Lending a hand

As the meeting begins, executives around the table turn their attention to the PowerPoint presentation being flashed onto the projector screen. But slowly their attention wanders to that e-mail they sent earlier – did they get a response? They quickly check their BlackBerry devices.

Personal digital assistants (PDAs) are becoming more and more pervasive in the enterprise, although not always at the corporation’s initiative. Whether it’s a Palm, a Pocket PC, a RIM or one of the other wireless devices that so many people find fascinating, they’re coming in through the back door and they’re sticking around.

However, corporations can no longer turn a blind eye to these devices. They don’t just come into the building, they leave it – with information intact. Security for and management of these devices is a must.

Rosaleen Citron, CEO of Whitehat Inc. in Burlington, Ont., said the wireless infrastructures in most organizations, especially the enterprise, are not yet mature. This has been stopping companies from making mass buys for employees, but it hasn’t stopped employees from bringing in their own devices and using them for personal and work applications.

When handhelds first came into wide use, people wanted to use their PDAs to keep track of e-mail, contacts and calendaring, Citron said. Now they have expanded use to include corporate data and PIN numbers.

One of the biggest issues at handheld conferences in the past year was security, she said. A year ago Whitehat, an IT security provider, only had a couple of clients involved in security applications for handhelds, now Citron said she cannot count the number of available applications.

Clients are asking for information on encrypting data. “You need to encrypt the communications being used. If a hacker gets into a PDA, he’ll munch around and find that too.”

Now applications that allow companies to lock down PDAs. If the incorrect password is entered too many times, some applications will wipe the device clean of any information. “Until corporations can get their arms around securing wireless applications, and PDAs as one of them, it will stay one of those things where the individuals buy themselves and not the corporations,” Citron said.

There is significant progress in PDAs, she said. “But I think it’s about a year away before you see enterprises adopting them en masse, where they are making purchases in the thousands.”

Slow acceptance

Srdjan Milutinovic, vice-president systems development for cStar Technologies Inc. in Toronto also suggested it would take about another year for enterprise PDA buying to pick up. Until that time, he said, it’s more of a little bit here and a little bit there. He noted that some people still see them as consumer products, “but when you see devices like the Symbol handheld, those are for the enterprise.”

Some companies are trying to use the consumer devices, Milutinovic said, although they generally have problems because those devices tend to be more fragile. “If you are talking about a speciality application then you need speciality hardware too for that.”

A recent report by Dataquest Inc. showed that handheld shipments dropped 9.1 per cent in 2001. According to Dataquest and Whitehat’s Citron, consumers bought 70 per cent of the handhelds purchased last year. This dovetails with a report released by analyst firm IDC in December. Both IDC and Dataquest noted that slower rates of adoption by corporate users are hurting the handheld market.

Jon Arthur, a business systems analyst for Bend All Automotive Inc. in Ayr, Ont., bought his latest PDA almost two years ago. He uses it for calendaring, contacts and document tracking, as well as for personal tasks.

Although Bend All has purchased BlackBerry devices for its sales and engineering staff, not all employees received one. Arthur said he has experimented with some freeware for his device to get more use out of it for his business. “If I had a wireless card then I could use it to remotely access our ASP system, then I would increase my productivity.” However, the card is an expensive investment, and one the company is not likely to make either.

He said his company and other small- to medium-sized businesses would be more likely to make large buys when more functionality is available. Another problem he sees that plagues handhelds is the lack of interoperability between applications. “There are the three big companies (Palm, RIM and Microsoft) and the market is getting even and splintering the software products. They are not working on all the different platforms, so people don’t seem to be buying applications from an enterprise standpoint,” he said.

Citron noted that when the PalmVII came out, she and her partner rushed to buy them. But 18 months later, they still cannot use them. “Not one

Canadian carrier has given us the ability to use that wireless capability.”

If you build it

Michael Moskowitz, president and general manager of Palm Canada Inc. in Mississauga, Ont., said PDAs are getting easier to use, to train on and the applications are getting better. He said this will continue to push the devices to the enterprise.

Palm has sold almost 1.1 million devices in Canada, and Moskowitz said most of these make their way into the enterprise, so corporations really need a way to manage PDAs. “People go out to a traditional retailer or VAR and head back to their PC, plug them in, hot synch them and start using them.”

Corporations are asking what types of applications are driving the use of PDAs, Moskowitz said. It’s typically calendaring, e-mail and scheduling. Although now people are using them more and more for spreadsheets and task lists. That, he said, will help corporations begin to see the value of these devices. “Now we are seeing much larger deployments of the devices.”

It has been difficult to get IT to jump on board because this is a technology that is relatively new, Moskowitz said. IT tends to have an arms-length relationship with wireless devices.

The economy hasn’t helped either. “Times are difficult. It’s not like a couple of years ago where departments would buy 200 or 300 units and deploy them just for the sake of deploying them because they had extra funds. Today decisions are based on costs and savings. The case needs to be made why mobile devices are worthwhile.”

Palm is focusing on robust hardware products and on continued support for the more than 10,000 developers working on Palm applications. Those are the pillars they are using to drive the enterprise forward, Moskowitz said.

Victor Garcia, managing principal of wireless and enterprise mobility for Hewlett-Packard in Mississauga, Ont., said vendors need to find ways to enable existing applications for PDAs. “There has been a lot of investment in large applications, the SAPs, the Oracles, and it is important to have those be accessible to and from PDAs.”

Moskowitz said the devices themselves are starting to grow. Though Palm offers synchronization devices, the real movement is toward wireless integrated devices, which incorporate both voice and data. These will double as cellular phones and will become the next phase of enterprise momentum, he said.

cStar’s Milutinovic is also looking for PDAs to combine voice and data. “You will have your wallet, your data organizer, your phone in a single piece of hardware.”

People will come

This is not to say that all enterprises are waiting to see what the future holds. Milutinovic said he has seen several enterprises buying for their sales and services staff.

Garcia said HP is seeing more enterprise buying and that one of the key selling points is the real-time communication, which can help cut paper and administration time down by weeks.

It certainly did for EMI Music Canada. Greg Malta, director of sales for central region and Manitoba, explained that 30 of the company’s sales staff are using Palm OS-based Symbol handhelds and iPaqs to send and retrieve data, through a Web portal, from the company’s database.

Malta said in these hard economic times, it was difficult to sell to those holding the wallets. But the prospect of time savings, immediate access to information and the possibilities afforded by future applications for the system sold executives at EMI on the purchase.

“We wanted a system that allowed us to have immediate response from the field, so we could react to any deficiencies we had at the retail level,” Malta said. “We wanted to assess this without processing weeks of paper.” In the past a sales rep would have to check store inventory for EMI products, write down what was there, fax it to the Brampton headquarters and wait while it went through several people and a data entry product, so that feedback was taking two weeks. Now, Malta said, it takes a day.

Another benefit of the system, according to Rosalee Dragich, sales rep for Edmonton and Red Deer territory at EMI, is that she can compare notes with other sales reps from across the country. “You get to see the results quickly. Is everyone out of Coldplay? Are other stores not ordering various artists?”

In the future, Dragich said she would like to be able to access her e-mail on the device, which would allow for even more immediate response to inventory problems.

Malta said in the future EMI will use the system to monitor compliance by retail stores in terms of positioning of product material, which the record companies pay for.

Originally, Malta was looking to outsource this project, but the proposals he received were very expensive. So he looked at taking it in-house. The company purchased the 30 units and a server specifically for this project and paid a design company to create the portal for them. Malta said there were a number of one-time costs, but it was still less expensive.

In terms of employees using the devices for personal use, Malta said it definitely happens, but they are not controlling that for now.

Still, Citron cautions that companies that are sanctioning PDA use have to have a written policy about what information can be put on or sent to those PDAs. “You have to be very careful about what you let out to the public and what you keep inside your walls.”