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Apps for handhelds meet everyday challenges for traveling and deskbound users

When the lights went out on Aug. 14, Eric Schneider saw the bright side of handheld computers.

Schneider, marketing manager of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, was in New York City on a business trip. At about 11 minutes after 4 p.m., what has been described as the worst blackout in the history of North America struck the 8 million people in the city'and another 42 million in the northeastern United State and Ontario.

Schneider, however, stayed online with a Global System for Mobile Communications phone and a Palm Tungsten T handheld computer. The GSM/General Packet Radio Service network kept running through the blackout, and the Tungsten T had a Bluetooth connection that let him use the phone as a data modem. So he was able to surf the Web and handle e-mail in a city where getting any kind of power was a challenge.

'We were on Broadway, right by Lincoln Center, right when the lights went out,' Schneider recalled of his visit with a colleague. 'Within 10 minutes of the lights going out, I had news from Yahoo and CNN via the Palm.'

Although he predictably sang the praises of Bluetooth and GSM/GPRS phones, Schneider admitted that having the right handheld applications made all the difference.

'The power was off where I was for 15 hours, and I had Internet access the whole time,' Schneider told GCN in a telephone interview the following day from LaGuardia Airport as he tried to leave.

'I used [Palm's] Web Pro software for everything because I was using a Web-based e-mail system. I was able to send and receive e-mail. I was able to [read] the news,' he said.

Better software

As handheld devices gain more hardware muscle, software is rising to the challenge'and the new capabilities of the devices.

'We're up to about 35,000 applications, and last quarter we added 5,000 applications,' said Laura Rippy, founder and chief executive officer of Handango Inc., a Hurst, Texas, online seller of handheld applications. 'The applications developers continue to crank.'

Rippy, a multiyear veteran of the handheld business, said 80 percent of handheld owners add software to their devices.

It's easy to understand why handheld applications are popular: 20 years after the computer revolution, handhelds have come into their own as tools for users who need to roam around the office, campus'or even the country'to do their jobs. The original 64M of RAM in early IBM PCs now slips into a purse or shirt pocket, right next to a folding keyboard.

Along with ample amounts of RAM, program data storage can be accomplished via Secure Digital memory cards capable of doubling, or even quadrupling, the base memory of the machine. Some handhelds can accept IBM Corp. microdrives or CompactFlash memory cards offering up to 1G of storage. In the case of solid-state devices such as SD or CF cards, access times can be all but instantaneous.

On top of that are advances in communications. Carl Lan, business marketing manager for the Palm Solutions Group, the hardware arm of Palm Inc., said that because Palm devices can incorporate Bluetooth, WiFi and telephony, they can go from a Bluetooth personal area network to a WiFi LAN to a phone-based WAN.

Lan'the manager, not the technology'added that Palm is packing more applications in its new units because users want to do more than just track appointments, contacts and to-do items.

'We include more applications now in-the-box: the VersaMail e-mail client, a VPN client, instant messaging options and DataViz Documents to Go to let users manage Microsoft Office documents better than they can on a Pocket PC,' he said.

Microsoft Corp. would likely dispute that latter claim'one made by Wall Street Journal technology columnist Walt Mossberg, among others.

Microsoft's Doug Dedo, a global enterprise marketing manager, said that along with the resident Pocket PC applications, users like the customization potential of the platform, now called Microsoft Windows Mobile 2003.

'We have 8,000 partners in the [developer] program that have registered more than 10,000 applications,' Dedo said. 'Now, we're seeing some critical mass in the enterprise space.'

Dedo also said that handheld applications for Pocket PC might migrate to a new generation of smart phones being designed with the Windows Mobile 2003 OS in mind. Federal Express Corp.'which has massive logistical challenges, just like many government agencies, Dedo said'is in the process of adopting a smart phone/handheld computer to track package deliveries more quickly.

He credited both the capabilities of the Windows Mobile OS and its integration with other Microsoft products, including .Net, for allowing FedEx to develop and roll out the application. In a government logistics setting, a similar use might help agencies gain better control over inventory and delivery of goods in a time-critical situation, he said.

Microsoft support

Companies making handheld devices using the Microsoft platform agree. Roger Frizzel, worldwide public relations manager for Hewlett-Packard Co., said the Microsoft platform has spurred development of HP's handheld products.

'Microsoft has supported [the platform] well, and user groups are dedicated to developing applications and unique capabilities,' he said.

Palm's Lan, however, suggested that his company's use of Java will open up the handhelds to a wide range of applications as well.

'With so many new apps written in Java, we can rely on a strong two-way rapport with the Java community to provide what our users need,' he said. 'With a user base of over 3 million, we have a lot of influence' in bringing applications to the platform, he added.

On the two leading handheld platforms'as well as smart phones using the Symbian operating system gaining ground in Europe'there's still room for applications development, Handango's Rippy said.

'I think the biggest change we hope to see is actually true wireless applications,' she said.
At the moment, users download most apps and run them on the client side. Wireless carriers want to see applications that take advantage of the wireless network, she said.

Mark A. Kellner is a technology writer in Rockville, Md. His e-mail address is [email protected].


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