THE vision was compelling: Send a fax from the beach. Collect electronic mail at the airport. Gather data on the run.
So, who is buying the gadgets that will do all this? It is not the hard-charging executive, as most people assumed. The big beneficiaries are blue-collar workers.
Trucking firms, utilities, and delivery services are equipping their mobile employees with new hand-held computers - personal digital assistants (PDAs). Should this technology take off in the marketplace, as many analysts believe, it will be a computer revolution from the bottom up.
``Our systems are built around the blue-collar worker,'' says Tom Miller, vice president of mobile systems at Norand Corporation in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. ``That could be a truck driver. It could be someone picking up linens. It could be pest control.''
After posting several years of steady growth, Norand saw its sales jump 37 percent last year.
``It's a device that's used within a corporation that automates a task,'' says Jeff Tingley, marketing director of Fujitsu Personal Systems Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif. ``It's not an individual buy.''
By selling to corporations, which put the devices in the hands of factory workers and delivery people, Fujitsu can integrate its machines seamlessly with corporate computing systems and communications networks. Most consumers do not have the technical expertise to do this.
Fujitsu says its PDA revenue tripled and unit sales quadrupled last year. By contrast, PDA companies that have targeted the broad consumer market and the white-collar executive have struggled.
PDAs don't please everyone
The American Telephone & Telegraph Corporation (AT&T) has discontinued its EO 440 Personal Communicator because of disappointing sales. Compaq is delaying introduction of its hand-held computer, while it reevaluates the market. Sales of Apple Computer's Newtons and Tandy's Zoomers, after an initial burst, have plummeted. ``It's too much of a pain to use,'' complains one executive, who gave up on his Newton after six months.
One market research firm - Link Resources Corporation in New York - has nearly cut in half its estimate of PDA unit sales for this year. ``Business and commercial applications seem to be further ahead than are consumer applications,'' says Martin Fleming, vice president of Business Research Group, a market research firm in Newton, Mass.
Eventually, these analysts say, PDA companies will find the right combination of features to attract white-collar workers - and even the public. Several computer concerns, including International Business Machines, Toshiba, Motorola, and AT&T (again), are expected to come out with a new generation of communications-savvy PDAs in coming months. For now, however, the profit lies in blue-collar applications. For example:
* Truckers for Guaranteed Overnight Delivery Inc. are being trained to use a Fujitsu hand-held computer - the PoqetPad Plus. The devices provide a computer pen for users to fill out electronic forms, which they can then send back to the office. Handwriting is kept to a minimum. The truckers fill in most entries on the form by picking choices from a menu.
* Norand, which has been selling hand-held data collection devices since 1968, is expanding its horizons from automating delivery routes to helping any company with workers on the move. Clients range from Chrysler to Xerox.
* Even Apple, here in Cupertino, Calif., has begun to move toward these corporate niches, also known as vertical markets. ``We are putting increased emphasis on vertical markets based on the early interest that we saw,'' says Rebecca Patton, manager of worldwide business marketing for the Newton. The computermaker has been working with Monsanto, for example, and is about to launch a Newton system to help farmers keep track of everything from their calendars to their pesticide use.
Apple executives ``are starting to figure out they have to go for verticals,'' says Kimball Brown, vice president of mobile computing at Dataquest Inc., an industry research firm, in San Jose, Calif. ``And they're scared.'' Either they move into corporate markets, or they pull the plug because of the cash drain, he adds.
Largely unfinished puzzle
Many critics have focused on Newton's faulty handwriting recognition. But a much bigger problem is that Newton is only one piece of a largely unfinished puzzle. Wireless communications is in its infancy. Not only is it too early to tell which of the many competing systems will win out, but it's far too complicated and costly for the average consumer to hook up to any one of them.
``In some ways, [Newton] is slightly ahead of its time,'' says Susan Schuman, manager of Newton product planning and strategy. But Apple remains committed to the product. ``We are playing in two markets.... And we are trying to straddle both. We believe that there's a market that sits somewhere in the middle.''
Eventually, that market will materialize, Mr. Brown says. The wireless networks will get built, come down in price, and more powerful PDAs will come along at $300. ``In 1996, it starts to get interesting,'' he says.
For starters, the delivery man will have to teach his boss how to use a PDA.