Should Your Business Swap Handhelds For Laptops?

Anybody who thinks laptop computers are small, light devices has never run between airline terminals with one hanging from their shoulder. By the end of that jaunt, a supposedly diminutive laptop feels like a load of bricks.

Some traveling professionals are switching to a lighter, cheaper alternative — handheld computers, sometimes known as personal digital assistants (PDAs).

Laptops weigh at least several pounds and typically cost $1,500, while handheld devices weigh several ounces and cost between $200 and $500. While handhelds aren’t nearly as powerful as laptops, they still may offer a better choice for some small businesses.

“My handheld acts like a miniature computer and the comfort level is much better than with a laptop,” said Robert LoCascio, the frequent-traveling CEO of LivePerson, an 85-employee New York firm specializing in software for customer support.

Before you replace any laptop with a PDA, however, you should consider several factors.

Think About Applications
Besides cost and convenience, the most important factor when thinking about junking a laptop is to make sure the applications you need are available for your handheld.

“You can’t do everything on a PDA that you can do on a laptop,” said Isaac Ro, a handheld analyst for the research company Aberdeen Group. “When it comes to replacing laptops with PDAs, we’re seeing these types of deployments only for very specific applications.”

One handheld-friendly application is customer relationship management (CRM) data used by sales personnel, Ro said. Many vendors of CRM software have made their products available for handhelds, he noted.

“CRM on a handheld gives the salesperson the ability to interact with data in the field,” Ro said. “This has a tangible impact on the ability to close orders.”

John Pacewicz, an independent sales representative specializing in commercial furniture, agreed.

“It’s much more convenient since I don’t have to carry around a laptop and boot it up whenever I need some information,” he said. “On my PDA, I keep my full customer list, price lists and requests and placements of samples.”

CRM data can be delivered in real-time via a wireless network or transferred to the handheld during the normal data synchronization process. That’s how Pacewicz said he gets his sales-related data to his Palm handheld.

E-mail is another key application that may be easier and cheaper on PDAs, Ro said. That is, PDAs may be better if you don’t need to send, receive and open large e-mail attachments.

While handhelds based on the Palm OS and Microsoft’s competing Pocket PC platform lionize the handheld market, Research In Motion’s BlackBerry handhelds are very popular for e-mail. These devices automatically deliver e-mail to handhelds using built-in wireless technology.

“People who do number crunching or presentations will stick with their laptops,” said Kurt Kleinschmidt, a senior network analyst for Del Monte Foods, which is located in Pittsburgh. “But some, like upper management people and sales personnel, can get e-mail on devices like BlackBerries. They’re cheaper and easier to use than laptops.”

Kleinschmidt estimated that, of about 100 laptops he would ordinarily expect to buy in the next couple of years, handhelds that automatically receive e-mail eventually would replace five or ten. “And that will only increase over time, without question,” he said.

A final application in which handhelds are ripe to replace laptops is for field service engineers, Ro said.

“People in the field need access to product information, engineering schematics and so on,” he said. “Those are good applications for a handheld.”

What It Will Cost?
If you only need to track your contacts, appointments and tasks, you can buy a suitable handheld for about $100. However, to replace your laptop, you’ll need a more expensive handheld with more built-in capabilities, such as more built-in RAM, than a low-end model. Plus, you’ll need to add accessories that overcome some of the shortcomings of handhelds.

One such shortcoming is that entering lots of information is clumsy. That’s why foldable keyboards are among the most popular add-on accessories for PDAs. Folded up, they are about the size of the handheld but they unfold into a laptop-sized keyboard. Prices vary, but foldable keyboards typically cost about $100.

If you need to carry large amounts of data, you’ll have to increase your handheld’s storage capacity. Even well endowed handhelds typically come standard with only 64MB of RAM, much of which is needed to run the handheld’s basic operations.

Additional storage for handhelds comes in several forms. For relatively small amounts of storage — say up to 512KB — you can buy a small card that fits in the built-in expansion slot that is part of most mid- and higher-level handhelds. The most common types of expansion slots are CompactFlash, Secure Digital and PC Card. Depending on the capacity of the add-on card, expect to pay between $75 and $300.

Those requiring serious amounts of storage will need an add-on like a Hitachi Microdrive, which is a tiny hard drive that fits into an expansion slot. Expect to spend at least $235 for a 1GB drive — larger capacities also are available.

If you need to communicate, you can buy a modem that fits into an expansion slot for roughly $100. In addition, wireless local area network (WLAN) cards are becoming increasingly useful for PDAs. These enable you to connect your handheld to a wireless network in your office, at home or via the increasing number of so-called wireless “hotspots” in public places. Expect to spend about $150 for this add-on.

Say you spent $300 for your handheld, which will buy you a middle-level device. If you add a keyboard, a Microdrive, a standard modem and a WLAN card, you’ll end up paying close to $900. That’s still less than a laptop costs, but not by much.

“In the end,” LoCascio said, “my iPAQ (handheld) might save a couple hundred dollars (compared to a laptop). But the handheld is so much more convenient.”

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