Smart Shoppers: 5 things handheld buyers need to know

Mobile workers want technologies that simplify their lives, but the handheld device market has become anything but simple

Workers on the go have a wealth of mobile computing options — so much so that they could end up laden with more gadgets than a superhero's utility belt.

Various wireless-enabled handheld devices let users check e-mail, browse the Internet, run software applications, make phone calls and even request help in case of an emergency. Sizes, connectivity methods, operating systems, displays and battery life offer additional variations on the handheld theme. And there's more: A bevy of third-party options provide additional capability to basic devices.

Needless to say, government buyers have much to consider as they evaluate the choices available in today's market.

But before diving into the particulars of form and function, agencies should develop a strategy for handheld devices, industry executives say. Without a strategy, organizations could find themselves purchasing tools that don't fit the task at hand.

Chris Pate, director of GTSI's mobile solutions technology practice, advised buyers to question the role of a handheld device before buying one. "If they don't ask first, they will go down a road that ends up in disaster," he said. GTSI officials believe customers should draft a problem statement, establish goals and then set their sights on the latest device.

Plan in hand, agencies can consider the many options and features available. Prospective buyers will discover that their decisions often hinge on five main points.

1. PDA or smart phone: You make the call

One consequence of the mobile technology explosion is that workers often carry multiple devices — a laptop computer, a personal digital assistant and a wireless phone, for example. A development intended to lighten workers' load may end up weighing them down. Juliana Slye, senior director of global government industry at Macromedia, said some mobile workers could resemble Batman with all their tech regalia.

Organizations looking to shed a device should consider the benefits of a PDA with phone capabilities or, conversely, a wireless phone with PDA-like functions.

Vic Berger, lead technologist at CDW Government, ranked phone integration among the main considerations when purchasing a handheld device. Customers are beginning to want to reduce the number of independent devices, he said, noting the difficulty of managing and tracking a multitude of portable units.

"We're seeing more integrated devices being bought," Berger said.

Brad Mack, vice president of wireless solutions at iGov, a government solutions provider, agreed that the convergence of PDAs and phones is well under way. He said he knows of government executives who once carried a PDA and a wireless phone but now use a converged product.

Such products include PDAs with an integrated phone and so-called smart phones. On the PDA side, Research In Motion's BlackBerry 7100 Series unites phone, e-mail and data applications. Hewlett-Packard's iPaq h6300 Pocket PC series offers similar features. Smart phones include palmOne's Treo 650, Sony Ericsson's P910a and Siemens SX66, all of which combine a mobile phone with e-mail, Web access and an organizer.

The differences between the two types of devices used to be greater. For example, PDAs were your option if you needed a touch screen or maximum system memory and computing power, while smart phones were the choice if small device size was more important than the breadth of applications you could run. However, these distinctions are quickly disappearing.

Ed Lee, mobile data computer project manager at the Sheriff-Coroner Department in Orange County, Calif., said his group is evaluating the Siemens SX66. The application could enable workers to tap the department's intranet to get the information they need while in the field.

"We hope this might replace a device like a BlackBerry," Lee said.

Smart phones cost between $400 and $700, compared with $150 for a mid-market wireless phone. PDAs with voice capabilities may cost $600 or more.

2.Operating systems: Keep apps in mind

Handheld buyers should keep operating systems at the forefront of the decision-making process, resellers say.

"The first place where people make a mistake is choosing the wrong operating system for their application," Pate said. Organizations should look at the specific applications users want and then weigh the operating system selection, he said.

In some cases, the choice dictates the type of applications that can be developed for a given platform.

The San Diego County Department of Child Support Services wanted to build a file-locator application that would run on handheld devices. The department lacked a system for tracking the 130,000 open case files circulating at any given time. The task of hunting down and delivering a file could take as long as eight hours.

About two and a half years ago, the department evaluated a handheld device running palmOne's Palm OS and an iPaq running Microsoft Windows CE. The department went with the Windows device because it had a full-function browser, said Darius Fattahipour, the department's senior information technology engineer. Windows CE provides the foundation for Microsoft Mobile software, which runs on Pocket PC handheld devices.

The Palm OS device lacked that feature, and as a result, the department could only create programs written in Wireless Application Protocol, which Fattahipour described as too limiting. The department wanted to create a Web-based, file-finding application using Macromedia's Dreamweaver and ColdFusion.

The department's users also influenced the operating system selection. Clerical workers would be using the handhelds to track files. Fattahipour said ease of use was a factor in product selection, noting that file clerks were already accustomed to Windows.

"From a training perspective, it was a logical choice to go with," he said of the Windows-based handheld devices.

The department initially used iPaqs, but recently switched to Symbol Technologies' MC50 Enterprise Digital Assistant. The MC50 has a rugged case and incorporates a bar code scanner for locating the department's files.

The file-locator system has compressed document delivery time to two hours or less, Fattahipour said.

Berger said Windows-based devices have become popular because buyers can use the same applications and data files they use with other Windows computing devices.

Gartner recently cited Microsoft's Windows CE as the top PDA operating system, based on the market research firm's estimate of first quarter 2005 worldwide vendor sales. Gartner said Windows CE owned a 46 percent slice of the market, with Research In Motion's operating system in second place with a 20.8 percent share. Palm OS had a 20 percent share.

3.Batteries: Get a life

Although most handheld components have changed, batteries haven't evolved.

"You're still dealing with the same battery technology you were five or 10 years ago," Berger said. "And that's one of the big limitations of devices: how long you can run them."

Earlier handheld devices compounded this battery-life problem. They used batteries that could not be removed and replaced. HP's iPaq started offering replaceable batteries, and other vendors have followed suit.

Acceptable battery performance depends on an organization's usage pattern. A PDA with a four-hour battery life might be acceptable for users who don't continually use the device.

Other users might need their PDAs to operate for a full eight-hour work shift. File runners in San Diego County's Department of Child Support Services use their PDAs throughout the day. The iPaqs the department originally used had a battery life of about four hours, so a charged iPaq was kept on standby for each clerk.

But Symbol's MC50s, which the department has been using for about a month, have a much longer battery life, Fattahipour said. He said the handhelds can last the entire day, eliminating the need for backup devices.

David Ambrose, government business manager at distributor Westcon Group North America, said Symbol ranks among the handheld industry's leaders in battery life. He said the company's Enterprise Digital Assistant products, which combine voice, data, messaging and video with long battery life, make sense particularly for first responder groups.

As a general rule, buyers get more battery life as they move to pricier, higher-end devices. The MC50, for example, costs $925 to $1,200, depending on configuration.

4.Security: Protecting data in transit and at rest

Security concerns have grown with the proliferation of wireless devices. The task of encrypting data in transmission and while stored on the device provides a two-pronged challenge.

The Pentagon requires the encryption of unclassified data for transmission to and from wireless devices, according to Defense Department Directive 8100.2, issued in April 2004. Data encryption must meet Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2 requirements. The directive also calls for portable electronic devices to use FIPS 140-2 file encryption for data at rest.

Against this backdrop, the availability of a virtual private network (VPN) client for a given handheld device may be critical. Berger said customers such as the Air Force, with its Combat Information Transport System, secure data sessions through a Cisco Systems VPN client. Handheld devices lacking a readily available Cisco VPN client won't make the cut, he said.

As for data at rest, companies such as Pointsec Mobile Technologies provide encryption products for handheld devices. Pointsec for Pocket PC has been FIPS 140-2-compliant since last June. Pointsec solutions for PDAs and smart phones start at $76 per seat.

The company will provide security for the Army's Medical Communications for Combat Casualty Care. Insight Public Sector plans to deploy more than 11,000 Windows Mobile-based Pocket PCs with Pointsec for Pocket PC technology, said Robert Egner, Pointsec's vice president of global marketing.

5.Third-party software: Something extra

Third-party software can open possibilities for a wireless handheld device, so learning about the options for a given platform isn't a bad idea.

BlackBerry products have been primarily known for their e-mail capabilities. But Onset Technology offers METAmessage solutions that extend the capabilities of light devices such as BlackBerries, said Steve Koontz, vice president of marketing at Onset. The company offers a continuity of operations (COOP)/emergency response solution that "turns any BlackBerry deployment into an emergency communications network," Koontz said.

Features include the ability to blast emergency notifications to different categories of workers and a panic button that discloses a user's location and issues a distress call. METAmessage also lets users store emergency procedures and COOP plans on a BlackBerry.

The basic METAmessage product costs $50 per user. In addition, buyers pay a one-time fee of $2,000 for the product's server component. Some COOP features are available in the base product. Additional features range from $15 to several hundred dollars per user, depending on the feature desired and the volume purchased, Koontz said.

Dave Werezak, vice president of Research In Motion's Enterprise Business Unit, said COOP solutions are commonly used in government BlackBerry deployments.

Utilities such as handwriting-recognition tools are also available to spruce up a handheld device. Users of Pocket PCs have Microsoft's Transcriber tool as a built-in handwriting-to-text feature. But PhatWare, which licensed the Transcriber technology to Microsoft in 1999, has a product that Stan Miasnikov, the company's president, said offers improved accuracy. PhatWare's CalliGrapher offers more than 90 percent accuracy, he added. The product costs about $30.

CalliGrapher 7.5 supports Pocket PC and Pocket PC Phone Edition, another sign of the blurring lines between PDAs and portable phones.

Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.

Smart Shopper Tips

Soaring energy costs

If you want more battery life, expect to pay for it. There is about a $200 premium for the top-of-the-line devices offering seven hours or more of battery life. If your handheld devices won't be heavily used, you probably can do without the additional cost.

That's why they're called extras

Third-party software can enhance a personal digital assistant or smart phone, but keep associated costs in mind when planning a purchase. Adding features, such as handwriting recognition, encryption and emergency management, will add $150 or more to the base cost.

Pay attention to form

Do you want a phone or a personal digital assistant? The functional lines may be blurring between smart phones and PDAs, but the phones still tend to have forms more conducive to holding frequent conversations. Form distinctions may also exist within product lines. One example: Research In Motion's BlackBerry 7100t targets the smart phone market, while the BlackBerry 7290 pursues the PDA space.

Be safe

Smart phones and other handheld devices often go missing. Don't overlook the need to encrypt data while it's stored on the device and while sending it.

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