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Look for basics, not frills, in a PDA

In a few weeks, Jupiter Research will release a new report on the PDA market, and the company found some surprising problems. Michael Gartenberg, research director for the New York-based firm, said that many device manufacturers are chasing bells and whistles at the expense of basic functions that business users need, like voice and e-mail.

Here Gartenberg shares his insights into what features to look for and which operating systems are likely to meet your needs, and he previews some great new devices.

What are the most important PDA features for business users?
First and foremost, for both consumers and business users, voice capability is the most important feature. Any mobile strategy that does not include voice is going to be doomed. One reason that many converged devices don't sell is because they have lousy phones. We also found that people are happy to carry more than one device, so vendors don't need to keep building everything into a single device.

The second most important feature is personal information management (PIM) functions, like e-mail and calendaring. There aren't enough devices supporting PIM functions. What you really need is a device with great voice and great PIM functionality -- forget multimedia and the ability to read Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. Which mobile operating systems are the best?
Different operating systems are better for different functions. If you are focused on wireless e-mail access, then it's going to be Research in Motion (RIM) or Danger. For core PIM functions, it's Palm. Right now, Palm and [Microsoft's] Pocket PC are trending towards each other. Pocket PC is working to adopt the elegance and simplicity that Palm is known for, and Palm is moving towards more features, multimedia and [the] higher-end processors of the Pocket PC. What did you uncover about smart phones?
The problem with these devices is that there are too many features. Most phones are small enough to be [both] ubiquitous and almost invisible to the user. Smart phones need to be voice-centric, but once you start adding too many features, the devices become too big and the battery life suffers. Did you find significant difference between devices, or are these primarily OS and software issues?
Some devices are optimized for certain tasks. For example, when you do a lot of mobile e-mail, any device with a keyboard is going to be much better than one without. Palm devices are better than Pocket PC devices for core PIM functions. And [DataViz Inc.'s] Documents To Go [software for the Palm OS] is great for reading and manipulating Microsoft files. In many ways, it is more compatible with Microsoft products than Pocket PC [software] is. What are the biggest problems that your research uncovered?
There are always trade-offs. If you want a large screen on a device, then you can't have a small device that users will always carry around. If you add wireless connectivity to a PDA, then you can't get 14 hours of battery life. Too many manufacturers are chasing after too many features. They are ignoring core functions and are converging features onto single devices, rather than making sure that devices can work together. What are the hot enterprise-class devices?
There are very good devices out there right now. The Palm Tungsten T3 is one of the best Palm OS devices that you can get. It's got a small form factor, a high-resolution screen and Bluetooth.

The HP Pocket PC 4100 is also great. It has a small form factor, and features Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity.

The Toshiba e800 Pocket PC has a full VGA display, which makes for great image viewing and Web browsing. And it has built in Wi-Fi, making it attractive for enterprise users.


Learn about PDAs in our PDA product guide.

Check out our tip on wireless options for PDAs.

What are some of the features and functions that enterprise buyers should look for?
Voice and PIM features are key. Users prize them. If the IT department gives out PDAs with lousy phones, people won't use them; they will get their own phones for voice calls, which wastes a lot of money.

You need to understand how you are going to use the devices. If the main purpose is to sync with Outlook and Microsoft Exchange, then a Microsoft OS might work well there. If the goal is to focus specifically on wireless e-mail, then the users will want to use a keyboard, so a RIM device can excel there. If the goal is PIM functionality and the synchronization of data and PDA functions, then I'd lean towards the Palm.

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