Consulting » Problems with my PDA

Mobile technology is great, until the point it starts to distract you from the real world, or when devices get so small that you lose them.

Recently, I suffered both ignominies when my new personal digital assistant (PDA) went missing. In the space of two months I had transferred my entire professional and personal life onto the pocket-sized PC – and then left it on a Northern Line tube, never to be seen again. Articles, press clippings, contact details, diary dates and appointments all disappeared down the tunnel. I am now left with pen and paper, my contacts on my mobile phone, a month-old back-up of the contents of the PDA and the newspaper for the journey to and from work.

I had hardly tested the machine to its full potential – I hadn’t entered the mysterious realms of Bluetooth communication, multimedia, webcasts or downloaded news. So it might be said the loss of the PDA saved me from total absorption in IT – I get the feeling my colleagues were a little sick of speaking to the top of my head when the rest of it was buried in my PDA.

Being a cautious and sensible lot, FDs are also rather wary of mobile devices deployed in businesses. In the ImageTrak survey* conducted amongst Financial Director readers recently only 33% of respondents felt that PDAs were either fairly or very important to their business. Compare this to 98% citing IT security as a major issue. PDAs are just too much of a distraction, their functionality is more tailored to watching video clips than monitoring KPIs, and they are a huge security risk.

Neil Goulder, until recently finance director of Aim-listed jewellery maker Theo Fennell has been using PDAs for years, but he shares some of the concerns of his peers. Security is an issue so he doesn’t keep a lot of work-related data on his machine. But he also finds that handhelds don’t lend themselves to professional use.

“Often, I email information on my Compaq iPAQ from my desktop PC at home to work and copy and paste from there. The only real work-related information I keep on it is the internal phone list and staff contacts. I don’t keep any key performance indicators (KPIs) or business metrics on my PDA because it is easier to work on those from a desktop PC, and because the spreadsheet capability on my PDA is just not as good as having a full screen and proper keyboard,” he says.

In technology-driven finance departments PDAs may have a more important role to play. Norman Green, UK FD of Oracle doesn’t use spreadsheets.

But he does use a PDA to remotely access his finance systems, KPIs and sales figures. “I probably use the PDA 90% of the time for business, for remotely accessing our systems, keeping contacts and diary information. All that dead time that I used to have on the train is now available,” he says.

Green’s new XDA from network operator O2 combines the functionality of existing Microsoft Windows-based devices (such as Goulder’s iPAQ) with a GPRS mobile phone. This means Green can email, make calls, manage his appointments and tap into the back office from a single device. When choosing his new device Green actually sent back one particular PDA specifically aimed at business users, the RIM Blackberry, because it was not multi-functional enough.

Remote access is fine and dandy if you have the software and systems support in place to facilitate true mobile working. But even Green tempers his enthusiasm for widespread deployment of mobile technology: “The risk of PDAs is when people download information from company systems. This information can then be lost.”

Green also feels that PDAs can be bad for productivity in the early stages of deployment. “To begin with, everyone wants to play with PDAs and they can become a distraction. But when used appropriately they become a vital tool for working on the move,” he says.

There is a raft of cheapish multifunctional devices coming onto the market in the second half of 2002 and most businesses are not ready to support them. So more staff will try and synchronise them to office desktops, crash systems, leave them in the back of taxis and, if they’re feeling malicious, use them to steal data.

But, as communications technology improves, the more essential PDAs will become to their users and the more hassle loss or technology failure will become. Perhaps it is for this reason that Green still carries his old mobile phone around with him – just in case.