Handhelds go network

Handhelds go network

The lowdown

  • What is it? A handheld computer is a portable unit you can hold in one hand and operate with the other. The category includes PDAs and clamshell PCs, as well as wireless phone/PDA hybrids and BlackBerry-style pagers. You can attach a folding keyboard to some PDAs for data input.

  • When do I need one? They're useful for scheduling, keeping basic data and taking notes while on the go, and synchronizing data with a desktop PC. Wireless units also allow e-mail and Internet access from anywhere. Road warriors who don't need the full power of a notebook PC can travel lighter with a handheld.

  • When don't I need one? If you don't need to synchronize data with your PC, or find it difficult to deal with a small screen and keypads or a stylus, you might do better with a regular date book or notebook PC.

  • Must-know info? Phone/PDA hybrids sacrifice computing power for phone functions; you might be better off connecting a PDA to a modem in a phone. Third-generation wireless services, due later this year, will make networking PDAs more practical.

  • The Palm m505 has a color screen, 8M of RAM and runs Palm OS 4.0. It's priced at $399.

    Wireless and software advances make PDAs into strong application platforms

    The past year transformed the market for personal digital assistants and their close cousins, the newer phone/PDA hybrids and the older, clamshell-style handheld PCs.

    The wireless revolution swept through like a tornado, forcing PDA makers to find new ways to offer reliable Web browsing, e-mail and data access over cellular and wireless LANs. Government buyers have intriguing new options complicated by network service issues and platforms that are changing rapidly.

    Hardware manufacturers have struggled for years to get the promising phone hybrids right. Newfangled smart phones that looked like the next big thing two years ago have met with mediocre market response.

    'There's a compromise issue,' said Isaac Ro, an analyst at the Aberdeen Group in Boston.

    Handspring Inc., which has based its existence on colorful Palm OS Visor PDAs, is placing a huge phone bet itself with the slim new Treo.

    Appeal to ear, not digits

    The industry's earlier miscues demonstrated that hybrids must be more phone than PDA to appeal to users accustomed to ever-shrinking cell phones. Accordingly, don't expect phone hybrids to have software as capable as that on full-size PDAs; these units' software is subservient to the phone functions, generally limited to contact names, numbers and basic calendars.

    Adding voice or wireless data capabilities to full-fledged PDAs such as Compaq Computer Corp.'s iPaq or Handspring's Visor is a better approach. That's especially true if you need the larger units' typical 32M or 64M of built-in RAM along with extra storage on matchbook-size Compact Flash (CF) cards to run serious applications, such as data entry for field work.

    But putting wireless voice and data inside a PDA can deplete battery life to unacceptable levels, warned Todd Kort, principal analyst at Gartner Dataquest of San Jose, Calif. 'We're saying that it's better to use a modem in a phone connected to a PDA.'

    Some larger, Type II CF cards also provide wireless and wired networking, as do the PC Cards supported mostly on handheld PCs such as the Jornada 720 from Hewlett-Packard Co. The newest card technology, Secure Digital (SD), provides similar expansion options in small, thin wafers tailor-made for PDAs.

    Industry observers say the first SD cards are mostly memory devices. An emerging SD I/O standard could provide a faster, more secure connector than CF for numerous adds-ons, such as Global Positioning System receivers and cellular modems. The emerging set of standardized connectors could make proprietary PDA connectors obsolete, especially the Visor Springboard, Ro said.

    PDA operating systems are also undergoing rapid change. Palm Inc., though still dominant, saw worldwide market share of its Palm OS decline from 73 percent to 58 percent, Kort said. Both analysts said Palm has let its hardware stagnate on two-year-old technology.

    Meanwhile, the Pocket PC OS from Microsoft Corp., based on Windows CE 3.0, made major inroads, rising from 11 percent to 20 percent during the same period. Its rise was helped by close ties to enterprise software and solid hardware from the likes of Compaq and Hewlett-Packard, which aggressively market bright color screens that are all but missing from Palm's'and prominent licensee Handspring's'product lines.

    The newest version, Pocket PC 2002, is a strong enterprise tool, with virtual private network software for tighter security and terminal-emulation utilities for controlling Windows systems remotely. Palm, however, is expected to counter with new enterprise features when it releases Palm OS 5 this year.

    Recently PDA hardware has been influenced by the popularity of e-mail access on pagerlike, and newer PDA-style, BlackBerry wireless handhelds from Research in Motion Ltd. PDA vendors such as Compaq, Handspring and Palm have started adding BlackBerry-like thumb-controlled keyboards on newer models.

    Both Kort and Ro said that when third-generation cellular networks arrive later this year, networked PDAs will become more viable as e-mail and quick messaging platforms, with always-on connectivity and throughput nearing PC dial-up speed. Ro also expects PDA makers to partner with wireless middleware vendors who will specialize in transmitting personalized services to the devices.

    'The BlackBerry experience is going to be ubiquitous,' Ro predicted. Wider availability of better-performing wireless services, including local IEEE 802.11b systems, as well as short-distance Bluetooth connections, will make it easier to keep customized data up-to-date. 'You won't need the cradle,' Ro predicts. 'You'll be able to sync up anywhere.'

    David Essex is a free-lance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.

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