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Pocket Rockets
The introduction of a new Windows operating system just might jump-start the PDA market.

-- by Richard Castagna and Jim Forbes

Dick Tracy had his two-way wrist radio, Star Trekkers had their palm-sized communicators and James Bond kept dozens of miniature SMERSH-smashing devices tucked in his tux.

Yet pocket-sized computers are more than the stuff of fiction. They've been around for much of the PC's 25-year-plus history. But even though the combination of a PC's power with a calculator's size seemed perfect, the pocket computer bandwagon embarked with few passengers aboard. Only a handful-pardon the pun-of high-tech companies dared to venture into this territory, and even fewer have stayed the course.

Today the introduction of a new operating system is sparking renewed interest in the hand-held market and just might propel the category into the mainstream. The fact that this new OS, known as Windows CE (or WinCE), comes from Redmond might be enough to help the category overcome its inertia. Microsoft's WinCE, introduced in November, has been embraced and supported by at least five hardware vendors and approximately 40 software publishers. WinCE hand-helds, which Microsoft calls hand-held PCs (or HPC), use low-power non-Intel RISC processors. At the heart of WinCE is Microsoft's Win32 API and other snippets of code that allow HPCs to exchange and synchronize data with other computers. CE works alone or as a companion to a more powerful computer. With its built-in applications, such as Pocket Word, Pocket Excel and a mail client, it requires less than 5MB of ROM storage.

In our Windows CE review last month, we took a sneak peak at two such PDAs-NEC's Mobile Pro Hand-Held PC and Casio's Cassiopeia. More recently, we got an early look at a prototype of Philips Electronics' WinCE-based Velo 1, whose communications and expandability features distinguish it from the others. It has two miniature card slots and a built-in, low-power 19.2Kbps modem.

But Microsoft is the new kid on the block when it comes to the hand-held OS (see the reviews that accompany this story). Apple Computer, probably the most experienced company in this field, has just announced a new member to its Newton family. The updated OS, like WinCE, allows easy data swapping with other computers and supports Internet connections.

Another competitor, U.S. Robotics, is beefing up its Pilot's proprietary OS. Look for e-mail hooks and improved facilities for handwriting recognition.

Other hand-held OS vendors jockeying for market share include General Magic (owned by some of the same people who wrote the original Macintosh OS) and Corel Corp. General Magic's recently updated software allows products such as Sony's Personal Communicator to work more efficiently with the Internet.

Corel Corp., best known for its application software, will soon launch two miniature computers designed around a Java-based operating environment and intended expressly for use with the Internet. The first computer, due out the first half of this year, will run an Internet-enabled PIM based on technology licensed from Starfish Software, manufacturer of Sidekick. The device will let you track schedules, contacts and other information, and may run a scaled-down office suite written in Java.

But the ultimate on-the-go OS may come from AT&T's Wireless Services. Its PocketNet Phone looks like a cellular phone, but it adds data communications capabilities to let you access, read and respond to e-mail, create and send faxes, and connect to other computers. The unit should be available early this year and could cost about $500 plus monthly access fees of about $50. It lacks a keyboard so you'll have to use the alphanumeric keypad to enter characters-a cumbersome proposition.

All these units grew out of a union between calculators and computers. The early devices, known as personal organizers, combined calculators with electronic versions of address books and schedules. Some added rudimentary note-taking capabilities and calculator features that handled specific business and personal financial functions. In the early '90s, companies like Hewlett-Packard and Sharp steered hand-helds away from gadgetry by adding scaled-down versions of mainstream PC apps, such as Lotus 1-2-3, and options that provided connections to desktop PCs. In a stroke, these gizmos-specialty products in marketing lingo-were transformed into personal digital assistants (PDAs)

On a somewhat parallel track, an Apple consultant and computer scientist at Xerox's famed Palo Alto Research Center envisioned a multipurpose device that responded to verbal commands or stylus strokes and provided access to vast stores of information via built-in telecommunications. That researcher, Alan Kay, called his device the Dyna Book, and its resemblance to today's PDAs is a testimonial to his prescience.

Today's hand-helds blend the functionality of organizers with the versatility of PCs. Their connectivity features make data transfer easier than ever, and their built-in apps are actually downsized clones of popular desktop apps. Most include address books, text editors, spreadsheets and calendars. They're no longer viewed as standalone devices but as companion products to PCs.

Key considerations for hand-helds are size and weight. Currently they measure about 0.75 by 7 by 3.75 inches and weigh about a pound or less. Ergonomic issues are another major concern. Not only must these units be small enough to fit in a pocket-albeit a large one-they must have usable features. But the two toughest nuts for manufacturers to crack are the keyboard and display.

Wee Keys

The nonstandard key arrangements of the past have given way to the standard QWERTY arrangements, as manufacturers acknowledge the importance of familiarity. Of course, when you have only a 3-by-6-inch space to work with, you have to dispense with such luxuries as numeric keypads, and many keys have to play dual-even triple-roles. But for the most part, the ins and outs of specific keyboard layouts are easy enough to learn.

For manufacturers, the challenge is to devise keyboards that provide a "clicky" positive feel when you depress a key, and sufficient room between keys so that even chubby digits can press a single key without depressing its neighbors along with it. You can forget about transferring your touch-typing skills to these tiny keyboards. Mushy, wobbly keys and insufficient spacing make even hunting and pecking a chore.

The good news is most of today's devices-the new WinCE hand-helds and the market's popular units-have very usable keyboards. But because they're far from ideal, manufacturers have tried to minimize keyboard use by adding touch-screen technology and a stylus, which fits into an on-board compartment. A few taps on the screen get you into an application.

Mean Screens

Screen technology comes with its own set of challenges. Manufacturers have to produce an image that's sharp, clear and visible under different lighting conditions, all on a trickle of juice squeezed out of a couple of standard double As and a backup battery barely larger than a coat button.

Most hand-helds use tried-and-true LCD technology, aided by backlighting, to create "transflective" displays. Backlighting improves readability considerably, but depletes batteries.

Most of the units' displays produce readable images under a variety of lighting conditions, but an enormous amount of work is under way on display technology. Manufacturers are already testing new materials for reflective LCDs, and a number of companies are developing active-matrix (AM) LCDs and electroluminescent displays. The last two improve screen images dramatically, but still drain battery life. An emerging technology called field emission display (FED) appears to get around this problem.

Plenty is going on in the area of color as well. Displays used for portable TVs have been tested, but they've proven less than ideal. IBM recently introduced a pricey color-screen unit in Japan, and Seiko, NEC and Sharp are also developing color displays. But again, power consumption is a sticking point.

Stay Connected

If all this is leaving you lonesome for your PC, don't despair. Today's hand-helds are more amenable than ever to sharing data with your notebook or desktop. File compatibility has always been a hitch, but some of today's hand-held apps address compatibility by saving files in the formats of popular desktop apps. Others offer file-transfer options to handle format conversions.

Traditionally, you transferred data via a link connecting the two units. Data swapping was accommodated with a proprietary solution-some built-in software, a bare-bones app for the desktop PC and a special cable that ran from the hand-held into the PC's serial port. The arrangement worked reasonably well, and most hand-helds still employ it.

Infrared (IR) is a more recent development. Pioneered by Hewlett-Packard, IR shuttles data back and forth without the wire. This eliminates the hassle of dealing with port assignments, but you'll need an IR transceiver on your desktop. IR-equipped desktop systems are still rare, so you'll likely need to add an IR port to your PC if you want that capability.

A compromise that's growing in popularity is the use of nonproprietary communications apps and a null-modem cable. With that setup, you might be able to use an app you've already installed on your desktop PC, along with a standard null modem-the kind you'd use for LapLink or Direct Cable Connection with Windows 95.

A mobile device must also communicate with the rest of the world, and today's hand-helds make staying in touch a lot more affordable. Early units relied on specially designed modems and basic terminal-emulation software. These modems were proprietary-you couldn't use them with other units or replace them with something else if they failed-and they were also bulky and heavy.

Today's hand-helds use a variety of standard, widely available PCMCIA cards. So, if you already own a PCMCIA modem, you don't have to buy an expensive proprietary card. You just pop in a modem that you can also use in other devices and upgrade easily (and relatively inexpensively) when the newest whiz-bang comm standard hits the streets. PCMCIA also opens the lines to other types of card-based communications, such as cellular links. And PCMCIA expansion cards let you boost your system's storage capacity as well.

E-mail clients are now becoming standard fare on hand-helds. Of course, if the included client doesn't match up with your corporate e-mail system, it's of little use. Some hand-helds sidestep this limitation by integrating software for Internet e-mail. Some even include special browser software for limited Web surfing.

Faxing has also turned out to be a good fit for hand-helds. The built-in fax software makes it easy to send memos and other short correspondence just about anywhere.

A Handful of Apps

In addition to e-mail and fax software, hand-helds come bundled with a suite of scaled-down but workable versions of word processing, spreadsheet and database apps. They also include software to handle calendars, contacts and other PIM needs. Most have multifunction calculators, and many provide a financial app or two that may not be able to balance your business' books, but can adeptly handle personal and travel expenses.

Because hand-helds lack disk drives, these apps are chip-based and an integral part of the unit. This means trying out the software is just as important as testing the hardware.

You're unlikely to miss the full-featured apps on these units. For one thing, this keeps the units' costs down. And their small keyboards and screens aren't conducive to long hours of word processing or spreadsheet analysis anyway.

The applications tend to be well integrated, with similar or identical keystrokes and commands. Switching between apps is quick and easy, and rarely requires more than a couple of keystrokes or taps on the screen.

Writing on the Wall

You're probably wondering why we haven't yet broached the subject of handwriting recognition. Not very long ago, an article on hand-held computers would probably have begun with a discussion on handwriting recognition. But with the current selection of units, the issue is little more than a footnote.

The technology took a hit when Apple suffered through the Newton's highly publicized problems. But the brouhaha probably resulted as much from Apple's oversell as from technological glitches. Handwriting recognition has been temporarily nudged aside in favor of simpler and more practical applications such as electronic ink. This technology lets you capture handwritten text or a drawing and save it as a file, attach it to a contact or calendar record as a note, or send it via e-mail or fax.

Still, the quest for a hand-held system that understands your handwriting is far from over. Devices such as U.S. Robotics' Pilot, which lacks a keyboard, use this technology. And although it's not a feature in WinCE, Microsoft's purchase of recognition technology developer aha Software indicates Microsoft is giving handwriting recognition serious consideration.

What the Future Holds for Hand-helds

In addition to next-generation handwriting recognition, other technologies under development at companies such as Microsoft, Apple and IBM include voice recognition, Internet-enabled software agents and high-speed wireless connections. Future hand-helds are likely to embody a mix of technologies such as those demonstrated by WinCE units, U.S. Robotics' Pilot, Apple's Newton and Alan Kay's Dyna Book dream.

Officials close to Microsoft predict WinCE will see an update as early as the end of 1997's third quarter. In the second release, expect to see handwriting recognition, support of DSTN and TFT color display panels, and new file synchronization software.

With so much renewed interest in hand-helds, the R&D wheels are turning faster than ever. Companies active in this marketplace predict the following developments over the next 12 to 18 months:

Support for color screens

Use of lithium ion and other technologies for longer battery life

Low-voltage modem chipsets and 56Kbps modems

New Java-based software

"E-mail-centric" hand-helds

Better integration with pager networks and the Internet

Improved keyboards

Industry analysts are split on the market potential of hand-held computers. Estimates for the current installed base hover around slightly more than 1 million units. That's still just a fraction of a percent of the installed base of desktop and notebook PCs. But corporate IS departments are taking a fresh look at hand-helds as devices to complement desktops-a paradigm called "client-client" computing. The new WinCE devices, along with revisions of other PDAs, could propel the installed base to more than 3 million units by the end of the century. What would Bond, Tracy and the Trekkers think of that?

Copyright 1997 CMP Media Inc.

(From Windows Magazine, January 1997, page 218.)