By Suzanne Thornberry

CIOs and CTOs are a special breed of professionals, as their role demands strong communication with their direct superiors and high-level peers. Yet these executives still have a little “gearhead” left in them—certainly enough to enjoy high-tech gadgets like Palms and PDAs.

According to a recent CIO poll, 58 percent of today’s IT leaders use a handheld device, and another 17 percent are considering adding one to their workday tool kits (Figure A). The reasons for the increasing adoption range from better ease-of-use features, improved functionalities, and more device options to choose from.

Figure A

Devices getting more useful
Martin Gillespie, CTO at TriTech Secure Data Solutions, a San Diego maker of computer-aided dispatch systems for public-safety agencies, knows the plethora of handheld devices all too well. While evaluating which product best fit his users’ needs, Gillespie had 10 different devices sitting on his desk. PDAs play a critical role in TriTech’s secure data solutions for wireless devices.

“I’m familiar with nearly everything that is available in this market because PDAs are the primary device used for our products,” Gillespie says.

In his CTO role, Gillespie primarily uses a Blackberry 957 from Research in Motion. The device is a monochrome model with embedded wireless communications. Gillespie uses GoAmerica as a service provider. With this configuration, the CTO uses all of the standard PDA features—including the calendar, address book, and memo function.

Gillespie uses TriTech’s Voyager product, a wireless application, to gain access to internal systems as well as to the Web browser. For real-time access to e-mail via the PDA, Gillespie uses Blackberry’s enterprise server.

“The real-time synchronization is a real plus. E-mails are sent to my handheld immediately if the device is not in the cradle,” he explains. Gillespie says the feature makes it easy “to travel and stay on top of all e-mails at the same time.” He almost never has to plug in his laptop to get mail.

Most of Gillespie’s executive peers at the 120-employee company carry a PDA, and he encourages the IT staff to use one.

“[A PDA], coupled with a cell phone, makes us always available and able to respond quickly,” he says.

Another IT executive, John Jenkins, says he isn’t quite as attached to his PDA as Gillespie. Jenkins, vice president/CIO of Moses Cone Health System, in Greensboro, NC, just uses the standard applications on his Palm M505. He syncs his data through the cradle that came with the device. Yet PDAs are important at his company in another way.

“We have a Palm application that is provided to our physicians that gives them patient clinical data on the handheld,” Jenkins notes. “It has been very popular and was developed specifically for the healthcare industry by MercuryMD.”

The need to carry data
E-mail is, not surprisingly, a workhorse application for most people with Internet access through their PDAs. But many in IT management also need to take significant amounts of data with them when away from the office.

Stephen Schneider, IS manager with the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, favors a PDA with a built-in platform for taking notes and carrying around databases. Schneider finds handwriting-recognition systems “okay for a name and address, but if you are doing any data collection or small notes via e-mail, it is too cumbersome.” He put his Hewlett-Packard Jornada 690 to the test during a two-week trip to Korea in 2000.

“I received and sent a lot of e-mail with it. I would not have tried that without a keyboard,” he says. Yet Schneider doesn’t think it’s worthwhile to put a keyboard on a device that isn’t designed for it. Not only do you have to keep track of two items instead of one, he says, but the add-on “takes more space than the built-in keyboard and is a pain to unfold.”

Schneider has used the HP 690 for several years and plans to keep it until finding another one like it with a current operating system.

“I am not stuck on Windows CE or Pocket PC OS, but I would not want to live with some of the limitations of the Palm OS,” he explains.

Today, with relatively cheap and plentiful memory, Schneider believes that “the OS should not demand that I copy a file from a storage card to main memory” before using it. That’s a big concern for the IT leader, since he or she carries about 40 MB of data at all times. Schneider sometimes carries a Sony Vaio Picturebook with Outlook set up for offline storage but still uses the HP 690 for e-mail. He docks the HP device when he’s at the office but finds that “synching the Picturebook takes a lot more time and effort.”

Supporting that urge to tinker
The overall increase of Palm and PDA devices throughout today’s enterprises plops a new set of support issues on a CIO’s desk. While some corporate users, especially IT staffers, have tinkered and are familiar with the new gadgets, there are many more that have no clue on how to work the new tools.

One TechRepublic member had quite a bit to say about that topic in a current CIO Republic discussion.

“I’m currently supporting four members from our board of directors and helping them use their brand-new Palm M505 PDAs. It’s a nightmare,” writes Harry Bosch. Trying to sync the devices with their workgroup application, Lotus Notes, is the source of most frustration.

“Appointments get lost, and sometimes the software just quits out because it can’t handle much more than about 600 appointments per sync,” he explains. Bosch’steam has run several lab tests on the system and they have concluded that “the software is too immature.” Additionally, the lack of an open communication standard that specifies workgroup software to PDA synchronizing/translation makes the current generation of PDAs useless for serious work, Bosch contends.

If you have had a better experience in syncing Lotus Notes to a PDA, you might want to offer it to CIO colleagues and drop by the current member discussion.

Suzanne Thornberry is a freelance technology journalist based in Kentucky.

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