Hand-held Computers — The Last Meter.

There has been a lot of activity lately in the field of mobile computing. This is being driving by advancements in several key areas, all coming together at once: fast low-power processors, low-cost LCD displays and huge memory cores. Advanced digital wireless networks, back-end server software and a newly introduced processor family are going to be accelerating development even faster.

Breaking away from the idea of having to run the same environment on the go as one does in the office, the Palm Pilot was introduced in 1996. Instead of a keyboard, you write on an area at the bottom of the display. Avoiding cost and risk, programs and information are stored in non-volatile random access memory (RAM) instead of a fragile hard-drive. And unlike a laptop, you literally hold the Palm in your palm.

The Palm Pilots have processors which are about twice as powerful as the first model of Macintosh computers, and at 160 pixels square grey-scale the display is approximately a quarter the size one is used to in a desktop or laptop. You might think this would be too limiting for practical applications, until you actually try one. The Palm has the largest collection of third party applications of any Personal Digital Assistance (PDA) platform, and no matter how specialized the need there’s likely already a program available to solve it.

Not intended to replace a desktop or laptop, with their full environments, Pilots and their applications are designed to be satellite computing devices supporting people while they’re away from their desk. You synchronize the Palm with your main computing environment, exchanging information between them as needed; notes jotted into the Palm in a meeting automatically get e-mailed to others who need to receive them. The day’s meetings and up-to-date Internet news is uploaded to the Palm to be reviewed on the bus ride to the office.

The Palm Pilot is certainly not the only player in the PDA space, but it does enjoy the dominate position. Apple tried, and failed, in this market with their Newton devices, using an advanced handwriting recognition technology which never quite worked right. Microsoft have an OS called “CE” (just recently renamed “Windows Powered”) which has failed to gain much of a following, and several smaller companies all are also giving it a go.

The PDA market is expected to explode in the second half of this year with the introduction of new machines based on a new processor family called Crusoe. A closely guarded secret (as part of a brilliant marketing campaign), Transmeta have just released the first two versions of the processor which are designed to be used in mobile devices. Using ground-breaking techniques, the processors deliver Pentium-II level computing power with very low power consumption. See www.transmeta.com for details.

Not to be left out, IBM and Intel both have new low-power, high-performance processors in the pipeline. The availability dove-tails nicely with new wireless protocols leveraging on the existing, and fairly inexpensive, digital cellular networks. These protocols, for example WAP, communicate with back-end servers to support applications on the devices. Standard TCP/IP is often also supported, and thus the wealth of data that is the Internet is available from a device sitting in your hand.

Colour displays continue to consume more power than monochrome, but with advanced power management available from the new processors, overall battery life from future devices should allow all-day use solely from on-board power. For those devices that don’t need colour though, monochrome displays will remain the norm, and for good reason. A little further out, voice recognition and prompting will allow the complete elimination of the traditional input/output devices.

Should you get a PDA now, or wait for the new devices to come out? My advise would be jump in soon, since the entry level hand-held devices currently available are functional and quite inexpensive while the new units will be at the high-end of the price spectrum for some time. And while the Palm devices are the most popular and have the most software, the other brands have some abilities which might fit your situation better. Talk to others who use a hand-held and get their feedback. You’ll be surprised by how positive it tends to be.

Published in the Victoria Business Examiner.

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