There have been seemingly endless articles debating the merits of personal digital assistants (PDAs) based on the Palm OS vs. Pocket PCs that run Microsoft’s Pocket PC OS. All the articles I have read have focused on a mere technological comparison. But as PDA-type devices become more integrated into the corporate IT domain, more and more managers are evaluating these devices from a business standpoint, including total cost of ownership (TCO). When our organization evaluated the two platforms, for example, we were somewhat surprised to find that the TCO to own and operate Pocket PC devices would be less than for Palm devices.

I have owned and/or used virtually every model of Palm device available. At present, I also own and use an iPAQ (H3670), the Pocket PC offering from Compaq. In this article, I will present some information that should help organizations evaluate which type of device—Palm OS (and compatibles) or Pocket PC—really is the more cost effective and useful for businesses.

E-mail to go
What do we want to use a PDA for? This is the first and most obvious question an organization should ponder, but one that is often overlooked. If the PDA will be used merely as an electronic address book, calendar, and to-do list, either platform will suffice. If, on the other hand, you want the PDA to support e-mail, then the Palm and Pocket PC platforms offer different performance profiles.

Reading e-mail messages, particularly those with attachments, is not easy to do with Palm devices. To read attachments, I had to invest in a third-party product from Dataviz called Documents To Go (current price for the professional edition is $49.95). The Documents To Go product offers read (and now write) functionality with respect to Microsoft Word and Excel attachments, but in order to use it, you must also have Dataviz’s synchronizing software, Desktop To Go (current single-user license price is $49.95). The Dataviz products are excellent, but with respect to TCO, one needs to be aware of the additional expenditure requirements. Pocket PC, on the other hand, has Pocket Word and Pocket Excel built in, so it can easily handle a Word or Excel attachment without needing any third-party software.

In sync…
How will you synchronize your PDA to your desktop and back-end e-mail system? Palm has flip-flopped back and forth regarding third-party synching software. In the earlier days of Palm (3Com), there was no recommendation regarding third-party software. Consequently, organizations had to purchase their own software—such as DesktopToGo or Intellisync—if they wanted additional synching functionality not offered by Palm. Later, Palm bundled software from Chapura called PocketMirror. Now, with the exception of the M500, the company has elected not to package any third-party products with its latest offerings. What has all this done for TCO? It has significantly driven up the cost. Many organizations will have multiple software products for synching, each product with several different releases in use, all of which is a support and management nightmare.

The Pocket PC software situation is simpler and easier. There is only one ActiveSync, and while there may be different versions, there is no need to buy third-party software, which further reduces support and maintenance efforts considerably.

OS management
How will you manage your PDA’s operating system? It amazes me that Palm devices have consistently required different versions of the operating system between product lines. Even the latest offerings are split between Palm OS 4.0 and Palm 3.5. Additionally, Palm requires customers to order upgrades for minor OS updates. For example, to upgrade the Palm Vs from OS 3.3 to 3.5, customers have to pay $20 for the privilege of moving up to only a 0.2 higher release! I went through that exercise simply for the sake of keeping current but found that there was no perceivable benefit to upgrading. I guess our organization wasted $20. (Talk about adding to TCO!) If organizations were required to pay $20 per unit to upgrade a few hundred Palms in order to achieve OS standardization, the cost and effort would be significant.

Pocket PC is currently running on Windows CE 3.0, and as the platform advances, undoubtedly so will the operating systems. My hope and expectation is that Microsoft will make CE backwardly compatible with all Pocket PC devices so as to minimize support problems.

What about peripherals and other options? Here is an area where the Palm really adds to TCO. Virtually every model of Palm has been a different form factor. What this means, with respect to peripherals, is that with each new Palm release, you would need a completely new line of peripherals to connect to the new device, such as: keyboards, modems, cradles, jackets, etc. There could be a whole new cottage industry for making Palm device adaptors. With the new M500 series, I thought perhaps we would finally see that day where there would be an industry-standard expansion slot, but alas, it was not to be. Rather than simply adding a CompactFlash slot, Palm had to go and promote their proprietary expansion card slot.

I can’t speak for every Pocket PC device on the market, but with respect to the iPAQ, the connection options are simple—either CompactFlash or PC Card—and as the products mature, Compaq has committed to keeping the form factor consistent. This makes interchanging peripherals between devices a snap and helps keep TCO in check.

Volume discounts
This is perhaps the final area where Pocket PCs have the potential to offer lower TCO. Many large organizations have negotiated volume pricing for their servers, desktops, and laptops. Often the pricing is a set percentage discount across product lines for a particular vendor. Since two of the leading manufacturers of Pocket PCs are industry leaders Hewlett-Packard and Compaq, an organization might easily extend a negotiated discount to PDAs. For enterprises with large contracts with either manufacturer, the savings earned by extending discounted pricing to Jornada or iPAQ might well be significant. (For those loyal to IBM, perhaps similar volume discounts may be available for WorkPads.)

Palm, on the other hand, doesn’t offer any other products in the server or client computer space, so negotiating a volume discount as an addendum to a large contract is not possible. This isn’t to say that one can’t negotiate some sort of deal with Palm Computing, but that needs to be a separate effort from other contracts. Again, such additional contracts require time, effort, and administration and add a burden on TCO.

May I have the envelope, please…?
By now, you’re either nodding in agreement or you’ve already tuned out and figured I have just got an ax to grind against Palm. First of all, let me set the record straight: I do not have anything against Palm or Palm devices. I love my Palm V and its predecessors, and in certain situations, it is still the right tool for the job. But, for my organization, the total cost of ownership for Pocket PC devices will be decidedly less than the cost of Palm-based PDAs, despite the fact that the list price of the Palm PDA is significantly cheaper. In our case, the additional planning that took into account software and peripheral needs ended up providing us with significant cost savings.

Ric Liang, MCP, is a technology architect for a leading international energy company.

What’s your choice for a business PDA?

Does your organization support PDAs? How did you select which model to adopt? Share your ideas by posting a comment below.