Did the BlackBerry kill the PDA?

3 May 2007

Push email and smart phones have sounded the death knell for the good old personal digital assistant (PDA). But are Irish businesses working any smarter?

When computer giant Dell decided it was going to kill off its long-standing Axim line of personal digital assistants (PDAs) many concluded that that was it for the good old PDA.

While promising ongoing support for Axim owners, writing in a Dell corporate blog, digital media manager Lionel Menchaca confirmed for anyone who cared: “Why did we make the decision? Because of a steadily declining market for pen-based PDAs and noted over the past several quarters by analyst firms like IDC and Gartner.”

The PDA was always a struggling member of the personal computer family, never quite made it to the mainstream and was always pitched as a niche business-critical device.

The onset of push email devices like Research in Motion’s (RIM) BlackBerry family and more recently devices powered by Microsoft’s Windows Mobile 5.0 are being credited with the device’s ultimate demise.

There are even rumours that Dell is planning to launch its own smart phone, code-named ‘the Fly’, which will run on the forthcoming Windows Mobile 6.0.

In reality the death throes of the PDA began five years ago when Nokia began shipping standard phones with software to enable owners of even their most basic phones to synchronise calendar and contacts information. The PDA lost its unique selling point and now every mobile phone has these abilities.

“Although our origins have been in PDAs,” says Jim O’Dea, director of operations for Palm in Europe, “the market for PDAs, like the Irish property market, has definitely softened and is in decline. Like property owners, we’re hoping for a soft landing.”

O’Dea has little cause to be concerned, however. More than 80pc of Palm devices now sold are actually smart phones and as a result of an alliance with Microsoft the company is planning to take on RIM in the market for push email, the killer app of the present decade.

Manufacturers like Palm are on the front line of a new battle starting to rage in the business smart phone market for push email devices.

RIM is the undisputed leader in the enterprise push email sector, with more than 5.5 million subscribers worldwide. Sales in 2006 were around the US$2bn mark. PDAs, by comparison, saw demand fall by 31pc last year, according to IDC.

However, there are over 140 million Microsoft Exchange email customers worldwide that are currently on a desktop platform and are ideally placed to migrate to mobile.

But another unforeseen threat to BlackBerry’s dominance is looming in the shape of Visto, which is sold in Ireland by Vodafone and Meteor. Visto is an open application, which means businesses can tailor it to their own needs and don’t need to buy specific handsets to run it on.

One user of Visto is facilities management company ISS, which has kitted out 130 Irish executives with Vodafone’s Visto-based Business Email product. “The nice thing about Visto is that unlike RIM or Microsoft’s Windows 5.0 it can work on all kinds of mobile phones such as Nokia or Sony-Ericsson,” says the company’s IT manager, Karl Ffrench.

“Many of our executives would already use data cards but when they’re getting from A to B it is essential they can receive documents on the move,” notes Ffrench. “The other good thing was that unlike BlackBerry where we’d have to buy hardware and licences, we just highlight the necessary person’s phone number on the Exchange server and their mobile phone becomes a fully-fledged PDA and push email device.”

Vodafone’s Darragh Fitzgerald Selby says that while Visto services grow in popularity, RIM’s BlackBerry can currently be considered mainstream in business while Microsoft’s push email service has achieved surprising demand.

“We launched Windows Mobile 5.0 last year and in the corporate market some 25pc of sales for mobile email devices were for Microsoft-supported devices,” Fitzgerald Selby adds.

“The attraction of Visto is that the email goes straight to a user’s normal handset and updates their calendars and contacts too, without need for a licence, for as little as €15 a month.

“Often when businesses ask to be kitted out with BlackBerry email they usually mean they just want push email. BlackBerry is to mobile email what Hoover is to the vacuum cleaner,” says Fitzgerald Selby.

Like Vodafone Ireland, arch rival O2 also sells PDA devices enabled on both the BlackBerry and Microsoft Windows Mobile 5.0 platform.

Billy D’Arcy, head of business and corporate sales at O2, believes that despite increasing assaults on RIM’s dominance, the BlackBerry has caught the imagination of business owners. “Originally it was only senior executives that would have been kitted with push email devices, but now we are seeing them being bought for whole teams. It’s not unusual to see companies in Ireland ordering several hundred at a time.”

D’Arcy doesn’t believe the PDA as we knew it is dead. “Our XDA family is a PDA first and mobile phone second. But lately it has become more than that. Our new XDA Orbit family is actually a GPS [global positioning system] device.

“I’m not surprised Dell killed off its PDA line and is looking at getting into smart phones. Smart phones can simply do more and I’ve seen prototypes of Nokia devices coming down the line with five-megapixel cameras, HDSDA [mobile broadband] and GPS on good-quality screens.”

The advent of push email and a variety of smart phones for business is viewed by Meteor national sales manager, Stuart Kelly, as putting the mobile operator on an equal footing to compete with Vodafone and O2 in the business market.

“Our offering is based on the Visto model and we are finding that there is demand amongst SMEs in particular for voice and data on one device. Our market base is primarily SME businesses as opposed to big enterprises.

“We are seeing a strong shift towards smart phones with push email. Business users are better educated – just go to any conference or business meeting and you’ll see people checking their email. It’s the way work has gone, people want to be able to do more in their working day,” says Kelly.

But the humble PDA on its own merit is not dead, says HP mobility development manager, Mark Gunn. HP entered the smart phone market three years ago and has three devices on the market running on Windows Mobile 5.0. However, the company still sells iPaq Pocket PCs.

“The standard PDA saw an onslaught prior to mobile email from the BlackBerry because of the synchronisation capabilities of Nokia phones six years ago. I used to use a Palm Pilot and stopped because I could store all my calendar and contacts info on my mobile phone.

“While the BlackBerry has definitely captured the market so far, mobile operators and businesses want to be more open to roll out mobile email without significant spending on hardware and middleware.

“Corporate organisations in particular are happy to maximise their existing investment in a Microsoft Exchange infrastructure. In the past only senior executives were kitted out with these devices, but in the years ahead they will be standard to most workers in most businesses, right down to the cafeteria staff.”

Asked why HP still makes and sells stand-alone PDAs, Gunn answers: “In the business world there are still cases where PDAs have a use such as in medical, retail and warehouse management. There are still specific situations that will require a standard PDA.”

In other words, the PDA isn’t dead, it has simply evolved.

Case study: Deals on wheels

A prime example of a business marrying the power of traditional PDAs with the latest in push email is Ballymount-based Relay Express Couriers.

The company has developed a system that enables its van and motorbike couriers to receive instructions on the move and automatically send customer signatures back to the server over a mobile network when a delivery has been made.

Customers of the company, who include prominent financial firms, can also log in over the internet and view on a map the location of a driver or biker carrying sensitive documents.

To carry all of this out the company has acquired 55 XDA 11is from O2, plus an additional 11 XDA Orbits on order.

The company’s managing director Andy O’Donovan says the system was inspired by the example of UK courier firm Addison Lee he witnessed on a fact-finding trip two years ago.

“We were blown away by their use of a software system called ROCS that sent information to a driver’s PDA over a mobile network. Instead of a mess of paper documents and radio traffic the entire process was streamlined.

“We decided to buy the system ourselves and worked to roll it out on O2’s network. We feel that the system has revolutionised the way we operate and has speeded up everything by 50pc. Now all our competitors are looking at emulating what we do,” comments O’Donovan.

He explains that once a delivery has been booked by the company’s call centre, the information and documentation is automatically sent to a driver’s handheld. “If he’s available he just accepts the job or rejects it if he’s not available.

“Back at base, 40-inch plasma screens track where the driver is using satellite navigation and tracking on the mobile device. Security-conscious customers can view the same information by logging into a specific web location.

“There are a lot of financial sector customers who appreciate the benefit of PDAs and the signature system for sensitive documents,” explains O’Donovan.

By John Kennedy

Pictured – Andy O’Donovan, managing director, Relay Express Couriers