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Handhelds, cell phones meld

September 9, 1998
Web posted at 5:15 PM EDT

by Ephraim Schwartz


(IDG) -- Corporate road warriors are about to witness an explosion of information appliances that meld the features of cellular phones and handheld computers. But whether these hybrids meet end-users' needs, or those of the technology managers responsible for their care, remains to be seen.

Among the forthcoming developments, Hewlett-Packard next week will launch an HP Information Appliance product line with a communications device for mobile users, according to a source familiar with the project. The device is about the size of a 3Com PalmPilot, offers a simple solution for sending and receiving e-mail, and is not related to the company's Windows CE handhelds, according to the source.

Also, Puma, Motorola, Nokia, Ericsson, and others plan to announce products and alliances during the next several months that are aimed at selling corporate users on the concept of combined cellular phone/handheld computers.

And Microsoft, although not committing to specifics, is "investigating the different technologies for the cell-phone space and working with a lot of people," said Phil Holden, product manager for the Windows CE product group.

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Corporate users are bullish about the idea of reducing the digital clutter in their briefcases.

"Convergence, [of handhelds with cellular phones] that's what I'm hoping for," said Steve Dumas, handheld project leader at 3M, in St. Paul, Minn. "We have people who carry a PalmPilot, pager, notebook computer, and cell phone."

The key feature topping users' wish lists -- and missing from the current generation of mobile devices -- is easy access to corporate data, such as phone lists.

For instance, cellular phones, pagers, and digital assistants all have data banks, but they cannot talk to each other, Dumas said.

An IS manager for a Fortune 500 company that is considering purchasing hundreds of Windows CE devices noted that network services require users to run log-in scripts, but Windows CE does not support automated scripts during dial-up.

"At the moment, the dial-up problem is a deal killer," the manager said.

Fortunately, vendors are attacking the problems. For example:

Puma Technology next week will announce Intellisync Anywhere software for replicating data between PalmPilot or Windows CE devices and Lotus Notes or Microsoft Exchange servers.

Motorola is developing cellular phone and pager products that use the Starfish Software operating system to give its pager and phone customers microapplications for calendar functions, a contact log, and notes.

Later this month, AvantGo will announce the next release, Version 2.0, of its Web-based synchronization software.

More importantly, Motorola will offer desktop and server software for data synchronization with company databases, according to company sources.

Developments such as these are expected to fuel the market for convergence devices. According to International Data Corp., the annual worldwide sales rate will reach 5.9 million units for smart phones and 13 million units for handhelds by the year 2001. At that time, cellular phone sales will also cross the 200-million mark.

Significant market activity notwithstanding, cost and convenience remain formidable roadblocks to widespread use of hybrid information appliances.

"We looked at the Nokia 9000 but cost-wise it is cheaper to give a guy a phone and a palm device. So until the price comes down on an integrated unit we won't buy," said Steven Whitehead, at the technical services department of Fuji Photo Films, in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Gerry Purdy, president of Mobile Insights, in Mountain View, Calif., noted that it is impossible to talk and take notes at the same time on the same device.

"There's the hand-eye and the ear-mouth thing going on," Purdy said.

Despite their current shortcomings, these devices show enough promise to keep them on IT managers' radar screens. And when the next-generation products give IT managers the tools they need in order to offer access to data through centralized administration and support, the big winners will be corporate users. They only need the patience to wait until everyone gets it right.

Convergence calendar

Upcoming handheld and cellular phone products:


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