Premier 100: Palm focusing on enterprise users

Palm last fall said it would start targeting handheld computers and related applications at enterprise users. And on Monday, at the Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference here, Palm officials said they're not deviating from that plan.

Large-scale enterprise applications that operate on handheld devices such as the ones sold by Palm are still in their early stages, according to analysts. But out of some 7 million Palm handhelds that have been sold worldwide, about 80% are being used for business purposes, said Chuck Yort, vice president of marketing at the Santa Clara, California, company. He added that two-thirds of the 78,000 application developers registered with Palm are building enterprise applications, either from inside companies or at software vendors.

One recent Palm customer, City Utilities of Springfield in Springfield, Missouri, has ordered 30 Palm IIIxe devices for a pilot project in which upper-level business managers will use the handhelds to access e-mail and calendar applications. Kelly Laurie, information technology director at City Utilities, said the pilot project will be expanded to 130 more users if it proves to be successful.

The gas, electricity and water utility wants to try new technologies such as handhelds because it might become private someday as the utility industry is deregulated, Laurie said. "We want to find technology advantages any way we can," he said in an interview after Yort gave a speech at the conference.

The handhelds will be especially valuable if they can be used in wireless fashion, although Laurie said that might be years away. For now, he added, easy access to information is the main reason for trying the Palm devices.

Laurie said he only has two complaints thus far: The devices are so popular he can't get his order filled quickly enough, and Palm still is working on software that's supposed to give handheld users a direct link to Lotus Notes e-mail servers via a cable attachment. Palm users can synchronize the devices with their desktop PCs now, but Laurie said he wants workers to be able to travel throughout the utility's offices and connect to enterprise data via stand-alone "cradles" that would be placed in different locations.

Yort said the direct conduit to Notes is scheduled to become available in three months. He added that Palm also is prepared to accommodate the expected onslaught of Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) smart phones and will ensure that its handhelds - which have a larger screen and more applications at this point - can interoperate with those devices.

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