Networking in the Palm of Your Hand

As PDAs move beyond the personal space and into the enterprise, you need to get a firm grip on the options available for your users.

August 5, 2002

7 Min Read
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Palm has been a player in the mobile enterprise market for some time, and Palm's developer network has grown to include heavyweights such as Computer Associates, IBM, Oracle, PeopleSoft, SAP and Sun Microsystems. This no doubt contributes to Palm's continued lead in enterprise market share, with 60 percent of companies standardizing on Palm as their mobile device platform, according to an April survey by IDC. With more than 13,000 commercial applications for the Palm OS, virtually any solution required can be obtained. Still, the Palm OS is starting to show its age. The slow Motorola DragonBall processors used by Palm have been pushed as far as possible, and Pocket PC now includes more integrated applications than are in the Palm OS 4. Market share for Palm has decreased, and unless we see major changes to the Palm platform it will continue to do so.

Palm released a new Palm OS in June that is seen as a major advancement to the platform. Noted features include more horsepower for Palm devices, with support for faster ARM processors, currently used by Pocket PC devices. Despite the change in processing architecture, programs that strictly adhere to proper coding for Palm OS 4 should run on Palm OS 5 using a built-in emulator. Performance for emulated programs should be equal to or exceed that of Palm OS 4.

Palm has addressed the increasing demand for data security by providing native support for 128-bit encryption using RSA's RC4 as well as 128-bit SSL encryption for data communication. Palm will also allow for access restrictions, including passwords, biometric verification and smartcards. Native support for 802.11b has been added to the existing wireless support. Multimedia enhancements include increasing the screen resolution to 320 by 320 and adding 16-bit audio.

Linux-based devices are harder to evaluate than devices based on Palm or Microsoft. Sharp dominates, with its Zaurus SL-5000, though there are other players in the Linux PDA market. Primarily, Linux devices use ARM processors, but there are exceptions, such as Empower Technologies' PowerPlay V. Many of the Linux devices lack maturity, a major problem for enterprise customers. but Linux's wealth of applications is appealing to enterprises, the questions linger: Which applications will successfully port to a PDA architecture? How many back-end applications--such as device management and PIM (personal information management) synchronization--will Linux PDAs support? Finally, the multiple distributions of Linux with different features make comparisons more difficult. Until proven enterprise application support exists for Linux PDAs, they will remain a poor choice for the corporate environment.

As important as OS features is data synchronization. Both Microsoft ActiveSync and Palm HotSync programs can use serial, USB, Ethernet, 802.11b and other media to synchronize data. However, the similarities between the two end there. ActiveSync automatically detects a connection between the host PC and the PDA, and synchronizes data automatically. If the connection is established and a user changes information in Outlook, the PDA will receive the updated data automatically. ActiveSync synchronizes data only from the PIM portion of the PDA (Outlook, My Documents and so on). This means that data can be lost despite having been synchronized.Unlike ActiveSync, HotSync synchronizes all data (including installed applications) on the PDA. But synchronization does not occur automatically; it happens only when the HotSync program is run by executing the program on the PDA or by pressing the HotSync button on the cradle.

In the enterprise market, synchronizing data between one host computer and one PDA is becoming passé in favor of centralized synchronization and management. Several companies offer management servers that let IT departments centrally distribute applications to PDAs at one time. PIM sync servers are also available and let IT departments distribute information from a database or groupware system directly to a fleet of PDAs (see review, "Enable Your Mobile Apps").

As if the variety of OSs weren't confusing enough, a host of expansion options is available. The most popular standards are MMCs (multimedia cards), SD (secure digital) cards and Compact Flash cards. MMCs are nonvolatile (data is not lost when power is cut) cards used to store data. Capacity ranges from 16 MB to 64 MB, and transfer rates go up to 2.5 MBps.

The successor to MMCs, SD cards, has capacity from 16 MB to 512 MB and a transfer rate of up to 10 MBps. SD also supports content encryption to ensure copy protection and can be used for I/O expansion, as demonstrated by the Palm/ Toshiba SD Bluetooth card. With prices of SD and MMC similar, the SD cards are a better investment.

Compact Flash cards have a capacity ranging from 16 MB to 1 GB and a transfer rate up to 3.5 MBps. They are also used for I/O expansion, as with Symbol's Spectrum24. Compact Flash has the most versatility for I/O applications and offers more storage, so if you are concerned with expansion, go with Compact Flash.Networking Options

Once you have chosen a PDA platform, how do you connect it to the network? Among the options are infrared, Ethernet, 802.11b, Bluetooth, wireless WANs and modems. These are all supported by Palm and Pocket PC. Many Linux devices have support for some or all of these networking standards.

Which networking solution is right for your enterprise? That depends on your requirements. Ethernet has great speed but leaves users tethered to cables. Infrared operates at relatively slow speed and requires line of sight, but it allows for more mobility. 802.11b and Bluetooth allow for mobility but are vulnerable to RF interference (a big issue for manufacturing environments). Wireless WAN access may not be available in all areas, can be expensive and is slow.

For the security conscious, VPNs can be implemented for use with PDAs. In addition to Microsoft's integrated VPN client, third-party solutions, such as Certicom's movianVPN, are available for Pocket PC and Palm. From a performance standpoint, Pocket PC 2002 tends to have better network I/O performance than Palm. This may be because the Palm OS was not designed with high-speed networking performance in mind. Performance may increase with Palm OS 5, though there are now no clear performance tests for Palm OS 5 or the various Linux OSs.

What The Future HoldsMobile computing will grow beyond PDAs in the next few years. Intel's X-Scale architecture promises to increase the speed of mobile devices. Already we are seeing PDAs and other devices like cellular phones converge into all-in-one mobile devices (see buyer's guide, "It's a PDA! It's a Phone! It's a Data-Enable Cell Phone"). Microsoft's tablet PC may offer even more versatility for mobile devices as it blurs the line between PDAs and laptops. Only time will tell how much the role of mobile devices in the enterprise will increase.

Sean Ginevan is a research associate with the Center for Emerging Network Technologies at Syracuse University. He has conducted research in convergent multimedia and electronic books, and has spoken at Dickinson College and the National Archives College Park on oral history and the Web. Send your comments on this article to him at [email protected].

Selecting a mobile enterprise platform is a difficult process. The two main camps -- Palm and Microsoft -- have strengths and weaknesses and differing philosophies in regards to enterprise applications. Palm relies on its wealth of third-party developer support, while Microsoft uses its own products to fill customer needs. Following are questions to ask when selecting a mobile-device platform:

1. What is my company's back-end infrastructure?

2. How does this platform integrate with the existing infrastructure?3. How will mobile devices access the network?

4. Is the infrastructure available to make this method of access work?

5. What changes (if any) will need to be made to accommodate mobile devices?

6. What software exists for the mobile platform? Will the software meet your organization's needs?

7. If I use multiple platforms (for instance, Palm and Pocket PC), what interoperability issues will I encounter? Will Palm and Pocket PC devices be able to communicate in the new system without major difficulties?8. How will mobile devices be managed? Will users be responsible for management or will a centralized management system be put in place?

Source: Gartner Research, March 2002

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