Connectivity makes PDA into true all-in-one

Personal digital assistants (PDAs) are becoming so connected they could give cell phones a run for their money.

Michael Gartenberg, vice-president and research director with JupiterResearch (a division of Jupitermedia Corp.) in New York, said new products coming out of Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) and Waterloo, Ont.’s Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) are increasing the connectivity options for users, making them not only very powerful data access devices, but flexible cellular and Wi-Fi devices as well.

For example, HP’s iPaq h6325 (with integrated camera) and the h6320 offer GSM/GPRS wireless connectivity for wide-area access along with built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support for local and personal-area network (LAN/PAN) connectivity. Meanwhile, RIM’s BlackBerry 7100g offers users wireless e-mail, voice, short-message service (SMS) and Internet access, as well as support for Bluetooth and Quad-Band network connectivity.

On the possible horizon, HP announced the iPaq Mobile Messenger product. Although the company has not released any specific detail on it, several Web sites have showcased photos and early specifications of what features this product may have for customers. More concretely, RIM has released its BlackBerry 7270 with Wi-Fi support.

Gartenberg says as these devices come to support more connectivity options and improved access to data, there will be growing pressure on users to make a choice between using a cellular phone or one of these connected PDAs with cellular capabilities included in the mix.

But Jupiter’s queries as to just what users want in a device present a conundrum for these ultra-connected portable machines. “While our research says that users prefer one device, the most important mobile feature is telephony,” Gartenberg says, adding: “Cell phones today have shrunk…(so) there is very little penalty for carrying a dedicated cell phone along with one of these (PDA) devices for e-mail use.

“What is going to be interesting is when we get into businesses where they tell their employees, ‘You can have one of these (PDA) devices, or a cell phone, but we are not going to pay for both.’”

Victor Garcia, chief technology officer with Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Co. in Mississauga, Ont., says he regularly uses an iPaq with cellular, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi support and finds that it gives all the connectivity and flexibility he needs.

“I’ve been using one for over a year and from this one device I can synchronize to my laptop, access my contacts and tasks, get my e-mail by pressing a single key and then just flip it and make a phone call,” Garcia enthuses. “That is quite convenient, (and) people have already started to get used to the idea of making phone calls from handheld (devices).”

And for people skeptical of using PDAs as cellular phones, Garcia says he sometimes uses his iPaq as a phone by using a Bluetooth-enabled headset so he can make a phone call with his iPaq while not having to actually hold it up to his head. Garcia believes such all-in-one devices as the iPaq will appeal to not just corporate users, but to small and mid-sized business (SMB) users as well.

SMB users will want to have the convenience of cellular phone access with the capability of data access in a single package, but they’ll only have to pay for access to a single service instead of the two services they’d pay for with a stand-alone cellular phone and a wireless PDA.

Another reason for the move to consolidate more connectivity options into PDA devices is the growing ubiquity of networks like Wi-Fi (802.11b), other 802.11 iterations (.11a, .11g, .16, etc.) and cellular, and the improvements made so these disparate networks operate seamless together, suggests Garcia.

Because the networks are now more stable and reliable than they were in the past, and network operators feel more comfortable about rolling the networks out, it is only natural that PDA devices would begin to tap into the network to keep users connected with their data and with other people.

David Werezak, vice-president, enterprise business unit with RIM in Waterloo, says the BlackBerry 7270 would be particularly attractive to users working in campus environments who need to stay connected to their e-mail and other communication services while away from their desks.

“The BlackBerry 7270 is Wi-Fi-only and requires you to have a campus with fairly ubiquitous Wi-Fi coverage, so it is much more attractive to people who work in health care, manufacturing, warehousing and IT,” Werezak says.

Werezak says he does not see the BlackBerry 7270 replacing cellular phones, or competing directly against HP’s iPaq products, for that matter.

He sees the BlackBerry 7270 as a product aimed at a specific kind of environment that requires its user to be away from their desk for parts of the day but to remain connected to “their phone extension, e-mail and to specific applications that may include dispatch and call management, healthcare applications or warehousing applications.”

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