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Last tech hurdles cleared to linking distant workers

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At the rim of your intranet -- on trade show floors, in cars and outside clients' offices -- a quiet revolution is taking place.

Palm Organizers, those snazzy, fit-in-a-coat-pocket organizers from 3Com Corp. that salespeople have been snapping up for the past two years, are being connected to corporate intranets.

Prudential Real Estate Affiliates, Irvine, Calif., a subsidiary of Prudential Insurance Co. of America that handles commercial real estate and corporate relocation, is on top of this trend. Prudential is starting to outfit 1,400 of its employees nationwide with wireless intranet connections through 3Com's new Palm VII, said Jeff Travelstead, the company's senior VP-operations and systems.

"It's a whole new level" of service, he said, "extending the reach of the Web right from the intranet to the customer."

Salespeople can search from their cars for homes for business clients, discussing the merits of new listings face-to-face and closing deals faster.

"The intent is they're with the customer," Mr. Travelstead said. "Everything they do is remote. The easier we can make access to information for them, without the need to open a notebook, the easier it is to do their jobs."

Palm VII, with its wireless Internet connection, was made available nationally last month, though Mr. Travelstead earlier got about 50 Palm VIIs through a beta test of the system in suburban New York.

Palm VII solves a problem managers have wrestled with for years, said Matthew Nordan, a computing analyst with Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass.-based market research company. "You don't buy a cell phone from one person and service from someone else," Mr. Nordan said, but palmtop vendors in the past required customers do just that."

Information on hand

One of the believers in handheld automation is Bill Northington, director of U.S. commercial information technology for Hoechst Marion Roussel, a Kansas City, Mo.-based pharmaceutical distributor.

Mr. Northington has been changing equipment every two years since 1989, trying to automate the work of his sales force, which calls on doctors at their offices. He's now switching his 2,500 reps to Sharp's Mobilon palmtops, which run the Windows CE operating system from Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft Corp., and, like other palmtops, weigh about 1 pound.

The server and backup for the Hoechst Marion network is a ThinkPad, located at the reps' home offices. Each night the Mobilons are placed in cradles linked to ThinkPads, which update files by modem and charge the batteries. The ThinkPads, produced by IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y., keep copies of everything.

Thanks to the palmtops, each of Mr. Northington's reps can make an additional sales call each day, which generates $25-$50 per sale, he estimated.

Mr. Northington's computer department hasn't grown in three years, but the sales staff has doubled. The department has eight people on its help desk, about one-third the number competitors require, he said. The number of administrative assistants and mail room staffers hasn't gone up, either.

"The main thing is the information is readily available; it's accurate and timely," Mr. Northington said. "We feel we're ahead of most of our competitors. A lot of those reps don't have the richness of information of our reps. We've actually had companies want to buy our systems."

If all this works so well, why aren't more companies doing it? Because such systems are hard to develop, they're expensive to deploy and they need constant updating, said Forrester's Mr. Nordan.

It can take four or five vendor relationships to develop a single corporate application, he said. There are also many compromises, especially if you want wireless data. Modems in the Palm VII work at 9,600 bits per second. "To surf a corporate intranet at 9,600 bps is painful," Mr. Nordan said. Average modems run at 56,000 bps.

Microsoft deserves some blame, he said: "It's clear that in the Palm form factor, Windows doesn't work."

Windows CE devices such as the Mobilon look like tiny laptops with keyboards that are difficult for touch typing. Corporate computing executives are reluctant to deploy non-Microsoft solutions.

Mr. Nordan said Microsoft is planning a radical redesign of its Windows CE interface under the code name Rapier. Still, "You have to wonder what Windows is if you take away the `start' button and `X window,' " the tiny box to close a window.

All this makes 3Com's Palm the de facto standard handheld platform. Mr. Nordan said it outsells all Windows CE devices combined by 2-1.

Handspring, Palo Alto, Calif., founded by Palm inventor Jeff Hawkins, this fall also will launch an organizer compatible with the Palm, at less than $100, Mr. Nordan predicted.

Connecting to your intranet

The real action, however, lies in giving devices like the Palm wireless connections to corporate intranets. Prudential is getting them and Hoechst wants them. To that end, 3Com's Palm VII is just one part of a larger trend.

On June 15, for instance, Microsoft launched MSN Mobile using the Nextel wireless network -- in which Microsoft has invested $600 million -- to deliver data to telephones and pagers, as well as palmtops.

Separately, Microsoft acquired OmniBrowse, which makes software that customizes Internet content for viewing on the Palm and other handheld devices.

Also in June, Motorola, Schaumburg, Ill., and Sun Microsystems, Palo Alto, signed an agreement that will let cellular phone companies deliver wireless Internet Protocol networks, combining Motorola's wireless hardware with Sun's software.

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