Handheld computers—also known as personal digital assistants (PDAs)—are small, portable devices that offer users many of the same features and capabilities as desktop computers at a fraction of the size. Although the terms "handheld computer" and "PDA" are often used interchangeably, handhelds tend to be larger and feature miniature keyboards, while PDAs tend to be smaller and rely on a touch screen and stylus for data entry.

Since their introduction in the late 1990s, hand-held computers have become standard equipment for many professionals, providing them with tiny, versatile electronic alternatives to paper day planners. "Once the domain of early adopting gadget lovers, handhelds now organize and update millions of mobile business professionals," reports Mike Brown at HandheldComputerDepot.com. Users have found PDAs to be particularly helpful tools for organizing and maintaining personal data, such as address books, appointment calendars, project lists, and expense reports. Later incarnations of the technology have also offered users mobile access to electronic mail, news, and entertainment through connectivity to the Internet.

When shopping for a handheld computer, experts recommend that users start by identifying their needs. They should consider, for example, whether they require only personal information management (PIM) functions, or whether they also wish to take notes during meetings, download e-mail and other information from the Internet, and connect with other users through a company computer network. Considering such needs, as well as the available budget, will help users decide among the basic options in handheld computers, including size, display, memory, operating system, and power source.

The size of handheld computers ranges from credit card to small notebook computer, and the available features and power generally increase with greater size. The most popular size for the devices is palm size-which falls somewhere between a calculator and a paperback book. Most handheld computers utilize a liquid crystal display (LCD), which acts as both an input and an output device. Only the larger PDAs feature keyboards, and most others require users to enter information on a touch screen, either by tapping letters with a stylus or by writing letters on the screen, which the device interprets using handwriting-recognition software. In the future, many handheld units are expected to incorporate voice-recognition technology.

Many handheld computers are designed to work closely with a desktop computer or network. In order to maintain up-to-date information in both places, a process known as synchronizing data must occur—users must perform frequent uploads and downloads between their PDA and desktop systems. This process can take place through cables, wireless connections, or over telephone lines via modem. Rather than down-loading from PCs, however, some of the more sophisticated handheld devices allow users to connect directly to the Internet for downloading e-mail, Web magazines and news services, and audio programs.

In an article for Computerworld, Matt Hamblen and Sharon Gaudin warned that many corporate information technology (IT) managers were unprepared to deal with the proliferation of handheld computers among employees. They found that some companies ignored the devices, while others simply banned them from connecting to corporate networks. Instead, Hamblen and Gaudin recommended that IT managers embrace the new technology, helping employees choose products and find ways to use them to increase productivity. They argued that businesses should take an active role in deciding which handheld platforms and software applications their networks will support. They cautioned that businesses should also be aware of the security threats posed by handheld devices and take steps to protect the corporate network by establishing software synchronization standards.

Experts predict that the next evolution in hand-held computers will be the "smartphone," which combines the most popular functions of PDAs (storing addresses and phone numbers, taking down notes or messages, and browsing the Internet remotely) with wireless phone service. Some analysts believe that the market for straightforward PDAs has become saturated. They claim that future growth will come in the form of phone units, because users will no longer be willing to carry both a PDA and a cellular phone.

SEE ALSO: Computer Security ; Knowledge Management ; Knowledge Workers ; Technology Management ; Technology Transfer ; Telecommunications ; Time-Based Competition ; Virtual Organizations

Laurie Collier Hillstrom


Brown, Mike. "Handheld Buying Guide." HandheldComputerDepot.com. Available from < http://www.handheldcomputerdepot.com/buyingguide.html >.

Freundenrich, Craig C. "How PDAs Work." HowStuffWorks.com. Available from < http://computer/howstuffworks.com/pda.htm >.

Hamblen, Matt, and Sharon Gaudin. "IT Risks Chaos in Handheld Boom: Wireless Trend, Lack of Policies Feed Concern." Computerworld, 8 February 1999.

"PDA, RIP: The Next Big Thing that Wasn't—Or Was It?" Economist, 16 October 2003.

"The World at Your Fingertips: Handhelds that Deliver On Phone Calls, E-Mail, and Just Plain Fun." Business Week, 6 September 2004.

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