In Search of a (Handheld) Killer App

In the last issue I wrote about the notebook–which has just over 2% share of annual PC sales in India.

If there’s one product that’s even worse off, it’s the palmtop, or handheld computer.

Global leader Palm is invisible (though now they’re hoping to change that). You’ll find a few WinCE or PocketPC handhelds such as the iPaq, but they are very peripheral to the plans of vendors like HP India.

The reasons are similar to the notebook’s problems. Cost: some handhelds are more expensive than desktop PCs. (They do pack a lot, though: color, digital cameras, MP3..). Effort: Vendors have done very little so far in India. Many models aren’t even available in India, so travelers pick them up abroad. No business apps: So enterprises have little reason to issue palmtops to employees. Poor connectivity in India: Email and messaging and related business apps are a major driver for handheld sales in recent years in the West, especially with wireless networks.

In the US, over three-fourths of palmtops are consumer sales: the rest goes to business. Now, unlike the digital diary that is mostly used standalone, the handheld computer today is a connected tool, an extension of your PC. A consumer, or professional, who’s just spent Rs 30,000 on a desktop… is he going to spend 20,000 on a palmtop? The more advanced folks who would be really aware of palmtop benefits may be even worse off: they’ve probably already spent a lakh on a notebook!

That would mostly leave the palmtop for the business user in India. And that user needs a good business reason, a killer app if you will, to spend the money. You’d think an organizer and to-do list were good enough, but there are really too few business execs using the computer for organizing their lives.

The killer apps are there, if you look for them. I do much of my writing on my palmtop (with a folding full-size keyboard). It’s light, holds a charge five times longer than my notebook does, and beams the text to my notebook. I’m using email on the go, dialing up through infra-red and my mobile phone. With more connectivity, and business dependence on email, mail is a killer app. 

CIOs and managers need to look at the handheld seriously for business apps, especially for those on the field. With typical Indian innovation, some are using the mobile phone for information, with SMSs generating input for a CRM or ERP system.

But with the increasing amount of information field agents need to capture and access, the killer app is right there–in your enterprise.

Prasanto K Roy

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