Some feds can't live without handhelds

Feds using handheld computers still make up a small installed base. Very small. But
regular users can barely suppress their enthusiasm for these mighty mites.


“I can’t live without it now,” said Tom Polak, systems administrator at
the Geological Survey in Anchorage, Alaska, about his 3Com Corp. Palm III, the top-rated
handheld in GCN’s survey. “It’s my alternate brain.”


No longer just souped-up personal information managers, handhelds are becoming true
extensions of the desktop PC.


Polak, for example, downloads e-mail from his office PC, reads it during his commute
home and composes short responses using the Palm’s Graffiti handwriting-recognition
software. When he gets back to the office, he synchronizes all the new data with his
desktop PC.


“Between my desktop and my Palm III, I synchronize two or three times a day,”
he said.


He also uses his Palm III to chart the time he spends supporting users, keep track of
daily contacts and check to-do lists.


Echoing their dominance in the commercial market, 3Com’s Palm computers accounted
for the lion’s share of the federal sector in GCN’s survey—51 percent.


The Palm III, introduced last March, has captured 13 percent of feds GCN canvassed.
3Com’s previous generation handheld, the PalmPilot, was ranked No. 2 by users and had
the highest installed base, 38 percent.


Hewlett-Packard Co.’s LX series palmtops, rated No. 3, represented 27 percent of
the federal market.


Among other products, Apple Computer Inc.’s discontinued MessagePad and Psion
Inc.’s palmtops each accounted for 4 percent of users.


Feds responding to GCN’s survey touted the Palm III’s price (about $400), the
ease of its stylus input and its compatibility with desktop applications.


Some suggested improvements. One wanted more memory and a PC Card slot. Another wanted
to see refinements in the Palm’s Graffiti handwriting-recognition system.


Polak found entering data with Graffiti a snap. “I’m really good at it,”
he said. “I use it 90 percent of the time. It’s that reliable.”


Greg Collins, chief architect of the delivery system for the Army’s Reserve
Component Automation System in Vienna, Va., agreed that becoming adept at using Graffiti
is fairly easy.


“I had no problem adapting to it,” he said. “It wasn’t even a bump
in the road as far as the learning curve goes.”


Collins, however, realized that he preferred a real keyboard and traded his PalmPilot
for an HP 620LX. But he found that synching data between his palmtop and desktop PC took
too much time.


“I get a lot of e-mail so the synchronization dragged out longer with the
volume,” he said. Collins has since abandoned his 620LX for Toshiba America
Information Systems Inc.’s Libretto, one of a new breed of portable computers that
has taken up the middle ground between handhelds and notebook PCs.


Other feds GCN talked with also had mixed experiences with HP LX series computers.


At the Agriculture Department’s National Soil Survey Center in Lincoln, Neb., for
instance, research scientists got an HP 320LX to gather data online in the field instead
of filling out paper forms and keying the data into the system at the office.


“We were hoping we could just enter the stuff out there and then come back and
dump it into our main database,” research soil scientist Ellis Benham said.


But they soon found the computer’s Microsoft Windows CE environment was too
limited for their data collection needs.


“We got one of those little Windows CE databases that’s really more of a list
manager than anything else and fooled around with it a little bit. But the limitations on
that software were such that we really could not capture what we needed,” Benham
said.


“It was going to cost too much to get programming done for it,” he said.
“We were going to buy a few more HPs and send them out with people when they went to
field. The computer itself is all right, but the development environment is hostile.”


Other feds found the HP’s tiny keys a big nuisance.



Government Computer News survey: handheld
computers





















3Com Corp. Palm III  



72  
83  
100  
100  
83  
33  
100  
33  
83  
33  
50  
100  
100  
N/A  


3Com Corp. PalmPilot  



66  
88  
82  
59  
59  
71  
88  
59  
59  
44  
59  
71  
71  
N/A


Hewlett-Packard Co.   HP LX
series



52  
83  
75  
33  
75  
50  
75  
58  
55  
36  
50  
42  
22  
33


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