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June 17, 2010

Handheld Group Business Partner Conference 2010, Stockholm

Much to my surprise, the Handheld Group invited me to do a presentation at their annual Business Partner Conference in Stockholm, Sweden. The Handheld Group is an international supplier of rugged mobile computers, including handheld terminals and tablets, and they've carved themselves a nice niche with a lineup that includes specialty devices as well as tailored solutions for variety of uses. The annual conference is meant to provide a venue to socialize with business partners and inform them on products, outlook and opportunities.

I've always liked these sorts of conferences as they provide a great way to talk with executives and product managers, and see the latest lineups all in one place. So I accepted Handheld's invitation and prepared a presentation on "Trends and Concepts in Mobile Computing."

Getting flights these days is a real pain. The standard fares are outrageously high and apparently geared towards business travelers with unlimited expense accounts. I have low fare alerts for most of the destinations I potentially travel to, but those can be an exercise in frustration as those low, low fares are hardly ever actually available. I ended up paying several times the teaser fares, and that was with long layovers and a schedule convenient for the airlines, but not for me. In an era where a web page in London, Tokyo or Stockholm loads as quickly as one next door, we tend to forget how very far away those places actually are.

After landing at Stockholm's nice Arlanda airport I booked a ticket on the super-fast bullet train to downtown Stockholm, then, since it was a glorious morning, walked the 5K or so to the Elite Hotel Marina Tower where the conference was held. That was fun, though I was quite addled with jet lag, and the little wheels on my carry-on probably didn't like the cobble stone of old-town Stockholm much.

Much to its credit, the hotel let this weary traveler check in at 10:30AM, and so I took a long nap in my nice hotel room that looked like right out of an Ikea showcase. Then it was off to registration and meeting my hosts. They were all friendly as can be, and I noticed that most Swedes indeed are blond. I met Sofia, my main contact at Handheld HQ, then Jerker Hellström, CEO and Chairman of the Handheld Group, and Thomas Löfblad, not blond, and thanks to a course of study in the US possessive of less of an accent in his English than I am after 30+ years. The two welcomed the assembly to the conference, introduced the business partners, and kicked off the cocktail party mingling.

The Handheld folks did a great job making everyone feel at ease, and so I soon had interesting conversations with the mostly European attendees as well as some from as far as Australia. I found quite a few veterans of the old Husky Computers that was later bought by Itronix -- not surprising, as I learned, since the privately held Handheld Group had once gotten its start as the Scandinavian representatives of Husky. I got a chance to meet Daniel Magnusson and Nina Hedberg of RAM Nordic AB, which had the patented RAM Mount solutions on display; the Sacci folks with their numerous bags, harnesses and other clever ways of carrying around and using handheld computers; SIGMAX with their law enforcement and ticketing solutions; Brodit with their very clever mounting solutions; I got a demonstration of the impressive mobile device management solutions by The Institution, and spent time with all the other cool stuff there. I also had a chance to finally meet the HHCS Handheld USA team, including Mike Zelman, Dale Kyle, and my ever-helpful contact, Amy Urban.

Given the 9-hour time difference compared to California, I slept remarkably well and woke up refreshed and ready for a day of conferencing. CEO Hellström gave an overview of the company, its total and exclusive dedication to rugged computing, and its pride in being the fastest growing IT company in Sweden (Handheld actually grew during the difficult year of 2009). Hellström described Handheld's "virtual production model" where the company's engineers generate specifications and design, then have the products made by a production partner, and launched either alone or with a partner. He highlighted the company's products and special solutions, as well as the newly introduced Algiz 7 rugged tablet.

Following was an excellent presentation by David Krebs, who is the director of mobile and wireless research at VDC and a frequently quoted authority on all things mobile as well as a compatriot who grew up a few short kilometers from my original home in Zurich, Switzerland. David described the current mobile technology market as "in a state of rebound" after a serious setback in 2009. He pointed out that technology penetration in many mobile areas is still only 20, 30 or 40%, leaving plenty of potential opportunity, and predicted annual handheld revenue growth of 7.5% through 2014. David also highlighted the significant advantage of rugged versus non-rugged handhelds and tablets in terms of failure rates, resulting in substantially lower TCO (total cost of ownership), certainly a big selling point in the road to recovery.

I had decided to go out on a limb and run my presentation on my iPad via Apple's iPad dock-to-VGA adapter. This worked just fine, using Apple's US$9.95 iPad version of Keynote, which is Apple's equivalent of Powerpoint. In my presentation I discussed some of the concepts and trends in mobile computing, ranging from processors, to outdoor viewable displays, to digitizers, operating systems, and emerging new technologies. Murphy's Law struck when, stunningly, the frame of my reading glasses broke right in the middle of my presentation, forcing me to continue using one hand holding up my gasses and the other hand to operate the iPad. Fortunately, I had a clip-on mic or else I'd have needed a third hand.

After that Thomas Löfblad discussed the Handheld Product line that by now includes over a dozen state-of-the-art handhelds and tablets, as well as printers and accessories. All of the newer products are carrying Handheld's own Algiz (tablets) and Nautiz (handhelds) brand names.

After lunch, Mr. Hellström discussed the product roadmap for the year ahead, with the full rollout of the newly introduced Algiz 7 tablet, a second generation Algiz 8, and a glimpse at an upcoming new product that will extend Handheld's line into a new class of devices. The company took the opportunity of the partner conference to get feedback and commentary on the new form factor, the proposed features, functionality and price.

After face time with the new product, we heard about Handheld's plans on moving forward. Sofia Löfblad talked about how the company can support its partners with case studies, advertising support, loaners, product reviews, a special support website, and several other programs. Service and Support Manager Max Dahlbom then did a humorous, energetic presentation on service, warranty, care levels and support, all geared towards helping and supporting customers and stressing the importance of good service as a differentiator. Thomas Löfblad then addressed issues such as the impact of the weak Euro, the company's MaxFreight service, insurance issues and also some product updates.

The final presentation came from Dean Lindsay, a motivational speaker and best-selling author (everyone attending got a copy of Dean's highly recommended book "The Progress Challenge") who, engagingly and entertainingly, talked about common sense concepts of attracting and fostering business and sales.

What followed was an absolutely delightful four-hour cruise of the Stockholm waterways aboard the M/S Riddarholmen. We were greeted onboard with champaign, GPS-equipped Algiz 7 tablets were mounted in several locations and provided mapping and navigation data, food and drink were delicious, as was the varied scenery passing by.

There was again ample opportunity to mix and mingle, compare notes, and talk with people from the Handheld Group as well as partners and customers. The weather played along with bright sunshine all conference long (which apparently no one expected), and then some dramatic clouds at dusk. Unusual for those of us not living in northern latitudes, it didn't really get dark until way late into the night, and daylight remained even after we got back to the dock at 11PM.

I missed out on Stockholm sightseeing the next morning as I had to grab a cab to the airport for my trip back to California. Long though the flights back were, and the 8-hour layover at Chicago O'Hare, it gave me an opportunity to reflect on a side of business we often forget or take for granted, the people side. There are lots of great products out there, all able to do amazing things. But it takes people with vision and drive and competence to form companies that can pull it all together, picking a lineup of compatible products for a well-defined purpose, then marketing, selling, supporting and servicing those products. In the end, that's what it's all about, dealing with people you know and trust, folks who've been there and will be around, and who know their business. That's the impression I got from the Handheld Group. Good company, good people.

Posted by conradb212 at June 17, 2010 07:17 PM

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