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Wearables Business

Palm reader; there is a PDA in your future – personal digital assistant

Palm reader; there is a PDA in your future – personal digital assistant – Brief Article

Eric Peterson

Over the past few years, the PDA — personal digital assistant has evolved from a gadget reserved for only the techiest of techies to an all-in-one device that everyone from secretaries to scientists has grown to love. Whether it’s Palm Pilots or iPaq Pocket PCs, these gadgets have replaced everything from personal organizers to travel guides in the hands of their users. The owners of PDAs invariably love them. Those who don’t own one usually see them as frivolous gizmos with less flexibility and utility than the old-fashioned pen-and-paper products that they often replace.

However, it’s probably time for a closer look. “It’s really happened over the past year’ says Mark Peesel, vice president of Englewood, Colo.-based Summit Communication Design, Inc. (www.summitdesign.net). “Handhelds have gone from a fad to a usable business tool.”

Summit develops PDA software for a variety of clients, from municipal agencies to retail stores, but Peesel sees the organizations that do a lot of double entry as those who can reap the most benefits from using handhelds.

With the prices of PDAs dropping every day, PDA-free businesses should at least consider what handheld technology could bring to their organization. In the promotional industry, there is a good deal of paper — order forms, invoices, and the like. A sales rep almost always is going to start with good old-fashioned writing, but that writing is almost always going to be reentered into a software package of some kind, and PDAs represent a way to cut the double-entry fat from any organization. Every industry has success stories in implementing PDA processes, from Famous Footwear cutting down on errors by 75 percent to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution improving its door-to-door subscription sales.

“From the enterprise level, it makes sense now for businesses to start integrating handhelds into their networks,” Peesel explains. It’s as simple as outfitting employees with low-end PDAs and putting together the digital equivalent of the paper forms that normally require double entry, he adds. (The latter is a relatively simple task for a programmer with basic PDA know-how.)

Once the hardware and software are in place, the paper-free process usually goes something like this: sales reps use their PDAs to input the necessary data (volumes, sizes, colors, etc.) for an order, then either e-mail the information to the home office or synchronize the PDA with the network in person.

Often — especially in larger organizations — double entry represents a significant amount of labor, easily the equivalent of a part-time employee every week. Implementing a PDA-based process not only eliminates the administrative burden, but it also makes better use of the technology already on hand. In other words, if you’re going to invest in information technology, why not go all the way? Why stop at the desktop when you can also go digital in the field and smooth out the rough edges (i.e. piles of handwritten orders and illegible faxes)?

One mitigating factor might be the dollars involved. While the price of PDAs is on a fairly steep downward arc, they’re not free. A Palm m105 can run as little as $150, with a myriad of built-in software (games to e-mail to memo pads) and a four-tone black and gray display. From there, you can pay more for such options as wireless add-ons and color displays. It also needs to integrate with a company’s existing IT system, replacing which is usually not an option for a small business. Each PDA has a different set of compatibility requirements, so this is a critical piece of research for those implementing such a setup. Check Yahoo!’s PDA shopping area for a comprehensive and comparative look at the specifications of every imaginable brand.

Some of the newest mobile phones essentially incorporate the functionality into their design, an alluring option for serious gadget fiends. Many wireless manufacturers also offer add-ons that integrate a PDA with a wireless phone, such as Ericsson’s Mobile Companions — which are compatible with any Ericsson GSM phone. However, snazzy cell phones aren’t nearly as cheap as a low-end PDA: $150 doesn’t even scratch the surface if you’re looking for wireless functionality, as $500 is the norm. But mobility has its perks: with such a wireless device, says Summit’s Peesel, a user can manage an e-commerce operation without being handcuffed to the desktop.

Old habits die hard. In the business world, paper is one of the oldest addictions in the book, a dependency that will never be totally broken. Regardless, paper can represent waste. It’s high time to take a look at some of our age-old business processes with a critical eye.

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Erie Peterson is a contributing editor to Wearables Business who writes frequently in these pages on a variety of industry subjects. He handles the E-Merging E-Commerce column monthly.

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