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Welcome to déjà vu, year 2000. Those nasty battles that erupted in the mid-1980s after the introduction of the IBM Personal Computer are going to be repeated next year. Only this time, the user device in question is the personal digital assistant, and its target is your enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. Millions of 3Com Corp.'s PalmPilots and other personal digital assistants (PDAs) are out there, and millions more will be sold this year. They are theoretically capable of exchanging data with your ERP system, thanks to the nifty wireless Internet connections offered by the new Palm VII, and others of its ilk.
The early PDA adopters of the past few years will be joined by your salespeople, factory floor managers, warehouse supervisors, and other mobile professionals in arguing that a PalmPilot is an inexpensive way to boost their productivity and improve customer service. Wireless connections offer the ability to work from anywhere; you can do deals even when in the bathroom!
A more detailed analysis of IT managers' and organizations' views about PDAs shows the same gnashing of teeth and complaining that I heard 15 years ago, when a team of Datamation writers and editors did a special report on linking micros to mainframes. (For an update on the current state of PDA corporate affairs, see the April 1999 Datamation story, "The invasion of the handhelds.") Note that roughly 16% of PalmPilot users expect to gain access to corporate applications data next year, up from zero this year, according to Forrester Research Inc., of Cambridge, Mass. And that demand for access will only continue to grow.
Don't bother trying to put your finger in the dike you've erected to keep out PDAs. Instead, focus on how to make this happen. Fighting PDA access to ERP servers ultimately will be a career-shortening move.
Some useful advice
Enough people have been thinking about this and writing code that some useful advice can be offered. Note that I didn't say relevant experience. You won't find a whole lot of people with experience doing an in-production, bi-directional PDA to ERP link.
And that's the real goal. Downloading sales data, recent transactions, or other ERP information into a PDA is a small first step. Real productivity and customer service gains come from a bi-directional link, where the PDA can be used to enter sales orders or shipment inquiries into the ERP servers and then get a promised shipment date in return.
The current generation PDAs may seem pathetically underpowered as a client for ERP systems ("You want to download what into 800 kilobytes?"), but by the end of 1999 you won't be able to use that argument to keep those handheld devices from becoming part of your job description. I'm told that J.D. Edwards & Co., Oracle Corp., and SAP AG this fall will unveil versions of their ERP suites that can accommodate PDAs; note that the newest PalmPilot can contain 4 megabytes of memory.