3Com's Abrams Reads Palm's Future

One of the most credible alternative operating systems to emerge on the client side in recent years is the software currently being used to power the increasingly ubiquitous Palm handheld devices from 3Com. As president of 3Com's Palm Computing division, in Santa Clara, Calif., Robin Abrams is chartered to expand that franchise by partnering with system vendors to deliver a broad range of devices that will compete with devices powered by derivatives of Windows. In an interview with InfoWorld Executive News Editor Michael Vizard, Abrams talks about the role these devices will play in the enterprise.

One of the most credible alternative operating systems to emerge on the client side in recent years is the software currently being used to power the increasingly ubiquitous Palm handheld devices from 3Com. As president of 3Com's Palm Computing division, in Santa Clara, Calif., Robin Abrams is chartered to expand that franchise by partnering with system vendors to deliver a broad range of devices that will compete with devices powered by derivatives of Windows. In an interview with InfoWorld Executive News Editor Michael Vizard, Abrams talks about the role these devices will play in the enterprise. What makes Palm devices a credible platform for the enterprise? We have been at this for two and a half years, and our strategy from the very beginning was to start out targeting the mobile professional and then move to the enterprise. In some ways, you could say that handheld devices have been coming in the back door of the enterprise. In fact, we're nearly up to 4 million units shipped. But we also knew that at some point in time they could walk in the front door. To encourage that, we did two things. We went out and struck relationships with the enterprise software providers, such as SAP, Oracle, and Remedy, and it should be noted that the lion's share of corporate data resides in those non-Microsoft databases. The second thing we're doing is extending the platform. I think we now have eight licensees; four or five of them are shipping product. Does that mean there are going to be clones? Absolutely. Does that mean that we're going to improve the OS so that it supports multiple form factors? Absolutely. How is this process being managed? We made a decision to become very aggressive about licensing. We knew that we had to separate our engineering organisation into a group of high-performing OS engineers and hardware systems engineers, and we've done that. Now we are on a well-defined release schedule for the OS and a separate but equal release schedule for the Palm-branded devices. You will see, for example, releases about every six months coming out from an OS standpoint. Some of those are, quite candidly, releases that the Palm-branded device just won't take advantage of. But some of the high-performance enterprise licensees will absolutely take advantage of it. Does that mean that there will be an equivalent of a Palm notebook? I don't know how large they're going to get. Innovation is going to come from licensees. One of the issues that IT people face in the context of these devices is the management of data. How will the move to handhelds be any different than the chaos caused by the original PC revolution? It really is a bit different this time. 3Com has a Customer Advisory Council made up of 40 CIOs from around the world. By the time people first had PCs and laptops, it was too late to deal with this. At the end of the day, when you look at what a CIO has to provide an organisation, this is absolutely important. But people are moving away from a control-freak mentality to one that gets them in front to deliver more usefulness right where a worker needs it. Are you working with network management vendors on this? We work with Tivoli and Network Associates. We share technology with them and help them to build their business propositions. These companies and other organisations all see themselves playing a role in what I would call middleware that helps an enterprise drive handheld and in some cases wireless devices. The other things that we're doing are evolving our server sync, our hot-sync capabilities, which will become increasingly robust at the server level to support enterprise customers. In what ways? Enterprise users want to be at a phone halfway across the country to be able to replicate. So we should not be desktop-dependent. The other thing that we do is we make investments in companies to bring that kind of enterprise capability to the market. How will security concerns be addressed? People lose these things all the time, and it seems that it will be a big burden on the IT department to figure out a way to keep track of the device as well as all the data contained within that device. First of all, in the existing devices there's a level of password and security that a user can employ. Some of us are diligent about password and password protecting, and some are not. In terms of the Palm 7 and Palm.net, anything that is credit card related supports SSL [Secure Sockets Layer] from a security standpoint. But with enterprise organisations, we will work together on this as we experiment with even higher levels of security. Price lists, for example, have incredibly confidential information. The interesting challenge for us as a vendor is, how do you take those kinds of security implementations and pull them down to our form factor and still have plenty of room to manoeuvre while having no adverse impact on battery life? Will we see people kicking off electronic transactions from these types of devices? I think that it's incredibly useful for someone who's always on the go. Heck, we got calls last week where people want it to become a higher transaction system than it probably is. I know there'll be people who will experiment with it. Do you think IT people really understand the implications these types of devices are going to have on their data centre infrastructures? Enterprises, particularly consumer enterprises in general, have not begun to estimate what that does in terms of changing their business dynamics, their transactions, and what the consumer ultimately does or doesn't expect in terms of service delivery in that environment. Are there any deals in the works related to transactions? [After the Palm 7 and the Palm.net were announced], I did get a number of phone calls from large enterprise customers that wanted to know how they could go about buying a device to give away to their high-end customers. They want to extend their service offering right to the customer. Last week 3Com signed a Java alliance with Sun. How does Java fit in? It expands our Palm OS platform and gives us access to Java 2. The second big thing it does is gives us access to 1.7 million developers on top of the 19,000 we have today. Java has been notorious for not being able to get down to this form factor. I think you're going to see that change over time. How do phones and handhelds come together? We've already delivered a two-piece solution. And we also have relationships with Alcatel and Qualcomm. We also have two separate relationships with Motorola, and there are other folks talking to us about adopting the Palm OS. What's interesting is that consumer behaviour in the U.S. is different than it is in Europe. So I do see a convergence in terms of the Palm factor and the phone factor in Europe and probably Japan. But it's not going to happen here for a while. I used to be down on the idea of wearable computers, but in the past six months we've watched in Europe where the usage of lapel mikes and cell phones is growing. In countries like France, Germany, and the U.K., they've just gone through the roof. It's unbelievable. So what keeps you up at night? Managing the growth. We hire about 30 employees a month. Keeping everybody aligned in terms of the company's objectives, keeping them productive, and dealing with the growth is just incredible.

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