PCDs to Become Force in '98

After several years of warming up in the wings, personal communications devices, or PCDs, finally look like they're ready to take the stage as a headline act.

Several events helped pave the way for the eventful coming year: the release of the second edition of Microsoft Corp.’s Windows CE operating system; the increasing ease with which these devices synchronize with users’ desktop systems; IBM signing an agreement with U.S. Robotics to sell the popular PalmPilot under an IBM brand; and new features to jazz things up.

The devices hold great budgetary appeal for information systems departments. Compared with outfitting a mobile workforce with new laptops, the machines require a much smaller capital investment and significantly lower support costs — up to 75 percent savings over laptops, according to some estimates. “It’s the convergence of price and functionality,” says Rob Enderle, an analyst at Giga Information Group in Norwell, Massachusetts. “They’re becoming much more of a requirement and less of a toy.”

But new devices cause new headaches. “The biggest question I hear from end users is how to support all these different kinds of devices,” says Ken Dulaney, an analyst at GartnerGroup Inc. in San Jose, California.

In 1997, Microsoft unveiled the 2.0 edition of its Windows CE operating system and pumped up its visibility with a television advertising campaign.

Analysts say Windows CE 2.0 will make 1998 a big year for mobile devices. Gerry Purdy, president of Mobile Insights Inc., a consultancy in Mountain View, California, says, “The combination of Windows CE 2.0, new color displays and faster processors will make this whole area very exciting in 1998.”

If you didn’t see someone pull out a PalmPilot during a meeting in 1997, you will in 1998. IBM will sell the device under its own brand as the WorkPad.

Dulaney says PalmPilot has been a hit because it fills a different function. “Windows CE is really an operating system meant for a notebook,” he says. “The Pilot is the different paradigm that people want for that kind of device.”

Look for PalmPilot to have a color screen, more software applications and wireless capabilities (including paging) in 1998.

Plenty of new PCDs will appear on store shelves in early 1998. Microsoft’s Griffin pocket PC, Texas Instruments, Inc.’s Avigo and new machines from Sharp Electronics Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. will all help boost the market. A newcomer is the US$500 GeoFox from GeoFox, Inc. in Austin, Texas, that runs on Psion PLC’s mobile operating system.

(Stewart Deck is an @Computerworld senior writer. His Internet address is stewart_deck@cw.com.)

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