If enterprises don’t see mobile computing as being business critical, then they’d better hope they’re correct in that assumption, according to one analyst.

Kevin Burden, program manager of smart handheld devices for Framingham, Mass.-based research firm IDC Ltd. made the comment last month at a ComputerWorld Canada-sponsored Technology Insights seminar in Toronto.

The event featured speakers from wireless and mobile vendors including Palm Inc., XcelleNet Inc., Infiniq Inc., Rogers AT&T Wireless and IBM Corp.

During his keynote, Burden noted that most enterprises have pushed mobile computing to the side as they cope with the current economic downturn. But with mobile poised to pick up – IDC has predicted that sales of handheld devices such as personal digital assistants (PDAs) will triple to 14 million by 2005 – the technology is expected to play a crucial role in tackling enterprise issues such as database access, supply chain management and sales force automation, Burden said.

When devising a mobile computing strategy, enterprises should “look internally first,” Burden said. Starting with small pilot programs, he noted enterprises should focus on developing relationships with solution providers and integrating end-to-end, single point solutions “with a targeted ROI in mind.”

Wireless and handhelds are witnessing better integration, Burden said, adding that while “wireless (deployment) doesn’t have to be done right now,” enterprises that gamble on surviving without a defined mobile strategy may be ill-positioned when mobile computing takes off.

Vendors such as Palm are angling to grab a share of the estimated US$110 million in anticipated annual handset sales. Since the initial surging growth of Palm and handheld devices in the 1990s, demand has lessened somewhat. But this is poised to change, according to Palm Solution Group CEO Todd Bradley. Palm’s strategy, Bradley noted in his keynote address, is to specifically target the health care, government and enterprise markets.

Bradley said enterprises must leverage the estimated 85 per cent of business workers who are currently using handheld devices.

Nowadays, it’s important to dispel the enterprise myth that PDAs are simply for personal information management (PIM) data or a “PC in your pocket” – mobile computing is about seamless access to information, Bradley said.

However, he admitted that attempts to integrate voice into its devices have not always been met with a favourable response, but new devices such as its wireless handheld Palm Tungsten W product – which Palm Canada and Rogers AT&T Wireless announced will available on Rogers AT&T Wireless GSM(TM)/GPRS network – are evolving to reach the goal of the all-in-one communications device.

Darryl Andersen, for one, is listening. The IT manager for Cobourg, Ont.-based Weetabix of Canada Ltd. is keeping an eye on mobile computing, specifically at solutions that could be used in the manufacturing vertical.

“We have a wireless base right now,” Andersen said, adding that his company is looking at how the technology is evolving and how it can be implemented and integrated.

Security is always an issue, particularly with wireless and mobile, Andersen noted, adding he’s also keeping an eye on how the security evolves and is integrated with the technology. “My idea is to integrate the information gathering that we have on the floor now, with the IT systems that we’re currently integrating,” Andersen said.