Supporting PDAs and wireless devices on your corporate network (2001)

As more and more people purchase Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) for their own personal use, corporate IT managers need to become more proactive in supporting them on their networks. I wrote this for CDW’s Focus magazine back in 2001. I  cover which devices to recommend, describe their differences and advantages for various types of knowledge workers, and explain other tips and techniques on how to put them to their best use for various corporate applications.

PDAs for business uses

While there are numerous PDAs available on the market, three major categories of devices are best suited for corporate users. They are the RIM Blackberry line, various devices running the Palm operating system, and the latest series of units running on Microsoft’s Pocket PC platform.

What kinds of information can you carry around on these devices? All of them have the ability to store your contact information, calendar, and some kind of email capability. All support the ability to scroll through your address book by beginning to input the initial letters of your contacts: as the software matches names with what you are typing, it displays these choices. That is helpful, even for large contact lists.

However, when it comes to specifics, the three PDAs couldn’t be more different and have more different target audiences. The Blackberry is designed first and foremost for email and to communicate, so it makes sense for users who spend a lot of time composing and receiving plenty of emails during their workday. While it does have the ability to maintain contact and calendar information, this is really just to help you communicate and compose your emails more effectively. The Blackberry makes sense for a wide variety of users, from executives to help desk and other support personnel that must be in touch with the office, even when they are elsewhere.

The Palms excel at overall contact management information, including the ability to send and receive your “electronic business card” directly into their contact database. They are probably the most popular devices, and now come from a wide variety of vendors besides Palm, including Sony and Handspring. They are the best general-purpose contact manager, and good for taking short notes and carrying a portable version of your daily calendar. They are appropriate for people that need their address book when they aren’t at their desks, such as to get in touch with their project team or for someone who travels frequently and needs to call on various clients. With the addition of a wireless modem, they can be very effective email tools, although someone who gets and sends over 50 messages a day would be better off with one of the Blackberries. The Palm platform also supports the widest number of add-on applications (Palm’s web site lists close to 10,000 different ones) and a very active developer community, and you can run applications on your Palm that help you search for the nearest restaurant or restroom, book a flight, or lookup a word in a dictionary.

Finally, there are numerous Pocket PC devices from Compaq, HP, and Casio. Microsoft has taken Windows CE to the next level, and these are useful for workers who are more document-centric and want something that can work with their usual Microsoft Office applications such as Word, Excel, and Outlook. While you probably wouldn’t want to develop a large financial model using Pocket Excel, the Pocket PC version does come in handy for doing some quick calculations and for reviewing your existing Office documents. The Pocket PC PDAs have the ability to recognize your handwriting and attach short voice recordings to your messages, so they can be useful to annotate your correspondence and documents. They also support the widest connectivity options, including wireless LANs, wired modems, and wired Ethernet networks.


But part of using a PDA is also having some fun with the device and showing it off to your friends and colleagues. The most fun part about the Blackberry is that you can get email almost anywhere anytime, without having to fuss with extra add-on modules or modems. The best part about the Pocket PCs is the ability to function as an MP3 media player, with a built-in headphone jack to listen to your music. And the wide variety of applications available for the Palm can do just about anything.


The chart below summarizes some of the main features of each product line, including the types of batteries used, the range of screens and connector types, and how much memory comes installed with each PDA.


PDA Specifications Overview


Specification Pocket PC Palm Blackberry
Batteries used Lithium Ion rechargables 2 AAAs or Lithium Ion rechargables AA or Lithium Ion rechargables
RAM installed 16 – 64 MB 2 – 8 MB 5 MB
Approx. weight 6 – 9 oz. 4 – 7 oz. 5 – 6 oz.
Screen size, colors 640 x 480 colors/mono 160 x160 colors/mono Up to160 x 160 mono
Connector types USB, serial, IR USB, serial, IR Serial
Desktop software used Active Synch, MS Office Palm Desktop Blackberry desktop
Input text via Character Recognizer Graffiti QWERTY keyboard
Wireless modem included Only as an option Only on Palm VII series All models



Setting up your corporate deployment plan


If you are going to fully embrace using PDAs within your corporation, you need to do more than acquaint your IT support staff and help desk people with a few of the basics. Here is a four-point plan, care of ZDnet columnist Jim Seymour. The plan is worth implementing if you want to ensure the widest possible deployment of PDAs to make your employees more productive.


First, you should pick a set of recommended devices to support. You might want to select one Palm or Visor model, one of the PocketPCs, and one model of the Blackberry that you will recommend to your end users. Include in your list of supported devices any communications gear that you’ll need to connect them for wireless email usage, because this will become a big attraction as people become used to its quirks and convenience. Pick service from either Go.America or Omnisky, because both offer the widest array of choices and service plans.


Don’t try to make this list of supported devices too large, but do try to cover a range of particular uses and tastes. Seymour suggests keeping your recommended list short, but not too short. He also advises against including anything else such as the Nokia phones and Psions: they don’t have much of a place in corporate applications anyway. A possible addition is the Kyocera Smartphone QCP 6035, which marries a Palm with a cell phone.


Second, buy at least two or three units of each supported device and then distribute them — gratis — to the enthusiasts among your overall corporate user population. These are the people who will act as your ambassadors, showing off their new PDA to their peers during the workday and as they travel about your enterprise. You want these people on your side, and you want them to carry the device with them at all times and show it off. As Seymour says, “You want the team members to take the things home, walk around with them in pockets and purses, and put personal name and address lists in them, along with the kids’ T-ball and Little League schedules.” The more uses they can come up with — including both business and personal — the better.


Next, offer intelligent buying advice for others. Once your ambassador group gets going, lots of other folks in your enterprise will want to have them. Try not to be heavy-handed about your recommendations; after all, the first word in PDA is Personal. Seymour says “You’re going to be supporting a variety of these gizmos from now on, so get used to the fact.”


Finally, don’t forget about what you need to do to establish a series of training and enhancement classes. Offer seminars during lunchtime, in the company cafeteria, and in conjunction with other informal corporate gatherings. Bring in a variety of the cooler attachments like the VisorPhone and show them off. Work with your corporate IT training department to develop short seminars that can introduce new users to some of the more important features, and establish a few in-house user groups so that peers can learn from each other.





Each device has different ways to tie itself into your existing corporate desktop PC, and all pretty much work the same way: you load the desktop software on your PC, hook up the PDA via some kind of connection, and begin to synchronize the information between the two devices. Palms come with the Palm Desktop for both Windows and Macs, Blackberries have their own Windows desktop software, and Pocket PCs work with Microsoft’s Active Synch and Office applications to move files back and forth.


If you want to download new software into the PDA, you either first have to copy it to someplace on your desktop and then transfer it to the PDA via the synchronization software, or beam it directly from another PDA using their infrared ports.


The Blackberries come with their own cradle that connects to your computer’s serial port. The cradles for the rechargeable Blackberries come with a power adapter, so you can recharge them without having your desktop PC turned on. The Pocket PCs usually come with cradles with USB adapters and external power supplies.


The Palms have a variety of connectors, and some can use more than one kind to hook up to your PC. And the rechargeable Palms come with cradles that have power adapters and either serial ports or USB connectors.


While the nine-pin serial port is almost universal, it does limit your synchronizing your PDA to a paltry 115,000 bps data rate. As you need to move larger databases of your contacts and documents, you’ll find this somewhat limiting and lengthy. The best situation is to make use of the faster USB connection available on some Palm devices and most of the Pocket PC units.


One of the best applications for PDA users is to have portable access to your desktop contact database. If you’ve ever been on the road and found out too late that you left important phone numbers on your desktop machine, then having a PDA copy of this information can be very handy, not to mention a terrific business advantage. Each of the devices has this feature and works reasonably well with a wide variety of desktop applications, including Outlook, ACT, and other programs (see the table below).


But sometimes you need something even more portable than a PDA, and that is where having a web-based contact manager comes in handy. This can also serve as a backup copy of your contacts in case your PDA goes south or if your rechargeable batteries are nearing the end of their charge. The widest range of options is available for Palm devices. First, you need to match the application that you will use to store your contacts with your Palm, to make sure that you can get information synchronized properly. Next, you need to find a web address book service provider that supports this application, and offers a synchronization tool that can connect to its data storage. Finally, you have to install everything on your desktop and get it working properly.


Traditional contact mangers like ACT or Outlook are best if you plan to maintain your contact list on a Palm or Pocket PC device. ACT has more fields and functions than mere mortals need, but many swear by it. Outlook does more than contacts: it is Microsoft’s window onto the world of Exchange and POP-based Internet email. If your corporation runs Exchange, then you are probably using Outlook. You can also make use of the supplied contact manager in the Palm Desktop and synchronize directly to the web from here.

Web Address Book Service Providers


Provider Desktop Software Supported PDA supported Synchronization support Outlook, Outlook Express, Organizer, Access, Excel None Upload only Goldmine None Upload only Outlook, Palm Palm Two-way Outlook, Notes, Organizer, ACT, Goldmine, Palm Palm, Pocket PC Two-way Palm Palm 7 only Two-way Outlook, ACT, Palm Palm, Pocket PC Two-way Outlook/Outlook Express, Palm Palm Two-way


If you don’t use a Palm but still want the benefits of having a web-accessible address book, you have a few alternatives. Both and support Pocket PCs and several different desktop applications. Versions of Microsoft’s Exchange since 5.5 SP1 have included the ability to use a web browser to examine your Outlook contacts directly, without having to do any synchronization steps. Another choice is Adr_Book from Brown Bear Software ( It comes with its own built-in web server, runs on any Windows machine and costs only $35. Within minutes, you’ll have your own contact list available on the web, and you can specify whether browsing users can update or just search your database. You just need a machine that has a constant Internet connection.



Wireless connections


There are numerous options for the corporate user on the go to turn their PDA into a wireless communicator. Much depends on how and where you travel, and whether you want a unit with wireless options built-in or want to purchase an optional wireless network adapter for the PDA. See the table below for a summary.


Wireless connection options


Network Pocket PC Palm Blackberry
Wide-area Optional CDPD modems/service plans for some models from Omnisky and GoAmerica Built-in CDPD modem (Palm VII only), optional CDPD modems for various models Built-in support either Motient (850, 857) or Cingular (950, 957)
WiFi LAN PC Card models only No No
Cellular modem PC Card and Compact Flash models only Compact Flash models only No
IR point-to-point Built-in Built-in No


All of the Palm and Pocket PC units we cover include infrared capabilities. This can be useful if you meet up with someone else who has the same type of PDA and you want to transmit your contact information or copy one of your software applications to that person’s device. Some of the Ericsson cell phones also have the ability to send data over infrared links to Pocket PCs, eliminating the need to use a cable to connect the two devices (although some phones might require a special infrared adapter that fits in the same connector as the AC charger, which can be inconvenient). And if you need to move information to your laptop or have a printer with an infrared port, you can make use of these connections.


But infrared beams don’t travel beyond a few feet, and require a fairly precise alignment of the two devices to exchange data. Most PDA users want something that is more capable, and can be used when they are on the road.


The simplest situation is the Blackberry: all of the various models include a wireless modem that works in most metropolitan areas across the country as part of the package. Depending on the model chosen, the Blackberry operates on either the Motient (Ardis) or Cingular (BellSouth Wireless/Mobitex) network, and both networks offer seamless nationwide roaming coverage and some in-building coverage as well. In-building coverage will vary depending on where you are located and the construction materials used in the building. A handy reference from Aether Systems’ web site provides a way to enter your zip code and check coverage on both networks for both in-building, on the street, and mobile coverage:


The only Palm device that currently has a built-in wireless modem is the Palm VII series: it operates on the CDPD network, which also offers nationwide roaming but less capable in-building coverage. When you purchase either a Palm VII or a Blackberry, you sign up for one of the monthly service plans available that covers all of your data needs.



For example, Go.America offers two different service plan options for its Blackberries: an unlimited usage plan at $60 a month, and a lower-cost plan at $10 a month that includes the first 25 kilobytes of data transmitted. Once you send more data, you start paying extra by the byte. The wireless packages for the Palm VII also start at $10 a month for 50 kilobytes and there is another package at $25 a month and an unlimited plan for $45 a month. Other vendors offer different deals.



The Compaq iPaq Pocket PC PDA can also make use of wireless LAN PC Cards, provided you purchase the optional PC Card adapter that clicks on the back of the unit along with a wireless LAN PC Card, such as one from Lucent’s Orinoco. This can get expensive with all these options, but then you can roam around your building or home if you have one of the 802.11 access points to connect you to your corporate network.


Finally, there are a number of cellular modem optional accessories for both Palms and Pocket PCs that fit in their various expansion models and can connect to a variety of cellular phones. However, this particular route can easily be very costly, since most cellular networks charge by the minute and your minutes can add up quickly when you are online.



Using your PDA for corporate email


Each PDA has a variety of methods to send and receive emails. If you purchase a PDA with a wireless service plan, you obtain a special email address for the device. But you can also make use of additional software that can access your existing corporate email account.


The Blackberries come in two different configurations. The first, called Enterprise Edition, works with your existing Outlook/Exchange desktop email account. A special piece of software that resides either on your desktop or on your corporate Exchange server can redirect emails to your Blackberry that were originally addressed to your corporate account. The second configuration is called Internet Edition and doesn’t have this capability, but does have the ability through the use of Go.America’s Go.Web software to grab emails from any POP account.


Palms and PocketPCs with wireless modems can grab emails from existing POP accounts via Omnisky’s software. Palm platforms have the widest variety of email client programs, including ThinAirMail, AOL and email from portal vendors Yahoo, Excite, and Hotmail. The Palm VII comes with its own email software called iMessenger that doesn’t have as many features as some of the other products, and works with its special wireless account on


With any of these products, you can set up your email client on the PDA to leave copies of your messages on your email server, so you can download them to your desktop when you return from your travels.



Security concerns for PDAs


Having all this data on such a portable unit should be cause for some concern. There are a few things you can do to protect yourself. First, you should enable the password protection feature on the device: when you turn the unit back on, you need to enter a password to proceed to use it. While a bit more cumbersome, you have some minimal protection in case you lose the unit. The Blackberry has the best built-in security features of the three platforms. You can lock the unit from anyone else using it unless you enter a password, and it checks to make sure that enter a password of more than four characters and of sufficient complexity to make it harder for others to guess. It also only lets you enter a wrong password up to ten times.


The built-in Palm security options also allow you to hide specific contacts from view. You also need to specifically go to the Security application to turn off and lock the device from further use, which isn’t as capable as the Blackberry. But you can extend the Palm’s security features with add-on software utilities such as AutoLock, EasyLock, Locker, OneTouchPass and others available from the’s web site.


Second, you need to synchronize your contact and other information that you store in your PDA regularly with your desktop, so that you aren’t at risk if your unit goes on the blink or if you leave the device behind on some airplane. All of the products make synchronizing data very easy, and you should also take advantage of one of the web-based address book services for further backup of your contacts. An add-on to your Palm called BackupBuddy also extends protection further to all of your applications.


Finally, if you are concerned about the reports of catching email viruses on your Palm, Symantec makes a version of its popular Anti-Virus software for Palms that can help.



Storage and expansion modules available


There are a number of different kinds of expansion cards available for the various PDAs, with the notable exception of the Blackberries. And the market for these expansion cards is quickly evolving, as manufacturers incorporate new designs into their devices. Let’s look at the various types available and typical costs.


Why would you want to use any of these expansion products? Three reasons: memory, connectivity, and coolness. All of the various expansion cards offer some form of memory expansion to begin with, ranging from a few megabytes to several hundred. If you are looking for the maximum amount of memory, the PC Card and Compact Flash cards currently have the largest capacities, and IBM sells a gigabyte micro hard disk drive that fits into the Compact Flash form factor. Prices for these different memory options is somewhere around $1 per megabyte, although the IBM Microdrive is half of that. If you have to tote around your entire contact database, or the collected works of your corporate legal department, this extra room can come in handy.


The range of installed RAM with any PDA can be limiting, particularly as your needs and installed applications grow. And while a typical PDA application doesn’t take up much room, it doesn’t have much RAM to play with: Palms come with at most 8 MB of RAM, for example.


The various connectivity options literally cover the map. There are wireless and wired modems, Ethernet adapters, wireless LAN adapters, and Global Positioning System devices, complete cellular phones on a card, and more. These make your PDA more useful, particularly as you can connect it to your corporate network resources.


Finally, there are some pretty cool attachments that can make using your PDA fun, such as a miniature digital camera for your Visor and Palms.


The oldest expansion card family is the PC Card, which began its life as a means to standardize amongst the various notebook and laptop expansion modules and can be found on just about every portable computer these days. Despite their ubiquity, PC Cards consume a lot of power so aren’t as popular among PDAs, although the Compaq iPaq supports them. Given their popularity, there are a wide variety of converter adapters that allow other media to fit inside PC Card slots, including Compact Flash cards, SmartMedia cards, MemoryStick cards, and others.


Handspring created a new expansion series with its Visor Palm-compatibles, and now there are dozens of different Springboard modules, as they are called, available. Some of them come with their own battery power. The disadvantage is that only the Visors can make use of them.


Another popular expansion card is the Compact Flash adapter, which is about half the size of a PC Card module and available on a wide variety of PDAs, digital cameras, and portable MP3 players.


Finally, there are smallest cards called Secure Digital Memory Cards and MultiMedia Cards. They are both the same size, about that of a small postage stamp. The former are designed for creating secure digital copies of music and other copyrighted information. As devices continue to shrink in size, this form factor will probably become more popular.


Can all cards fit in all PDAs? No, not even close. Both the Compact Flash and PC Card format have different form factors, depending on the thickness of the card. This means that the thicker cards can’t fit into the thinner slots.


Expansion Options


Expansion Interface, URL Pocket PC Palm
Springboard No All Visor models
PC Card IPaq* No
CompactFlash Jornada, Casio E-125, iPaq*, Aero Some models
Memory Stick No Sony Clie

Secure Digital

Casio EM-500 Palm m500/505
SmartMedia No Some models

Note: None of these expansion modules are available for any Blackberry devices.

* Add-on expansion modules for iPaq require an additional “jacket” adapter.

Overview of wireless networking technologies


Keeping track of the various wireless networking standards is getting tougher, particularly as they continue to multiply. Here are the three latest versions and what is involved in each.


  802.11 Wireless LAN HomeRF Bluetooth


1-54 Mbps 1-10 Mbps 30-400 Kbps
Range 100-300 feet 150 feet 30 feet
Radio Technology Direct sequence and frequency hopping Frequency Hopping Frequency hopping
Typical vendors Cisco, Lucent, 3Com Apple, Intel, Motorola Ericsson, Nokia
Types of devices PC and notebook connections PC and notebook connections Cell phone and handheld connections
Web site for more information


The 802.11 wireless networks standards actually encompass two very different sets of products and standards: 802.11a and 802.11b. While the 802.11b series has received the most attention and is the first to reach product maturity, the 802.11a series isn’t far behind and should actually reach the market within the next year. The 802.11b products are also called WiFi, for wireless fidelity, or wireless Ethernet in various places. The design goal for these types of networks is to replace wired Ethernet cabling with radio waves, but still be able to deliver the traditional office and network applications, including web browsing, email, and document sharing.


HomeRF, for Home Radio Frequency, is another wireless standard. With products from Intel, Proxim, Compaq and others, it is geared towards lower-cost and shorter distances than the WiFi 802.11b product line, and thus more suitable for home uses. It also was designed from the start to support low-latency integrated voice/data applications, something that the 802.11 products are not designed for. It extends the European standard for wireless telephones called Digital Enhanced Cordless Telephony, which is used in wireless PBX equipment there.


The HomeRF standard is different from the HomePNA standard, or Home PhoneLine Network Architecture. PNA is strictly a wired connection, making use of two wires as would be found in almost every modern home. Ordinary twisted-pair Ethernet wiring uses four wires: PNA enables PCs to be connected over standard telephone lines, and more importantly, to share the phone line concurrently with regular voice calls. Another advantage of PNA over ordinary Ethernet is that no hub is required: it is a daisy-chain connection from one PC to another, similar to the original PhoneTalk wiring from Apple.



If you really need a keyboard


Even the most dedicated PDA user will find out that there are sometimes a real keyboard can come in handy. All of the Blackberry models come with miniature QWERTY-style typewriter keyboards: the 857 and 957 models have keyboards that are somewhat larger but still nowhere near the size of your average laptop. You wouldn’t want to write the great American novel, or even a short story, on a Blackberry. But for sending quick messages, these keyboards are adequate.


However, the Palm and several of the Pocket PC units are more expandable and can be connected to an optional keyboard if you need to compose lengthier documents. Perhaps the best is the Stowaway units that fold up into a package not much bigger than the PDA itself. When unfolded, these keyboards are surprisingly responsive and large enough even for the most ham-handed typist to deal with. Targus makes different models for various Visors, and Jornada and iPaq devices, and Palm sells its own version. (CDW sells these for about $100, see the table below.)


The separate models are necessary because the keyboards fit on the bottom of the units, in the place where the synchronization cable or cradle is usually connected. And this connector differs depending on the particular PDA you are using. This means that you need to disconnect one to do the other, but that is a small inconvenience given that you can type in lengthy documents: we have heard of people writing entire books on their PDAs with these keyboards!


Portable Keyboard chart


Product PDA Devices supported CDW Part Number
Palm Portable Keyboard Palm V series 209778
Palm Portable Keyboard Palm III, VII, m100 series 238134
Palm Portable Keyboard Palm m500 and m505 series 285734
Targus Stowaway Keyboard All Visor models 221204
Targus Stowaway Keyboard Jornada models 244552
Compaq Stowaway Keyboard IPaq models 277673




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