The PDA Predicament

FRAMINGHAM (03/16/2000) - Personal digital assistants (PDA) are no longer just the geek's favorite gadget. In an era when real-time information is the lifeblood of business, and everyone from the sales rep to the CEO is virtually useless unless they're connected, the PDA is fast becoming a necessary tool for enterprise.

Millions of employees have rushed out and bought the latest PDAs. Souped up with wireless connections, increased power and enhanced Web capabilities, the devices are quickly becoming part of what industry watchers are calling a worker's personal computer network - a seamless web of desktops, laptops, handhelds and smart phones.

The problem, from a network executive's standpoint, is that this unmanaged proliferation of PDAs could become a major drain on staff time and on your budget, unless you put some firm policies in place.

Jack Gold, senior program director for Meta Group in Westborough, Mass., says very few companies have thought through the network requirements associated with PDAs. "There's going to be a lot of changes. The help desk is trained in PCs. They don't know why your Palm isn't syncing. You've got to provide some standardization in the face of a vast array of device types. You've got to figure out sizes, connections and speeds. You've got to figure this all into the budget and make sure people have time to do the extra IT work."

Who buys them?

The first issue that comes up with PDAs is whether the company should purchase them. Most of the PDAs out there today were purchased by employees, but the tide seems to be turning.

In an online survey conducted by Network World, 88 percent of network executives said their companies did not issue PDAs, but 61 percent said their companies would be issuing them as standard equipment within two years.

Russ Wells, chief information officer at TransCanada Pipelines in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, says his company has issued a Palm Version 3.0 to about 30 percent of its approximately 5,000 employees. "It's a way for people to stay connected and organized. We're looking to improve productivity with them."

Econometrics, Inc., a data warehouse marketing firm in Chicago, issues Palms as it does pagers, laptops and cell phones. "If they're doing business, if they're on the road a lot, they need to be armed with as much as they can," says chief technical officer Brian McGuire.

Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at Gartner Group's San Jose office, says most companies face a sharp learning curve when it comes to PDAs.

"Most companies today still don't buy them," he notes. "They don't track them.

They don't have any idea at all. But we're only two to three years away from 50 percent of companies issuing them. That's going to be a big swing for IT."

Who fixes them?

Isaac Applebaum, CEO of Concorde Solutions, the Concord, Calif., IT division of Bank of America, is hooked on his own PDA, but says he's not ready to start issuing them to employees.

"The technology is still a little bit raw, a bit slow," says Applebaum."Six months from now even, I'm hoping it's better and faster. Then absolutely, we could be doing that."

But before Applebaum does any deployment, he plans to consider the impact on his IT staff. "I don't know how much time we have to keep track of them or even to maintain them. My people have enough to do. . . . If I get a cell phone, I figure out how to use it. If it breaks, I deal with that. That's how we've always done it, but I guess that will have to change."

On the other hand, Econometrics' McGuire, who has been handling his company's PDA deployment for several months, says the impact has been minimal. "The Palm is a no-brainer. We haven't had any kind of learning curve yet. Of course, we're not using any customized applications. That would give us something to think about, but if there's a problem with the Palm, there really can only be a few things wrong with it."

In our survey, 76 percent of respondents said PDA maintenance is not currently part of the help desk budget. And 63 percent said the help desk had not been trained to respond to PDA problems.

Who owns the information?

Another key issue is determining who owns the information on the devices. Most network executives say if the company buys the device, the company owns the information. They also say if the employee buys the device, the company still owns the information, if it was gathered in the course of the person's job.

"That's like an employee copying data off a network and putting it on a floppy.

It's still the company's information," says Mike Riley, director ofE Technologies at R.R. Donnelly & Sons Co. in Downers Grove, Ill. "The content on that device belongs to the company. Getting it back is the problem. That's one of the reasons why we haven't moved forward in formally supporting handhelds. We have to have a tool and a methodology to get that information back."

For example, Wells has set policies making it clear to employees that the company owns whatever information is on the devices and that personal information is to be kept off them.

Meta Group's Gold has a different opinion. He says if the company doesn't own the device, the company doesn't own the information.

Who protects the information?

Gold adds that network executives will be spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to keep information out of competitors' hands. In fact, our survey showed that by a margin of 64 percent to 29 percent, network executives believe PDAs pose a security concern.

"Security is only as good as the security on the devices and right now that's pretty much just a password," Gold says. "What happens if I leave it in a phone booth when I'm running to a plane and my competitor picks it up? If I'm the top salesman in my company and I have my top 100 contacts on there, the company could lose millions of dollars in sales."

Gartner's Dulaney agrees, calling PDAs a company's biggest security threat, ounce for ounce. And he says that security threat will only increase as more and more devices gain wireless capabilities and can link up with the company's network, giving hackers another avenue into the company's treasure chest or another vein to feed viruses into.

Alexander Cruz, account manager at AppliedTheory Corp. in University Research Park, N.C., who is conducting pilot testing of PDAs, says, "Security is the first and foremost issue. How do you allow an employee to sync corporate information and have the ability to walk away at the end of the day or leave the company with company-sensitive information?''Cruz says PDAs are issued in the company's Charlotte office on an as-needed basis, with most going to the sales team. And while the company is considering AvantGo for PDA-based applications, it hasn't yet standardized on a device, using everything from Palms to Hewlett-Packard's Jornado.

For now, Cruz says, employees are only allowed to sync information with a laptop and cannot connect via PDA to other parts of the network. He's working on policies covering everything from device standards to connecting with the company's intranet for instant access to corporate bulletins, announcements and newsfeeds.

R.R. Donnelly & Sons' Riley says he's not only worried about a PDA falling into the wrong hands, but he's worried about a wireless device, like the Palm VII, sending critical information out beyond the network's control. "As memory capacity grows and the ability for communication [with these devices] grows, how do you keep track of what could be sensitive corporate data?" he asks.

"It's difficult to track where that data goes and what happens to it."

But a lot of corporate users say security on PDAs is improving, and they expect comprehensive encryption capabilities, and eventually biometrics, to replace minimal security methods, like passwords.

"We're always concerned about security," says Wells. "But whenever I think about these devices, I think about a salesman losing an appointment book, and that's certainly not encrypted. We'd like there to be more security . . . and the technology will continue to improve. I'm not afraid to give our salespeople Palms.

"You figure this is all going to happen to you anyway," Wells continues. "It's coming. You just have to figure out how to manage it."

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