Handheld Hopes
Microsoft's latest palm-top operating system raises the bar for enterprise mobile connectivity.
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For Palm Computing, April was indeed the cruelest month. The company, newly separated from 3Com, went public on March 2, 2000, at an offering price of $38, and the stock reached an opening day high of $165. But by the end of April it was trading at 27 1/4 [27.25], and even at that price had a P/E ratio of 471.9. The company finally released its long-awaited first color handheld, the IIIc, to underwhelming response from reviewers and early adopters because of its coarse screen and relatively short battery life.

To add to Palm's woes, up in Redmond, Wash., the giant stirred: Microsoft delivered the third version of its handheld operating systems. What was once Windows CE is now Windows for the Pocket PC (WPC), and as has been the pattern with Windows operating systems, the third time looked far more like it had a chance of success than had its predecessors. WPC has been recoded to fit palm-helds more comfortably, to run faster and to deliver more functionality to the user.

Itty, Bitty Windows
But it's still Windows, a fact that will be evident to anyone who checks out one of the hefty new Palm-sized devices developed to contain it by Casio, Compaq and Hewlett Packard (HP). HP's Jornada 545, for example, weighs 9 ounces, or almost half again as much as the Palm IIIc, and sports 16 megabytes of RAM. It connects via a USB cradle and its screen resolution is finer than that of the Palm (240 by 320 pixels vs. 160 by 160), but that display shows a typically cluttered Windows desktop. The Jornada 545 is, in fact, a small computer that can sit ready at hand in pocket or purse.

The WPC specification also includes device extensibility via a CompactFlash card--the same card that's used to store images in many digital cameras. Extensibility is a particularly important concern for enterprise users of handhelds in vertical markets such as field sales. Plug-in components can add memory or can provide access to preloaded databases of enterprise inventory data, for example. More to the point, they can add to a mobile unit the functionality of a company's CRM software--yielding, hopefully, a strategic advantage to the company rep on the spot.

Without a Wire
Far and away the most strategic extension of handhelds is the addition of wireless capability. The prototype for wireless enabling is the Palm VII, which uses the Bellsouth Wireless Network to send and receive e-mail and access the Web and, through it, enterprise portals.

Wirelessly connected road tools are crucial in the new climate of competition based on time-to-market and speedy customer service. If two companies, equal in all other respects, are competing for a contract and one can deliver inventory and pricing data on demand at the client's desk while the other must call in for that information, guess which one gets the deal.

The positioning document that Microsoft posted on its Web site to accompany the WPC launch notes that the new palm-sized units are wireless-ready out of the box, and adds that the WPC OS includes a full TCP/IP stack and Web browser. The new HP Jornada can connect wirelessly to Ericsson GSM phones using that company's DI 27 infrared adapter on one of its phones and to GSM and CDMA phones using Socket's Digital Phone CF card. One of the accessories being offered for Compaq's June released iPAQ Pocket PC is a slip-on adapter that allows the unit to use PC cards, including the wireless data modems from Novatel and Sierra Wireless.

No standing still
But Palm is hardly sitting on its considerable laurels. Aware of some erosion in its dominance in the handhelds arena, the company threw a pair of press events on both coasts to mark the end of its circum-IPO "quiet period," to introduce its new management (the pedigrees include Reebok, Sony, Apple and Disney), and to stir the interest of my colleagues in the press with hints of the next generation of Palms.

The message was, by design, a simple one: The Palm handheld is no longer a PIM. Instead, it's an enterprise tool. As e-commerce evolves to what Palm wants to call "me-" (for "mobile electronic") commerce, Palm will be there, at the point of contact with the customer. To support that, by the end of this year, Palm will make it possible for all its units to connect wirelessly to the Internet. Initially, for units other than the Palm VII, that connectivity will be delivered via the infrared port. A third option will be Bluetooth personal-area connectivity.

Further down the road, look for voice-enabled solutions and ultimately fully integrated wireless tools using the Palm OS.

You aren't likely to be surprised to hear that Microsoft supports its claims for WPC as an enterprise, and particularly CRM, tool by citing the availability of solutions from Pivotal, SAP and Siebel Systems, among others. Given the more limited data handling resources of the Palm handhelds, it's a bit more worthy of note that Siebel, in announcing the rollout of Siebel 2000 in April, listed among Siebel Sales 2000's capabilities bi-directional synchronization support for Palms.

Hold Your Horses
Let's take a step back, though. It's possible to get too wrapped up in the intricacies of the universe of handhelds, and Microsoft-watching is a diverting but not necessarily productive use of time.

The Siebel 2000 announcement provides a useful corrective. It also delivers a reminder about which is the truly important wireless data device today. The Siebel Wireless software built into the new package enables field personnel to access sales and service information from the corporate database using their WAP (Wireless Access Protocol) enabled phone.

At the risk of repeating myself yet again, let me note that this is technology racing ahead at a pace that threatens our ability to keep up with it. New WAP phones are showing up on an almost daily basis. Bluetooth add-ons for pocket devices will be offered shortly, if they aren't already, and it won't be long before Bluetooth chips are being built into every tool a road warrior could conceivably carry, not to mention the office devices he or she will want to be able to sync with.

All of this is bleeding- to leading-edge stuff. There's no track record to rely on about durability, MTBF (mean time between failures) numbers, the effectiveness of management tools for occasionally disconnected devices, and the issues that may arise in deployment. Competitive pressures can be intense, but consider what happened to companies that were pressured into attempting rapid ERP deployments. Wireless works, but only if it supports and extends your enterprise tools, if it's planned and deployed well, and if your users are trained and allowed to buy into the deployment process.

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