In the past 10 years, handheld computers have developed from overpriced, underpowered electronic oddities to become legitimate business tools. And thats not surprising—the history of computing has been marked by a trend toward increasingly convenient and widely distributed terminals.
In this installment of IT Agenda, eWeek Labs examines the state of enterprise handheld computing and discusses how IT managers can help their companies make the most of this resource by maintaining a flexible and secure mobile infrastructure.
With handheld computers, the border between corporate and consumer is especially blurred—eWeek Labs fields frequent queries from readers about whether and how they can use personal handheld devices to replace notebook systems while on the road.
Whether or not IT managers formally deploy handhelds for their workers, employees are using these devices to access and store sensitive enterprise data. As a result, IT managers must account for these devices in their infrastructure planning.
Like their larger desktop- and notebook-based cousins, the usefulness of handheld computers depends directly on the quality and timeliness of the data available to them.
Palm Inc. built its business around enabling individual users to take their contact, task and calendar data in hand, and the mobilization of e-mail and personal information manager data remains the central application for handheld computers.
Server-based synchronization with products such as Extended Systems Inc.s XtndConnect Server and Wireless Knowledge Inc.s Workstyle, however, provide corporate users with much wider and more productive access to their data.
Handheld device users who are away from their desktop sync cradles can use XtndConnect and Workstyle to access, for example, updated meeting information on Microsoft Corp.s Exchange or Lotus Notes groupware systems. Whats more, these products support a variety of mobile device platforms, including Palm OS, Windows CE and Symbian Ltd.s Symbian OS units.
Microsofts Mobile Information Server 2002 provides similar functionality but limits companies to Microsofts own Windows CE-based devices. We recommend that sites opt instead to keep their platform options open. (Microsoft has also recently announced that it will discontinue MIS as a stand-alone product and integrate it into Exchange.)
Mobile devices are more personal in nature than laptop or desktop computers, so user preference is an important consideration. More importantly, the relative immaturity of the handheld computer market ensures that new devices will constantly appear and others will lose the support of their makers. By maintaining a willingness to support a diverse group of devices, IT managers can keep users happy, insulate them from product extinction and remain ready to take advantage of new platforms.
Companies can extend the value of synchronization software investments by ensuring that workers will be able to view and edit documents available on the network. Windows CE-based devices ship with “pocket” versions of Microsoft Office applications such as Word and Excel.
While these applications enable users to access and edit Word and Excel files in their full-size formats, they tend to reduce documents, in terms of markup, to a lowest-common-denominator version of their original selves.
For Palm OS-based devices, weve had success with DataViz Inc.s Documents to Go and Cutting Edge Software Inc.s QuickOffice, which likewise permit viewing and alteration of office productivity documents. These applications, however, rely on desktop computers to first convert files to Palm-friendly formats.
Weve also been impressed with GoAmerica Communications Corp.s Mobile Office, which helps to bridge the document viewing gap by converting office documents into text form on Palm OS and other devices that cannot cope with them in their native form. (Mobile Office was recently named the winner in the Personal Productivity category of eWeeks 2nd annual eXcellence Awards program; see Special Report.)
These document viewing products, although useful, are decidedly inelegant. However, we expect that the next generation of ARM processor-driven Palm OS devices—as well as future Linux-based handheld units—will have the power to deal with these documents more directly. Look for these next year.
LAN, WAN, PAN
LAN, WAN, PAN
Perhaps the thorniest patch of any plan to provide handheld devices with mobile access to corporate resources exists in the wireless transport technologies themselves.
While WLAN (wireless LAN) products based on 802.11b come in a variety of CompactFlash and peripheral sled configurations for mobile devices, they tend to sap the power of these small devices. In return, WLAN options deliver high-speed data access but at levels that tend to be overkill for mobile devices.
In eWeek Labs tests of Xircom Inc.s WLAN module for Palm m500-series handhelds, for example, the Palm OS Web browser we were using did more to limit speed than did our wireless network connection.
Whats more, WLAN adapters are useless when out of range of an access point. For an on-the-road solution, companies face a murky mess of poky and incompatible wireless networks.
New 2.5G and future 3G networks offer the most promise for effective wireless data communications. Currently in deployment by U.S. carriers such as Voice-Stream Wireless Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc., GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) and 1xRTT (the first phase of the 3G Code Division Multiple Access technology) offer speeds similar to those across a 56K-bps modem and work with wireless handsets and PC Cards from vendors such as Sierra Wireless Inc.
As higher-speed handsets begin to proliferate in the market, PAN (personal area network) gear based on the Bluetooth standard will be a convenient means of linking handheld computers and wireless handsets to access the Internet.
Palm and Toshiba America Inc. have teamed up to produce a Bluetooth adapter housed in a tiny Secure Digital card, and a spate of peripheral sleds and expansion cards have become available as well. When paired with Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones, these products, along with devices with integrated Bluetooth, such as the Compaq Computer Corp. iPaq H3870, will help render the laptop-free road trip a considerably more palatable proposition.
For the time being, Research In Motion Ltd.s BlackBerry devices and Palms i705 perform acceptably for lightweight messaging, and Cellular Digital Packet Data networks offer always-on, albeit rather slow, connectivity.
Handhelds were initially intended for individual home and business users, so convenience has generally trumped security in device design, with security measures that seldom extend beyond short, easily entered (and optional) passwords and facilities for masking records as private.
However, the sorts of data that enterprise handheld computers can contain demand a higher level of security—particularly since these devices are substantially more vulnerable to loss or theft than larger and less mobile desktop and laptop machines.
IT managers can boost the security of handhelds under their care with software that allows for on-device data encryption and more rigorous password protection.
Asynchrony Software Inc.s PDA Defense Enterprise provides for 128-bit or 512-bit Blowfish data encryption on Palm OS-based devices, and IT managers can configure the software to wipe the contents of a device following a set number of incorrect password attempts. PDA Defense can also be set to disable the infrared and serial data transfer mechanisms of a Palm device. Asynchrony is also developing versions of its software for Pocket PC and RIM devices.
Trust Digital LLCs PDA Secure offers similar functionality, in versions for Palm OS and Pocket PC devices, and can work in tandem with the companys Policy Editor product, which manages password and encryption policies for a group of enterprise handhelds. With Policy Editor, IT managers can grant devices specific access rights and can disable units that have not checked in within a preset amount of time.
There are also a number of VPN (virtual private network) client options through which IT managers can arrange for users to connect securely to the corporate network. All Pocket PC 2002 devices now ship with a VPN client, which in eWeek Labs tests has enabled us to connect to our own VPN with no further configuration than is required on our desktop systems.
For Palm OS-based devices, Certicom Corp. markets a VPN client called MovianVPN, which enables those devices to connect to corporate networks in the same way. Certicom also offers a version of this product for Windows CE-based devices.
Technical Analyst Jason Brooks has been with the Labs since 1999. He has performed some of the most comprehensive tests published to date of Bluetooth products, including interference testing among Bluetooth and other wireless technologies. In addition to covering the wireless and mobile space, Brooks provides analysis of the desktop computing area, including Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems.
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