PDAs let many users hit the road without excess PC baggage

For accessing the Internet via handheld computers, smaller is smarter.


In these days of processor envy and browsers fatter than Bill Gates’ wallet, it
might seem silly to keep harping on thin clients and low-power CPUs. But the handheld
market continues to drive the development of simplicity in TCP/IP connectivity.


The debate boils down to this: Is it better to equip road warriors with full-size
notebook computers, with handheld PCs that run the Microsoft Windows CE operating system,
or with personal digital assistants such as 3Com Corp.’s Palm family?


The answer is fuzzy—choose the one that best fits users’ needs when
they’re away from the desk.


On the road, will users mostly view data or input it? How much data? Users who collect
data via scanners or Global Positioning System devices often find that a simple PDA can
manage the data handoff. A PDA is also best for e-mail, schedules and basic news reading.


But if the users will run client software to update a remote database, or if all their
interaction with the office is via Web browser, a PDA isn’t the best choice. Such
users might settle for a Win CE device, but they will have slower processors and limited
memory compared with notebook PCs. If, besides Internet connectivity, they will run
spreadsheets or presentation programs on the road, full-size notebooks are advisable.


Network managers don’t want to support all these different devices. They prefer
notebooks and might give grudging support to Win CE devices, but that’s it. But there
are good reasons to support systems such as Palm III and PalmPilot.


Earlier this year, an International Data Corp. report predicted that non-PC devices
such as handhelds and set-top Web boxes will exceed PC unit shipments by 2004.


Meanwhile, 3Com already has partnerships with Oracle Corp., bar code scanner leader
Symbol Technologies Inc. of Holtsville, N.Y., and SAP America Inc. of Wayne, Pa., to
enable collection of and access to data with Palm devices.


That means PDAs could become the norm rather than the exception.


For niche uses, they’re faster. Palm devices don’t have to boot a full or
even stripped-down version of Windows. And battery life is unbeatable. Users can pop in
and out over several hours without shutting down, at least in the newest Palm versions.
PDAs are lightweight, durable and cheap. A top-end PDA costs less than most entry-level
handhelds.


Furthermore, plug-in PC Cards can turn PDAs into other devices such as GPS receivers,
scanners or pagers. You could scan a warehouse, connect to a cell phone and upload the
data, using only the contents of a shirt pocket. PDAs have become the light infantry on
the Internet frontier.


To me, streamlined languages such as the Handheld Device Markup Language are just a
sideshow. Yes, it’s nice to have low-graphics, text-based sites that can be browsed
via PDA, but Net interaction with the home office via shared e-mail and schedules will
remain the key function.


If you intend to download and read electronic books, surf the Web, chat or edit
documents, a PDA isn’t for you. If you travel fast and light, your best Net interface
belongs in your shirt pocket.


Find more information about PalmPilots at http://www.palm.com.


QualComm Inc. of San Diego is building wireless communication products to use with
PDAs. For more information on code-division-multiple-access technology, visit http://www.qualcomm.com/cdma/phones/whatiscdma/.


If you prefer Win CE, check out the Sharp Electronics Corp. Mobilon TriPad at http://www.sharp-usa.com/mobilon/ and the
Clio from Vadem of San Jose, Calif., at http://www.vadem.com.
 


Shawn P. McCarthy is a computer journalist, webmaster and Internet programmer for
Cahners Business Information Inc. E-mail him at smccarthy@cahners.com.

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