Like many business executives, Gary Singh is eager to embrace personal digital assistants (PDAs) and gain the benefits of mobile computing. Unlike most of his peers, however, he also sees an entrepreneurial opportunity, and he is trying to leverage more than a decade of PDA experience to do it right. Singh is the San Jose-based director of wireless technical marketing for Symbol Technologies Inc., a company that has been participating in the PDA revolution from its early industrial roots in the late '80s on factory and warehouse floors. Symbol made its reputation selling proprietary systems that employ industrial-strength PDAs to solve specific production/warehousing problems. Singh wants to extend Symbol's success and sides with those experts who see an increasing number of enterprise management applications for PDA technology. But, he warns, "the true enterprise potential of PDAs will be realized only if that mobile technology enters corporations as boldly led IT initiatives and not by uncoordinated proliferation through business back doors." This year Symbol is beginning to leverage its production floor/warehousing experience to devise similar solutions for the business office. By moving into this new market, Symbol's goal is to bring the same systematic, engineered approach to office implementations of PDAs. Singh notes that office implementations have potential unlike Symbol's traditional production/warehousing applications. "In addition to process efficiencies, office implementations can be strategic in terms of business competitiveness." He says sales-force and service automation should be among the prime, initial targets for IT departments. Dan Glessner is another executive who is enthusiastic about PDAs, both from personal and professional standpoints. As director of enterprise marketing for Palm Inc., the PDA maker with more than 70% of the market, he shares Singh's convictions -- and concerns -- about the technology. Both executives worry that corporate IT departments are missing the true business significance of devices such as the Palm Pilot, Handspring's Visor, Compaq Computer Corp.'s iPaq, and Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Jornada. Glessner believes many organizations risk replaying the same mistakes that troubled corporate acceptance of PCs 20 years ago. "Many management information systems (MIS) departments of that era, conditioned by the dominance of mainframes and minicomputers, misunderstood the word 'personal' in personal computers. They tended to see PCs as being toys for hobbyists and gadget lovers and without real enterprise value," he says. Another factor was the implicit threat to MIS control posed by this invader. Also, many were concerned about the impact of PCs on enterprise data integrity, adds Glessner. "Today, 20 years later, those worries and concerns are being replayed. Just substitute the letters PDA for PC." While PDAs in their earliest iterations may have been useful to business executives only as personal-information-management (PIM) tools, that limitation is no longer true. Today companies including IBM Corp., Oracle Corp., PeopleSoft Inc., Siebel Systems Inc., SAP AG, and Extended Systems are working with PDA makers to evolve a new computing standard for enterprises of all sizes. Like PCs, PDAs have evolved beyond being stand-alone solutions with limited functionality. Are IT departments ready for the PDA? Consumers certainly are. "Global sales by all manufacturers totaled 5.1 million units in 1999," says Cleveland-based Mark Margevicius, senior research analyst for Gartner Inc. "In 2000 sales more than doubled to 10.9 million, with 13.5 million units anticipated to be sold in 2001." In June at the TECHX show in New York, Palm's CEO Carl Yankowski claimed that more than 15 million of its units alone are in the hands of users. (He no doubt took delight in delivering the keynote address at a show once known as PC Expo.) Some early corporate IT adopters have already incorporated the necessary changes in the corporate technology platform, says Glessner. As an example, he cites how Volvo Cars of North America LLC uses Palm devices to facilitate the inspection of vehicles as they arrive at its four U.S. ports of entry. Previously, inspectors recorded data on clipboards to monitor 40 different quality indicators. The forms were hand-separated and given to a vendor for database entry. By the time the manual steps were completed, a three-week delay often was the result. To add to the challenge, inspection forms were updated frequently to meet current inspection criteria. "The whole paper-based system was very difficult to deal with," says Art Rybin of Volvo's Port Operations group. To improve the process, Volvo turned to Lake Forest, Calif.-based SingleTap Inc., an applications developer and solutions provider for mobile computing. Today, inspectors record information on Palm V handhelds using pick lists and check boxes. Every evening, Palm's HotSync technology is used to transfer data to a central location where it is consolidated and analyzed. Now inspection results are immediately available. Not only has the Palm OS-based solution completely eliminated manual data entry, overnight mailings, and the need to update and print new forms, it also has reduced data turnaround from as much as three weeks to one day. Now, if any inspector notices an anomaly, Volvo resolves it weeks earlier, with significant savings of time, data quality, and money, says Glessner. Volvo now uses more than 100 Palm V handhelds at its four North American ports. Michelin North America Inc. also solved a customer data collection problem by substituting PDAs for paper-based methods. The data the company collects from its commercial transportation customers is used across the enterprise, from product development to sales and marketing. Before the adoption of PDAs, inspection data such as mileage, make, model, wheel/tire position, and tire wear was laboriously captured using separate paper forms for each truck. All of the forms were mailed to Michelin's corporate office and the data was manually entered into a database for analysis and reports. Those manual methods resulted in a disconnect between field data collection and our data consolidation, analysis, and reporting tools, says John Warren, business process development manager. "We knew we were losing critical business data." In addition, the manual process was time intensive. Today, the tire performance analysis is done by 350 Michelin sales reps armed with Palm OS-based IBM WorkPads. Working with solution provider Norstan Inc., Minneapolis, Michelin implemented a tire-specific program called Tire Trax. The application uses specialized on-screen menus, including graphic displays of 18-wheeler trucks and wheels to automate data collection and record keeping. The PDA-based process improves data availability and eliminates hours of tedious paperwork. Handheld technology also can enhance product features. For example, by the end of the year Whirlpool Corp., Benton Harbor, Mich., expects to offer products for commercial laundries that can interact with Palm handhelds to make it easier for owners and operators to manage the machines. The Advantech System lets owners or route operators collect data and upgrade machine software for commercial laundry equipment by simply pointing a Palm-powered handheld computer at the machine. The data exchange is via the infrared port on the handheld unit. Palm counts those implementations as evidence of a dramatic shift that's occurring in the PDA market-the strategic business acceptance of handhelds. To encourage it, the company is pursuing an enterprise marketing initiative. Glessner describes it as an educational effort to reveal how the technology can help improve productivity and data quality as well as shorten time to decision making. "Already 80% of our units are synchronized at work and about 40% of our units are paid for by corporations directly." What Glessner is waiting for is "the defining moment when corporate IT departments recognize PDAs as a corporate asset and put asset tags on them just as they do for PCs. Then they would be thinking about centralized backups, server-based synchronization, and supporting them from a central help-desk perspective. The enterprise is a big piece of Palm and we see it as a huge growth opportunity." Will PDAs replace laptops? Glessner says "not completely, but we do see companies limiting the number of laptops that they purchase in favor of handhelds." His evidence: "Customers tell us that laptops are the most expensive tool ever created for mobile professionals to access e-mail, especially if that is the laptop's only purpose." But he still defends the need for multiple types of devices. "The important driver is the specific needs of the application." Glessner says the central issue is not laptop replacement, but rather the wider, more efficient access to the expensive investment that an IT infrastructure represents. "Companies have invested enormous amounts in IT infrastructure, and typically the benefits from that investment end at the tethered desktop or at the very best are extended only by the portability of an expensive laptop. More and more companies are beginning to [see] handhelds as being attractive from ROI and TCO [total cost of ownership] viewpoints."