must embrace Wireless Markup Language, Handheld Device Markup Language, Voice Extensible Markup Language and the Wireless Application Protocol. And more standards will come.

IT can't view the PDA and other new wireless devices as toys, intrusions or threats to the integrity of the enterprise client/server platform. Like the PC in the 1980s, people love these new devices and will use them regardless of IT. They'll then be mainly tools for personal productivity.

When IT takes the lead in welcoming PDAs and adapting its architecture, services and support of them, PDAs will become the powerful next generation of organisational tools. Just as the PC did.

Keen (peter@peterkeen.com) is chairman of Keen Innovations (formerly The International Center for Information Technologies) in Fairfax Station, Va.; a senior fellow at Differentis, a European business-to-business consultancy; and a distinguished visiting professor at the University of Delft in the Netherlands.

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