3Com's Palm Computing offspring will stand or fall on the willingness of large corporate IS groups to embrace an array of new devices, from personal digital assistants to cellular phones, that use the Palm operating system as their basic software.
This week the company, which will be spun off from parent 3Com early next year, will take a giant step in its effort to shift from gadget maker to systems vendor.
At PalmSource 99, the company will unveil server software that lets Palm devices bypass the PC entirely and exchange data with back-end databases and applications. With this product, called Palm HotSync Server, will be a pack of Palm and third-party interfaces, called "conduits," that handle the data exchange between Palm applications and a specific server-based enterprise resource planning suite or groupware application, for example.
Also being announced are a Palm Ethernet cradle -- a hardware interface that lets a Palm device plug into a corporate LAN -- and beefed-up service and support programs designed to meet the needs of enterprise nets.
The company will also preview the next version of the PalmOS.
The enterprise emphasis at Palm comes just as IS groups are beginning to wake up to the cost savings of supporting small handheld computers. Gartner Group in Stamford, Connecticut last week released a report that pegs the total cost of ownership of handheld devices at about $2,700 per year for each corporate user.
The total cost of ownership for a networked Windows PC is about $US10,000, according to earlier Gartner research. The online retail price of the most expensive Palm device, the Palm VII, is $499.
In the millions
Palm's announcements this week signal a new view of the company's device, of which five million have been sold, according to Palm. No longer a personal gadget, the Palm device becomes a way to blend personal and corporate information.
"Palm's biggest failing is marketing its products as stand-alone units," says Jonathan Ezor, corporate/new media attorney at Farrell Fritz, a Uniondale, New York law firm that hands out Palm III PDAs to many of its attorneys. "Palm has not emphasised the groupware capabilities of the devices, particularly when they are integrated with enterprise-enabled information managers like [Microsoft] Outlook."
But the more Palm emphasises these capabilities, the more urgent the need to manage these devices becomes.
"These are computers," says Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney. "They can have IP sessions. They can create and store data. It will be a major leap forward if we can get people to realise this.
"PDAs and smartphones represent a greater security threat to the enterprise than the hacking threats that created the Internet firewall industry," he says. That's because these products are used by corporate insiders with easy access to the net, not outside hackers.
"There is no centralised way to administer the hundreds or even thousands of Palm devices in the hands of a corporation's employees," acknowledges Griff Coleman, Palm's product manager for enterprise solutions. "Our HotSync Server architecture will let them do this. Users will have to submit to IS control over what application conduits are on the server and what data they can access."
This in turn will force Palm to revamp its technical support. Sites that have relatively few Palm handhelds, and use them mainly as personal organizers with their PCs, are pleased with Palm's fast replacement service, for example.
"We've had a couple of machines go 'toes up,' and their exchange service has worked without a flaw," says Lee Hauser, systems administrator with Carney, Bradley, Smith & Spellman, a Seattle law firm.
But Farrell Fritz's Ezor cites several shortcomings.
"They could do a better job providing basic information to new users, and a stronger local channel for repairs," he says. Palm's e-mail support is lackluster. "Many times, an e-mailed query will result in a standardised response containing little helpful information and with little subsequent follow-through," Ezor says.
All that must and will change, says Michael Mace, Palm's chief competitive officer.
"We're going to be rolling out a lot of unified services and support," he says. "We know enterprise customers want to be able to come to Palm with a problem and have it fixed.
They want to see support for multiple corporate databases, automatically. And they want to be able to push software out to the devices and control what's on them."
One new offering will be a premium service contract: around-the-clock support with free software upgrades. Other changes will be a new training program, and eventually certification, for corporate help desk staff, and an expanded and simplified database for self-diagnosing an array of problems and questions.
The company will also offer extended warranties, beyond the one-year warranty available now.