Upgrading to a PDA

March 1, 2001
George Hradecky

George Hradecky is a former editor in chief of Pharmaceutical Representative magazine.

Pharmaceutical Representative

Your paper planner is full to bursting. Maybe it's time to simplify your life with a personal digital assistant.

An inevitable fact of life over the past 10 years has been that technology finds a way to make many of our daily tasks simpler. The Internet has made library research almost obsolete, electronic toll collectors have made searching for spare change a thing of the past, and now personal digital assistants, like Pocket PCs and Palm Pilots, have made bulky organizers seem almost archaic. Letting go of comfortable, familiar ways can be a difficult thing to do, and the decision to switch to a PDA may not be an easy one. But, given a PDA's tremendous potential to simplify the life of a busy pharmaceutical sales rep, switching over should be a no-brainer.

"I definitely think someone should have one, whether you are literate in computers or not," said John Schwarz, an oncology sales specialist with Mountain View, CA-based Alza Corp. "Just because you're not good at it doesn't mean it's not going to be valuable to you; it's something you need to learn, just like you need to learn to use a computer, because it makes your life easier, just like you need to learn to drive a car because it makes your life easier. These are things worth learning."

The perceived reasons not to get a PDA extend beyond a simple fear of new technology. Schwarz, who has been through three different PDAs in the last four years, often hears people say that because a PDA is so small, it has the potential to get lost, an argument he dismisses outright. "Well, it's the size of my wallet, so that's no excuse," he responds.

In the event that a PDA is lost, replacing the information is remarkably simple. Unlike a standard planner, information entered into a PDA is backed up daily on a home or office computer. With a touch of a button, this information can be instantly inputted into a replacement organizer.

Ease of replacement isn't the only reason for pharmaceutical reps to switch to a personal digital assistant. "Having something that is going to keep you on track to make your appointments is key," said Beau Chatham, a productivity consultant with Eagle International, Rochester, NY. "I can pull up a list of telephone numbers for key customers and I have quick access to not only just my key customers, but all the rest of the names that are inherent in that office - the receptionist, the nurse, the office manager and all that data."

The speed with which users can access the information they input is also a critical difference between standard planners and PDAs. "I always challenge those who don't believe me," said Schwarz. "OK, you have a big old Dayrunner or Franklin Planner. Can you find how many times you went to the VA hospital in your territory? You can't do it. I can do it in five seconds - do a search for 'VA hospital' on my Palm Pilot and it comes up right away. It's incredibly fast to look up information. And what good is information if you can't access it?"

Even with all the great reasons to switch, there is one thing a standard planner can still do better than a PDA: "Note-taking," said Chatham. "A person who is brand new to this, they're going to want accuracy and they are going to want speed, and there's still no replacement for the pen and the pencil."

To solve this problem, Chatham recommends purchasing a three-ring binder with a slot for a PDA adjacent to a notebook, so notes can be quickly jotted and entered into the PDA later. "When it come to my ideas and my notes, when I need to quickly jot down telephone numbers, ideas or what somebody's telling me, I need speed and accuracy," he said.

Which PDA to choose?

Though the decision to switch to a personal digital assistant might be an easy one, choosing between the different models and operating systems can be a bit more complex.

Currently, there are two primary operating systems available in the United States – the Pocket PC operating system and the Palm OS. According to Stephen G. Bush, editor and founder of Brighthand.com, an online magazine dedicated to PDAs, the Palm OS holds roughly 80% of the market, with the Pocket PC making up the other 20%. This alone might be reason to choose a Palm-based PDA, due to the fact that there are so many additional applications being developed for the Palm OS.

Though Pocket PC PDAs and PDAs running the Palm OS may look similar, the differences in price, performance and features are actually quite distinct. "[Palm devices] run very fast, the devices are small, and they're very simple to use," said Busch. "But their strength may be their weakness in that now, as they want to move to more and more functionality, the question is whether they can still keep it simple with that operating system. On the other hand, Microsoft has Pocket PC OS. They want to have as much functionality in their device as possible, so they have very fast processors and they have a lot of memory - a Palm device might have up to eight megabytes of RAM, and [Pocket PCs] have 32 megabytes - but again, their strength might be their weakness in that by having all these wonderful, highly functional devices with incredible color screens, they use more battery power. And they also can be not as simple to use and bulkier."

Major differences can also be seen in the pricing of devices using the different operating systems. According to Bush, while a basic Palm OS device can be purchased for $149, an entry-level Pocket PC can run upwards of $400.

According to Bush, both operating systems may be different, but eventually both manufacturers hope to achieve the same middle ground. "Both want to get to the point where they have a small, lightweight, highly functional color device that can interact with a telephone or have wireless communications features in it, and has a long battery life, but they're coming at it from different angles."

Chatham advises that, if a rep wants to use his or her PDA for general organization, the Pocket PC is not as useful. "If you're looking for additional applications, then yeah, that's probably the way you want to go. But if you're looking at it in terms of a pure productivity tool, Palm continues to have about 75% of the market, because they kept it simple and they made it a productivity tool."

Important features

There are certain things to consider before running to a store and buying a PDA. "Battery power is one thing," said Bush. "Get the battery power that fulfills your needs. Think of the time between charges for you. If you're an office worker and you are going to go to your office every single day and pop it into a charger like you do your cellphone, it's not the same consideration as if you're a salesperson on the road for a long weekend and you don't want to run out of battery power."

Memory is also important to consider before purchasing a PDA. The entry-level Palm-based models come standard with two megabytes of memory, while the upper-level models have eight. Two megabytes of memory may be fine for contacts, a calendar and expenses, but if someone is thinking about growing into his or her device, two megabytes simply won't cut it. "If an average person wants to buy one, buy an eight megabyte one definitely," said Schwarz. "If a person is insistent on not spending too much money, they can get the two-megabyte, but if they get to like it they're going to have to upgrade. Otherwise they are going to get into a dead-end where they can't add any applications onto it. I'm in that situation, frankly. I bought two megabytes and I really wish I had bought eight."

Job requirements also play a part in deciding one's memory requirements. "[If] I'm a rep out in the field and I'm just getting started, maybe a low-end model with not as much memory is required," said Chatham. "But if I'm a senior rep and I'm going to put all my contacts in there, that might be substantially more than the rep that is fresh out of college and might have 100 people they interact with."

Some PDAs, like those manufactured by Handspring and Sony, have slots for expandable memory, so if a rep does grow into the device, he or she can purchase more memory without having to buy an entirely new PDA.

Distracting features

If a rep is looking for a personal digital assistant to make his or her life easier, some of the features touted by PDA manufacturers are not even worth considering. "Some of them have recording capabilities, where it works as a little digital recorder. I don't really use it." said Bush. "Handwriting recognition. I don't really see that that's that valuable right now."

Said Chatham: "Strictly speaking as a productivity consultant, all the rest of the things - having the ability to show pictures on there – yeah, that's great. Will it allow me to get more done in a day? Probably not."

Also, some add-ons may not be worth the expense, according to Schwarz. "There's some of the expensive modules like with the Handspring. Those are nice, but do you really think you are going to need to take photographs or anything like that? Probably not. I would recommend making sure that [a PDA] is robust enough to handle your daily activities and has enough memory for the future, and not worry about anything else."

In all, a personal digital assistant may be just the ticket for a pharmaceutical sales representative looking to get organized in the digital age. Concluded Schwarz: "The people who may not want to get one are people who don't know how to do it or are challenged by it, but I suggest that you challenge yourself to learn it, because it's going to pay dividends." PR

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