Personal digital assistants (PDAs) and handheld computers are a powerful element of many vertical solutions. With products like the Nokia 9000, which has an integral telephone, and the Psion 3a, which can be integrated to a mobile phone, personal organisers can be used to send and receive faxes, email and messages.
The new generation of Apple Newton is acclaimed for its robustness and product development, and resellers seeking an innovative solution to their customers' problems are increasingly looking to integrate PDA devices.
Handhelds and PDAs have had some bad press in the past because of their technological limitations. But now most PDA product vendors provide APIs to allow applications developers to integrate full desktop connectivity and programming synchronisation. PDAs have arrived.
The cornerstone of handheld technology is communications because the devices only really become valuable when they are able to attach themselves remotely to other hardware, particularly servers.
Philip Laurence, sales manager of Peak Technologies, says: 'The linking technology is important. Handheld devices have to appear as remote terminals hanging off the host system, and users must be sure of 100 per cent data integrity. There can be no doubt about that.'
Peak Technologies provides the glue technology which allows handhelds and PDAs to be integrated into applications. 'We provide hardware and software to users and resellers, and it must be guaranteed foolproof,' says Laurence.
Andrew Rawlston, business development director at Interconnect group, a company involved in the mobile telephony and PC market, says the art of implementing PDAs in applications is in the software development to transfer data and programming between the devices and the host server.
He says Interconnect is currently focusing on the use of text messages as part of solutions, and that there are benefits over email. 'Although voice messaging and electronic messaging are more exciting for some users, the fact is that text messaging offers better reliability at a fraction of the cost of other technologies.'
The inherent facilities of most PDAs, which offer individual diaries, calendars and address books, take on new dimensions when connected to a central server and are part of a wider environment. Yet organisational facilities, as useful as they are and impressive when managed from a remote site, pale into insignificance when it comes to the communications potential.
The applications being developed for the Apple Newton give an inkling of what PDAs will offer as Vars and integrators start thinking about how to integrate them into solutions for manufacturing, insurance and healthcare.
The most popular
applications to date have been in forms-based data collection, which offer remote workers, such as insurance salespeople or healthcare professionals, the ability to file information gathered on the spot.
Laurence says that the applications in the health sector demonstrate how PDA and handheld technology can be used throughout industry. 'Anybody who moves around, but needs to access files like a doctor or nurse on a ward, would benefit from having a handheld device. But the same idea and application can be used in other sectors as well.
'PDA technology allows a nurse or doctor to take the application and data to the bedside. A nurse making rounds can use GSM technology to update the cenral server and the information can be simultaneously fed to the pharmacy and local health authority.'
Catering is another sector that is increasingly using PDAs. Waiters and waitresses take table orders which are electronically relayed to the kitchen.
'There was a time when that would have been considered inhospitable, but we are seeing an increasing number of catering firms and restaurants use PDAs,' says Laurence.
PDAs made a big leap forward when they could be linked with mobile phones.
Although they had communications facitilies prior to then, that was when they were regarded as really useful in a business context.
Shaun Hobbs, European marketing manager for handheld products at Hewlett Packard, says products like the Omnigo 700LX mark a new era for potential application development. 'Users like the idea of having an organiser or data management device that is separate from the telephone, but has the ability to marry the two together at any time.'
The advantages of a combined phone and PDA have not been lost on telephone manufacturers either, with vendors such as Motorola and Ericsson in advanced development of handheld devices just waiting for integrators to find the problems for them to solve.
The catalyst for the current interest in PDA products is the Internet, which enables small devices with communications facilities to be in touch with servers and databases anywhere in the world. In some ways a PDA is the ultimate network computing (NC) device - downloading data and applications each time it is used.
Rob Bedlow, Apple Newton business development manager, says: 'The three areas in which PDAs are improving is in getting data (as in the case of a Newton by keyboard or pen), desktop integration and communications.'
With Network 2 software a Messagepad 120 PDA can receive, send and manipulate faxes and file information to and from a central server. 'Imagine a sales force equipped with this kind of power,' says Bedlow. 'It's possible to take data from a file in a server and display it on the Messagepad.
'If you're on the move and want to take some reports with you, all you do is run them through Newton Press, store them in the Newton and put them in your briefcase. The file can be displayed on the Messagepad whenever you want it. It can be amended and the revised file can be sent back to the central server.'
Bedlow says a significant number of third-party developers have announced plans to integrate the Newton Internet enabler into current and future releases of their products. Launched at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference in San Jose in May, the software enables developers to provide sophisticated handheld mobile Internet and intranet solutions.
'As enterprise communications become more Internet-based, mobile Internet connectivity becomes crucial,' says Bedlow. With network Internet enabler, developers can offer solutions that provide users with access to critical information in very small packages. We are seeing a wide array of solutions such as Web browsers, Internet mail clients and newsreaders for handheld Newtons.
Microsoft is playing catch-up with Apple. It has a product called Pegasus under development and analysts are predicting a Newton-sized organiser with Internet access, email, fax, handwriting recognition, contact management and data creation capabilities. Limited local data storage will be offered through PCMCIA cards. One analyst says: 'It will be for office workers who don't want to take the whole desk away with them on holiday, but want to stay in touch with the boss.'
David Wilkins, author of a market report on handheld computers for Frost & Sullivan, says: 'Like many markets, when you talk to people they are enthusiastic about handhelds and PDAs. They say growth will be on the hockey stick curve; very flat and then suddenly taking off until it is almost vertical.' But, he adds, the growth of PDA and mobile technology has been imminent for a while.
Part of the problem with early predictions for the PDA market was that it was oversold at the outset. 'Visionaries said they could see every man, woman and child using one, but obviously that was never going to happen. Pundits have revised that view so they will be used by specialist workers who need stylus and repetitive data entry applications,' says Wilkins.
Some PDA vendors, such as Sharp, Texas Instruments and Casio, are mainly focusing their marketing efforts on the high street and retail markets.
But others, such as Hewlett Packard and Psion, are keenly aware of the improtance of resellers and Var integrators to achieve market share.
Psion marketing manager Antony Garvey says: 'We develop the technology, but we know we are relying on integrators to take the products into vertical markets.' He says Psion has technical staff able to help third parties tie Psions into legacy hardware and bespoke software. He agrees that the leaps PDA technology has made in the past year have made them almost unrecognisable from their forefathers. 'Developments like short messaging are ideal for third-party developers,' he says.
The future of PDAs is very exciting. Colour screens, better handwriting technology, speech recognition and voicemail are going to be feasible as processor and memory capacities grow.
Psion chairman David Potter is promising that the next generation of Psion will have 32-bit Risc chips to challenge the Pentium. 'They will have the same processing power as current desktop systems and will open extraordinary possibilities for developers and integrators,' he says.
'It is true that their potential will only be limited by the imagination of the application developers.'
WHAT IS A PDA?
Is a personal digital assistant (PDA) a personal electronic organiser, a personal communications device, neither or a combination of both ?
It depends on who you talk to. Gartner defines a PDA as any handheld computing device that fits into a coat pocket and weighs less than 1.5lbs.
Others say a PDA must have a communications link, rather than being a glamorous calculator.
Until recently, PDAs have not been very good at handwriting recognition, modular communications or the ability to transfer data to and from desktop PCs, but that has changed. Now they can do all those things and more.
The next generation of PDAs is likely to include voice recognition, but that is unlikely to happen until handwriting recognition is 99 per cent reliable and communications bandwidths are large enough to take voice files.
HANDWRITING ON PDAs
When Apple first launched the Newton in 1993, it came under fire for handwriting technology which promised a lot but proved to be unreliable.
But Apple has persevered with its research and development.
The latest version of the Newton offers handwriting recognition which can be reliably used in real applications where data reliability is key.
The original Newton's handwriting recognition engine was written by Paragraph International and matched scrawls against a 10,000-word dictionary. When it had to make a guess it came up with whimsical results.
The Newton OS/2 has split the handwriting mechanism into two separate engines.
The enhanced Paragraph engine, called the cursive, recognised translated connective cursive text using a 30,000-word dictionary and improved recognition algorithms.
A brand new engine converts unconnected, printed text by tracking the sequence of strokes used to write isolated characters. An artificial neural network uses this information to classify a character. It can deal with variations in stroke size and geometry of handwritten characters that occur among different people, and also for changes in an individual's style over time.
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