Profiting from palmtops

Profiting from palmtops

Embracing small computers is the only path that makes sense and, potentially, a lot of moneyRemember with me the days of yore, when forklifts delivered real computers, and personal computers were much-maligned toys paid for by reckless individuals with liberal expense accounts. People bought PCs and brought them into the enterprise, and we all spent the better part of the 1980s learning how to turn these personal purchases into corporate assets.

Guess what? History is about to repeat itself.

The computers that will be either tremendous boons or monstrous pains are the small, hand-held devices that are springing out of pockets and Day-Timers everywhere. Now, I can hear you snorting with derision, so I'll tell you why these things are going to be part of your business whether you like it or not.

First, though, an admission: I'm a PalmPilot user. Furthermore, I genuinely depend on the little thing to help keep what passes for my life in order. I think the PalmPilot designers went further than anyone else in cracking the code of what makes these things useful and, if market numbers can be believed, something in the order of a million others agree with me.

Even IBM has started selling PalmPilots, so the mantle of legitimacy has begun to settle around the small shoulders of these small computers. My experience points to one of the reasons that many integrators will have no choice but to deal with palmtop devices: they work. They're limited in application and scope, but within their boundaries, they work very well.

If all they did was keep the schedule for an individual, you could probably avoid them for quite a while. The trouble is, people want to push the boundaries just a little bit more as time passes. What's more, none of the successful units exist in a vacuum.

Another reason the PalmPilot has succeeded is its ability to easily pass data back and forth with a desktop computer. Once you start passing some data, people want to move more information around, meaning those charged with keeping everything running must deal with the programs that format and move data.

Despite the odds

Ironically, this user push towards greater data distribution comes as IT is moving back to greater centralisation and standardisation. The tricky task for integrators is building systems with fuzzy boundaries around a far more stable centre.

When users see the benefits of carrying simple applications with them, they will want more-sophisticated apps. This is the point at which integrators must become involved. You see, people are simply going to demand that the apps joining personal devices and enterprise data become more comprehensive and useful.

As a partner in corporate IT you have only two choices:

1. You can become involved in building and integrating the applications, making sure that they match the customer's mission and architecture; or 2. You can try to ignore hand-held computers and rig up a recovery plan when a customer complains that palmtops are out of control.

It's pointless to hope that small PCs will simply go away, and it's futile to try to legislate them out of an organisation. Just between you and me, embracing them and learning to build apps around them is the only path that makes sense -- and potentially, a good deal of money.

So what should you do? First, start asking the people you see using PalmPilots, Newtons or Windows CE computers what they do with their little machines. Almost everyone I've seen will be more than happy to tell you.

Next, start thinking about what it means to central data stores and network infrastructures when people are able to carry data with them and use it on a moment-to-moment (rather than a desktop-to-desktop) basis.

Finally, don't make the mistake of specialising in any one hand-held device right now. Designers are refining both software and hardware at a rapid pace, and it's far too early to tell which systems are going to prosper in the market.

This fragmentation makes these immediate, high-intensity projects to be fashioned by technical and marketing people who believe, who have interested customers, and who want to make names for themselves.

Are handheld computers a serious business proposition or just a fad? Let me know:

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