Database Vendors Aim to Bring Handhelds to the Next Level

The handheld market is growing by leaps and bounds. Microsoft Corp. has licensed three versions of the Windows CE operating system to several hardware vendors; 3Com Corp. (Santa Clara, Calif., www.3com.com) has opened up the PalmOS, the lifeblood of the PalmPilot, to licensing; and there is even room for a few other mini-operating systems, such as those found in machines from Psion Dacom PLC (Concord, Mass.).

The handheld du jour is clearly the PalmPilot. The little gadget has a legion of more than one million fundamentalists, many of whom will gladly inflict much more than the nickel tour of the PalmOS upon innocent bystanders, and use the opportunity to show off the skill they have cultivated at inputting data via the box’s proprietary handwriting system, Graffiti.

Whatever the device, though, thus far one thing has remained consistent: Handhelds are used primarily as personal information systems. And while they are great little mobile Rolodexes and calendars, they lack the ability that will bring them to the level of usefulness where every person who gets a computer also gets a handheld.

To bring handhelds at least to the next level, database manufacturers have been selling pocket-sized versions of their databases for several months. Sybase Inc. (Concord, Mass., www.sybase.com), Oracle Corp., Synchrologic Inc. (Atlanta, www.synchrologic.com) and Raima Co. (Seattle, www.raima.com) all have small-footprint database products that work on handheld devices.

The driving force behind these databases is the need to bring enterprise applications to handheld devices. "Any time you need to stash a bunch of data, you need a place to do it," says Frank Gillett, software strategies analyst at Forrester Research (Cambridge, Mass.). "It can’t just be stuck into the file system, because that’s such an inefficient means of storage. These devices have funky file systems, too."

Sybase, Synchrologic and Oracle recently announced support for 3Com’s PalmPilot. In addition, Oracle released Oracle Lite 3.5, a component of the Oracle8i Internet platform. Sybase’s UltraLite is actually a small database in and of itself, Oracle Lite is one part of a larger framework, and Synchrologic simply provides a means of connecting the PalmPilot to a corporate database. Once connected, users can bidirectionally synchronize data between the PalmPilot and a corporate database. And while Raima offers a free database manager for Windows CE, the company also is working to add support for Windows CE to its SQL client/server DBMS, Velocis Database Server.

"Relational databases are big, complicated products. Shrinking them to less than a meg isn’t easy," says Gillett. "So the industry is scratching its head, asking how to make corporate apps fit into handheld devices."

Although these database companies are moving forward with fitting databases into handhelds, the industry as a whole is moving more slowly with the whole concept of fitting handhelds into the corporate network. Matthew Nordan, analyst at Forrester Research, points out that the immediate opportunity for these small-footprint databases lies in vertical, specific applications that need to be in a handheld and need a database to function.

Database vendors are building tiny databases with future uses in mind as well. "There is a big, huge corporate market that has never been tapped, and these vendors are trying to get at that market space," says Nordan. "Everybody in the handheld market is trying to get at the corporate market."