Where the Palms Stand

IT departments are not always on the cutting edge when it comes to adopting new handheld devices for a field force. The cost of outfitting is enormous, and the programming talent needed to install and deploy new mobile technologies is rare. Also, a company with a large field force is hesitant to adopt new devices that deviate from accepted standards and have not proven their worth on the battlefield.

Individual workers who slip their own handheld devices through the backdoor to use on the job often prove the value of such devices. But rogue devices usually are not officially recognized by IT for support and maintenance and do not allow full access to corporate resources.

Despite these concerns, large numbers of field workers are using these devices--regardless of how they trickle into an organization--to make their workdays more productive, whether that means using basic PIM (personal information management) functionality or wireless capability to stay connected to e-mail. The following are reviews of some of the best products in the handheld arena.

HP Jornada 545
The HP Jornada 545 is the newest device of those mentioned in this article. With the 545, HP seeks to overcome some pitfalls of the previous Jornada 430se, such as incorporating a slimmer, sleeker design (0.6 inches thick, down from 0.9) and aluminum construction as opposed to plastic. Microsoft has streamlined the OS by replacing its Windows CE strategy with the "Pocket PC" OS, which uses a streamlined menu at the bottom of the screen instead of the cluttered cascading menus of Windows CE. Like the 430, the 545 incorporates a 133-megahertz, 32-bit Hitachi processor; a voice recorder; a CompactFlash card slot; IrDA and serial ports; and a rechargeable Lithium-ion (Li-Ion) battery.

The 545 improves on the 430 model with an option for 32 megabytes of RAM (random access memory) (548 model), 16 megabytes of ROM (random operating memory) (upgraded from 8), eight hours of battery time (up from seven) and a new USB (universal serial bus) port. Although the screen is the same 240 by 320 pixels and 65K colors, it now uses Microsoft ClearType display technology, which reportedly makes reading e-books a lot easier.

But how do users feel about using the device? If it's easy to use and feels good in the pocket and hand, it could be a hit. One downside is the price: The unit costs $499 compared to Palm and Handspring's cheaper models. The Pocket PC platform allows for all kinds of bells and whistles, such as MP3 and word processing applications, but Palm's strength up to this point has been allowing users to easily perform limited but vital tasks. Time will tell which one is more popular.

RIM Model 957 Handheld
The new Research In Motion (RIM) Model 957 caters to the mobile worker's increasing demand for PIM functionality. Based on RIM's Model 850 wireless pager, the 957 lets users retrieve e-mail without creating a new e-mail address. Messages are forwarded (minus attachments) from a host PC or Microsoft Exchange Server via the BellSouth wireless network. The 957 is basically RIM's pager product with all the PIM functions made popular by Palm. It features a calendar, address book, task list, memo pad, calculator and alarm, and it synchronizes with a desktop PC using Puma's Intellisync software.

The 957 incorporates an Intel 386 processor, 5 megabytes of flash memory, 512 kilobytes of SRAM and a small keyboard and track wheel as well as an embedded wireless modem for corporate e-mail integration that is always on and always connected. The screen displays user-selectable 16 or 20 lines of text. The unit has a rechargeable Lithium battery, weighs 5.3 ounces and is 4.6 inches by 3.1 inches by 0.7 inches. RIM has also announced plans to support the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), which would allow users to access the 50,000 pages of WAP content already existing in the wireless Web space.

But the Model 957's greatest advantage lies in its wireless e-mail capability. Enterprise users get an end-to-end solution with single mailbox integration and nationwide wireless service. The BlackBerry Exchange Edition is designed specifically for Microsoft Exchange environments (a Notes edition is coming) and, unlike the Palm VII's wireless e-mail, has no problem with company firewalls. The new system software includes enhancements such as e-mail folder management and optional enterprise server software with more control and manageability features--which should make the IT department happy.

The downside? In short--pricing. Although both RIM and HP offer a lot of extras, the question becomes will users pay more money? The RIM unit sells for $499 (a 4 megabytes version costs $399) while Palm OS devices go for as low as $179. Wireless service fees start at $40 per month, a price that will have to drop if it's going to be attractive to users. Finally, the keyboard on the 957 will only be good for typing short messages, but no handheld has solved the input problem yet.

Palm and Handspring
Palm and Handspring, in many ways, have similar capabilities and both run the Palm OS. Both enjoy the widespread acceptance of the Palm platform with an army of software designers continually producing new shareware applications. Palm's most recent edition is the Palm IIIc, priced at $449, which adds color capability to keep up with Pocket PC and user demands, but beyond that it doesn't offer anything new. Handspring burst onto the scene last year with its Visor product, sporting 8 megabytes of storage, colorful cases, an expansion slot and a low price ($179). Palm quickly matched the offering with its IIIe, which has 2 megabytes of memory, a variety of colors and a $149 price tag. Both Palm and Handspring also offer models with 8 megabytes of memory for $249.

All these devices are sleek and small and offer the basic PIM functions. Handspring goes one better than Palm with the expansion slot allowing third-party vendors to create add-on modules such as games, modems, digital cameras and removable storage. Palm currently has an edge over Handspring with color displays and a wireless-capable model, the Palm VII. But both companies will copy each other's feature sets and prices will drop with the competition.

These Palm OS devices currently hold the majority of users in the handheld space because they've kept it simple. The devices do what they were designed to do without crashing and without being too complex. Only time will tell if users, especially enterprise users, start to migrate over to Pocket PC devices for their added features. If Microsoft were to focus on ease of use, reliability and pricing, it could really give Palm a run for its money on the enterprise side. But don't expect Palm to stand still. Be on the lookout for new capabilities and powerful features in the near future.

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