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IT Decisions – PDAs – Now it’s personal.

People tend to love or hate PDAs (personal digital assistants). In the office, executives either view them as essential business tools from which they couldn’t possibly be parted, or think they’re nothing more than over-priced address books.

These mixed views aren’t helped by the fact that few companies have a policy on buying PDAs and choice is left to individuals. And, without corporate or company buy-in, there is no way to synchronise or standardise usage.

Geof Lewis, finance director at IT provider Aptegrity, is taken by the PDA phenomenon but is struggling to find the time or resources to set up the software on his Palm 5. “I have just started a new job and I’m too busy to play around with executive toys,” he says. “However, if someone (at work) did it for me I can see the benefits.”

But John Tate of IT company Tate Bramald Consultancy has nothing but praise for PDAs. “They really are the ideal device for people on the move,” he says. Tate uses a Casio Cassiopeia, on which he carries all the key performance indicators for business management. The machine, which runs Windows Pocket PC, has 64mb of memory and uses a suite of applications including Calendar, Outlook, Excel and Word. “This gives me everything I need to work,” he says.

As well as sending and receiving e-mail, Tate uses Pocket PC Internet Explorer to surf the net. “I’ve set it up to link me into a variety of news feeds, such as Reuters, so that I can keep up-to-date with what’s going on during the day. I also use the ‘To do’ list a great deal to organise my day, and it’s all synchronised up to the PC.”

Tate is IT savvy but recognises the need for corporate buy-in. “I did 90% of it myself but it isn’t straight forward. Synchronising contact information with what was stored on the PC was problematic, as was establishing an infra-red link to my mobile phone and the internet.”

Establishing company policy for mobile technology is essential. The approach must be to formulate a wireless data communications strategy and then standardise on equipment. But, in Tate’s view, the devices may well change markedly within the next 12 months, so companies had better be quick to embrace the technology and must not be surprised if the hardware is out-of-date in a few months. “The look and feel of PDAs will change as they embrace technologies such as voice communication and voice recognition,” Tate says.

In cost of purchasing and cost of ownership terms, PDAs are a more attractive proposition for mobile users than laptops, which may take two minutes to boot up before you can use them. But for user-intensive work, such as cost accounting and compiling management reports, laptops or desktop PCs are currently superior.

Nevertheless, Vince Tallent, chief financial officer of service provider OmniSky International (which recently launched a beta service in the UK for wireless internet access), believes FDs need to come up with a mobile game plan. “As FD you cannot operate in a vacuum,” Tallent says. “I have all the functionality I need on my PDA. I can get a snapshot of the market in seconds, wirelessly.”

OmniSky has standardised on the Handspring Visor PDA, which Tallent and most of his mobile colleagues carry with them at all times. The company’s own wireless internet access service enables employees to send and receive e-mails and access company information via a wide area network (WAN), as well as via the internet.

But Lewis warns that PDAs can cause difficulties. “If companies rely on staff to purchase and install their own devices it could pose a serious security threat,” he says. Psion, a leading player in mobile technology manufacturing, agrees. It says that portable devices can introduce viruses into office systems and networks, and they also offer another access route for hackers.

Craig Swallow, international sales director at Psion, advises executives to be on their guard. “Policies should be based on the potential for harm as well as creativity and flexibility,” he says. “Now is the time for companies to set the standards, before mobile devices are so pervasive that businesses no longer have control.”

And if even the manufacturers highlight the pitfalls of mobile technology then it would be wise to think twice before uploading your accounts.

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