Six cool gadgets IT should give to users

Fun for employees, more productivity for the enterprise

One person's glitzy gadget is another person's productivity enhancer. For instance, some might think Mike Chaput's tablet PC is just another expensive electronic toy. But Chaput will tell you it has made him a more efficient and productive worker.

Devices such as Chaput's combine the standard laptop form factor with the Windows Tablet PC variant. These devices typically have a swiveling screen so that users can either use them like a standard laptop or swivel the screen so they can write longhand on-screen as they would with a paper tablet. Handwritten notes can then be translated into digital format. These devices are expensive, but Chaput said his is well worth it.

Endsight CEO Mike Chaput ditched his legal pads for a tablet PC.

Endsight CEO Mike Chaput ditched his legal pads for a tablet PC. "I attend six to eight meetings a week with customers and staff," said Chaput, who is CEO of Endsight, a provider of outsourced network management. "The tablet lets me organize and file all my [written] notes digitally and recall them with ease, especially compared to flipping around on legal pads. I've completely removed legal pads and other written documentation from my life."

Better still, because the tablet PC converts handwritten notes to digital format, Chaput said he can upload his meeting notes directly to his company's customer relationship management software.

The sheer flood of new devices these days makes it difficult for busy IT managers to examine them all, let alone contemplate their usefulness to their organization. But a wise IT manager will take a bit of time to do just that. After all, BlackBerries -- and Palm handhelds before them -- once were derided as exotic and unnecessary, but they proved to be far more useful than just toys for geeks.

Besides tablet PCs, here are five more types of gadgets and services that could benefit the enterprise and delight end users. They aren't for all users; you'll want to pick and choose who would benefit the most. But they all serve as a win-win for both users and their enterprises, which will reap the reward of higher productivity.

Wi-Fi smart phone

Smart phones were once used primarily by higher-level executives and the most hard-core of road warriors. But prices are coming down, meaning that they are becoming appropriate for ever-more employees. Despite the rapid growth of smart phones, however, you have to look hard -- at least for now -- to find one with Wi-Fi. For many users, though, it will be worth the search.

That's because these devices not only perform the usual smart phone duties of providing cellular voice service and data access and managing contacts and appointments, but they also increase the flexibility and potential applications for mobile users. In particular, cellular data plans are expensive and coverage isn't always available. Wi-Fi-enabled smart phones allow users to log on inexpensively if they happen to be at, say, a free wireless hot spot or at a customer site with an accessible wireless network. Similarly, Wi-Fi-enabled smart phones also open the way to occasional use of voice-over-IP, which doesn't eat away cellular minutes.

One of the sweetest dual-mode devices we've seen is Cingular's 8525 smart phone. Another intriguing option is the Nokia E70.

Technology is emerging to enable phones to automatically transition between Wi-Fi and cellular networks. In fact, T-Mobile is testing such a system in the U.S. But even without that technology, your employees will like dual-mode phones because they won't have to go out of their way to find a place where they can connect. And that, of course, will give them more time to do what they're paid to do.

Cell phone GPS

Many traveling employees get GPS systems when they rent cars, but not all companies will reimburse employees for that expense. Even in organizations that do pay for GPS in rental cars, how do employees find their way when they must walk from one meeting to another in a new city or when a cab driver gets lost? And what if employees use their own cars for work and don't want to spend $1,000 or more for a GPS system?

You could buy GPS systems for some employees, but they are expensive -- typically $500 or more. In most cases, a better solution comes from cellular operators that offer GPS-based navigation services that work with some of the phones they offer. For example, Verizon offers its VZ Navigator service that provides turn-by-turn instructions. It works with a handful of popular phones including the most recent version of the popular Motorola RAZR. Sprint and Cingular have similar services.

The only downsides are that these services use airtime minutes when doing chores like fetching new maps, and they only work in areas in which the carriers have coverage. But the national carriers cover most of the U.S., so most people will be covered most of the time. And these services are inexpensive. For instance, Sprint's Nextel's TeleNav service, which works on certain BlackBerry devices as well as a handful of other phones, starts at about $10 a month, with a variety of options available. Prices are about the same for Verizon's service.

Your employees will like built-in GPS because they don't have to manage cell phones and GPS devices separately. And they won't miss important meetings because they're lost. Organizations will like it because, when employees miss fewer appointments, they are more productive.

3G phones and 3G PC Cards

After years of vapor, 3G cellular access started being available in 2005 and was deployed nationwide in 2006. At $60 a month, it's pricey and, with typical speeds below 1 Mbit/sec, it's slower than Wi-Fi hot spot access. It's also a bit balky -- like cellular voice service, it's not always available everywhere you go, or when you're indoors.

However, wireless broadband has one huge advantage over Wi-Fi hot spots: It's widely available in all large cities, most medium-sized cities and even some smaller ones. And you log on the same way no matter where you are while the plethora of hot spot vendors requires learning multiple log-on procedures.

In the U.S., Sprint and Verizon Wireless EV-DO 3G service with typical speeds of between 500 Kbit/sec and 1 Mbit/sec. The fourth U.S. cellular operator, T-Mobile USA, has yet to offer 3G service but said it will start later this year with full expansion in 2008.

You can use 3G service with certain phones or use an extra-cost PC card that plugs into your laptop. Or, you can use your 3G phone as a modem. In any case, all three major U.S. cellular operators charge about $60 a month for unmetered service.

For employees who are mobile frequently and who must stay in close contact not only with e-mail but with enterprise applications, 3G may be well worth the expense.

Alternative input devices

Usability trade-offs are inevitable as devices shrink, and one of the biggest shortcomings of small mobile devices is input. Most small devices such as smart phones have QWERTY keyboards for thumb-typing, which is fine for entering small bits of information. But it can be maddening if you must type more than a few sentences.

Enter alternative input devices. The best-known of these are foldable keyboards for use with smart phones, PDAs and other mobile devices. Typically, they fold down to the size of the devices themselves and, expanded, are roughly the size of a keyboard on a small or medium-size laptop.

Perhaps the best known line of foldable keyboards are the Stowaway keyboards from Mobility Electronics. One of the newest and most intriguing of that company's offerings is the Stowaway Ultra-Slim Bluetooth Keyboard. As the name implies, this connects to your PDA or smart phone using Bluetooth wireless technology.

An intriguingly geeky alternative is the I-Tech Virtual Laser Keyboard, in which a small device connects either by cable or Bluetooth to your mobile device. It then projects an image of a keyboard onto a flat surface and you type on that image. It supports a wide range of mobile devices on virtually all widely used platforms, including BlackBerry, Palm, Symbian and Windows Mobile.

There are drawbacks to these types of keyboards. For instance, you must be sitting at a flat surface, although the Stowaway includes a so-called lap-lock for using the keyboard on your lap. And they are pricey -- the Bluetooth-enabled version of the Stowaway is about $150 and the Virtual Laser Keyboard is about $180.

But they can provide a big payback for use by mobile users who only do light editing of documents and check e-mail periodically. Why buy an expensive laptop for such users when a smart phone and foldable keyboard will make them feel like they're on the cutting edge and keep them sufficiently connected without spending a lot of money?

Home security appliance

While the other items in this list are for mobile users, this gadget is for the ever-increasing hordes of home workers. While telecommuting has some compelling advantages for both workers and their companies, one big potential problem is that, if somebody breaks into an employee's home network, they also can break into the work network.

That problem becomes a nightmare in companies where many employees work at home part of the time. That's because it's impossible for IT departments to make sure every home network is adequately protected. All-in-one security appliances aimed at consumers, such as D-Link's SecureSpot, solve that problem.

These appliances connect easily to a home network and provide strong firewall protection as well as protection against threats such as viruses, spam and spyware, not to mention parental controls over Internet content. Not only is all that protection all in one place, but the system automatically updates itself with the latest protection so IT managers don't have to depend on users to install -- and update -- separate software for each type of threat. And the price isn't high -- D-Link's appliance, for example, costs about $100 plus a yearly subscription of $80.

These appliances not only make the user's personal information safe, but they protect corporate networks. That surely is a win-win.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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