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In the early days of personal computing, software and devices turned up first in the business or office environment and then, as prices fell, they migrated into the home. But in recent years the model has flipped – at least to some degree.

So for example, 802.11 Wi-Fi wireless networking devices, PDAs (personal digital assistants) and even smartphones showed up first in the hands of consumers and then gradually found their way into companies – often without the knowledge or permission of corporate IT departments.

One consequence of this is that most PDAs – even HP’s popular range of Windows-powered iPaqs – were not designed with the needs and requirements of companies in mind.

As a consequence, most PDAs and smartphone/communicators lack the sturdiness, reliability and manageability features required by corporate buyers, particularly for their increasingly mobile workforces.

IDC predicts the number of mobile workers will “increase from more than 650m worldwide in 2004, to more than 850m in 2009, representing more than one-quarter of the global workforce”.

However, that change brings a challenge for the IT industry.

What mobile workers need are rugged handhelds combining the speed and functions of PDAs with the ability to withstand the rough handling of working on the road.

That is the market niche that US-based Symbol Technologies is attempting to address with its range of EDAs or Enterprise Digital Assistants.

I have been testing the first of these, the MC50 – a pocket-sized wireless handheld with a small qwerty keyboard built into a sleek durable black case.

The MC50 was clearly designed from the outset to deliver enterprise-class functionality and connectivity while requiring little or no special training. Like other Wi-Fi enabled PDAs, it can be used as VoWiFi (Voice over Wi-Fi) mobile phone and email device and has a full compliment of PDA functions including calendar, scheduling, calculator and contact book options.

But Symbol has recognised that many business travellers and so-called “grey collar workers” need much more than a consumer-grade PDA with rubber bumpers.

So the MC50, which costs from $925, can also comes with a built-in scanner, signature capture, camera and other options designed to provide users with reliable, safe and secure access to CRM (customer relationship management), sales force automation and other enterprise applications.

Equally importantly from a corporate perspective, Symbol’s enterprise mobility services software enables the devices to be managed centrally. Overall the MC50, which has been adopted by companies such as Tesco in the UK, is a no-nonsense workhorse that is ready for business.

I found the MC50 easy to set up and use, and comfortable thanks to an elasticated hand strap and the mini keyboard that make one-handed operation, or use with the built-in stylus and touch sensitive colour screen, straightforward.

Building on the success of the MC50, Symbol introduced the MC70 a fortnight ago in New York. The MC70 adds a number of features including expanded Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, and an extra degree of protection that Symbol claims means the device can survive a four-foot fall on to concrete.

However the most important added feature is the inclusion of a quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE radio enabling voice and data communications from almost anywhere.

The MC70 measures 6in by 3in by 1.5in deep (15.3cm by 7.6cm by 3.7cm) and weighs 11.2oz (314g) or 12oz (336g) depending whether it is configured with cellular access.

But such features do not come cheap. The Symbol MC70 EDA has a list price of between $2,195 and $2,845, depending on configuration.

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