COMDEX: Execs call portables enterprise essentials

1999 was the year that notebook computers and handheld devices graduated from their role as niche items used by travelling sales executives to essential enterprise tools, IT industry executives said on Wednesday here at Comdex.

"It was a very good year for notebooks," said Peter Golcher, an executive with IBM's ThinkPad division, at a panel discussion here on portables in the enterprise. When they take into account the productivity gains that come from supplying workers with portable computers, "companies are realising that it doesn't take a lot to pay for these tools," Golcher told a standing-room only crowd of several hundred.

Just the number of attendees for the panel indicates that they have moved from a niche market to a mainstream industry, said panel moderator Gerry Purdy, president and chief executive officer of Mobile Insights, a professional services firm. Every year the room provided for a discussion of the topic at Comdex gets bigger, and every year some people end up standing, Purdy said.

The percentage of portable computers that serve as users' primary PC has also exploded this year, from ten percent three years ago to 70 percent today, Purdy said. He also cited statistics that there are some 43 million mobile computing devices in the workforce, out of a total pool of 95 million machines, Purdy said.

The changing status of portable devices has presented special challenges for IT managers in supporting mobile workers. One problem is managing remote workers trying to connect from far-flung locations. Often, dial-up connections are difficult to make, and there is no one on hand to advise the employee.

IT departments also have their hands full in managing the increasing numbers of handheld devices used by their employees, several panel members said.

"Network management has lagged the deployment of PDAs" asserted Fred Geiger, an executive at 3Com's business applications division, referring to devices widely knows as personal digital assistants. 3Com also owns Palm Computing, which makes the Palm handheld device.

"They (handhelds) started out as a satellite to PCs, but have become much more," added Mobile Insights' Purdy.

Panel members cited emerging wireless technologies that use radio frequencies as one way to simplify use of portable devices. Two such technologies include broadband wireless LANs (local area networks), and Bluetooth, a lower-speed standard for wireless communications among devices including PCs, mobile phones, printers and handhelds.

Illustrating one such wireless application for Bluetooth, 3Com's Geiger said an executive giving a presentation on-the-road could simply "beam" it over from a notebook or handheld to a Bluetooth-enabled slide projector, allowing the user to forgo fussing around with cables.

Geiger questioned whether Bluetooth will truly result in productivity gains, however. He pictures a world where bored executives listening to such a presentation shoot each other instant messages or surf the Internet instead of paying attention.

"It will take a lot of discipline on the part of the users," Geiger predicted.

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