GPSolo Magazine - December 2004

You’ve Got The Whole World In Your Hands
Palm Pilots, Pocket PCs, And Converged Devices

The PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) satisfies our relentless craving for instant access to information. Many of us cannot function properly without our address books or calendars within arm’s reach. And lately, we’ve started demanding a constant connection to e-mail and the web wherever we go. PDAs appease our ravenous information appetite, and they are evolving to do more and more every day.

Before the Palm Pilot and other PDAs entered the scene, you may have carried around some kind of bulky, paper-based day planner that contained everything about your life. The convenient PDA (or “handheld”) was created to electronically replace that unwieldy, overstuffed day planner and give you more functionality than you ever thought possible.

Apple offered one of the first successful handheld computers in the form of the Newton Message Pad, but its popularity fizzled owing to issues that time has since forgotten (although there are still many die-hard fanatics around today).

The real revolution happened when a small company called Palm Computing released its Palm Pilot in 1996. Their product was small enough to fit in a purse or shirt pocket, and it easily ran on two AAA batteries. The interface was simple and effective, and it took the mobile professional to a new level of productivity.

To Achieve Success, You Gotta Have Access

The biggest advantage to using a PDA is instant and immediate access to your information and data. A PDA is completely portable—much easier than carrying a hefty day planner in a binder, and much more convenient than lugging around your laptop computer.

The PDA was not developed to replace your computer; it was designed to complement it. Many people keep contact information and appointments on their computer in applications such as Microsoft Outlook. By synchronizing that information with your PDA, you can access that information in a snap when you are away from your desk and computer.

When I need to retrieve a phone number, I don’t have to wait until I go back to the office, boot up my computer, and open Outlook. I can simply hit the power button on my PDA and I have the number within two or three taps of the stylus.

And today’s PDA is giving you so much more functionality. While it handily masters your client lists and appointments, you can also use it to record your work time, or even store state and federal rules or statutes for easy reference. And because PDAs can play games and music, they can also function as a handy distraction.

The Future of the PDA: Convergence and Connectivity

Technology slows down for nothing, and the maxim holds especially true for the PDA. The biggest area of change today is in convergence. Almost anyone who carries around a PDA also carries a cell phone. It just makes sense to combine the two. The future of the PDA will be directly tied to the future of mobile phones.

This isn’t to say that the “stand-alone” PDA will be a relic of the past. There will always be a natural market for them. But the higher-end PDA professional market will focus on the connectivity options provided by a mobile phone/PDA converged device.

Some people call these converged devices “smartphones” or “intelligent” phones. As the market continues to shake itself out, manufacturers are struggling to accurately define these new morphed devices. Some describe their device as “a PDA first, with a phone tacked on” because their device looks more like a traditional PDA with an antenna sticking out for the phone functions. Other manufacturers are experimenting with simply adding traditional PDA functions to their mobile phones, banking on the fact that people are more comfortable talking on a device that doesn’t look like a slice of bread or a big brick.

Once a PDA and cell phone are successfully merged, the PDA can take advantage of the wireless service on the cell phone. For example, to get web content onto a regular PDA, you have to use a service such as AvantGo to synchronize a website or “clip” from your computer to your PDA. But if you have a converged device, you don’t have to settle for outdated news. The web browser on a converged device can utilize the wireless data service through the cell phone and allow you to surf the web in real time.

In addition, a converged device can let you access your e-mail and calendar in real time rather than having to wait until you get back to the office to perform a “HotSync” or use the ActiveSync application. You can stay away from the office several days at a time and still keep all your info up to date.

The Battle Rages On: Palm vs. Pocket PC

Oversimplifications usually do an injustice to the things they are describing, but when it comes to PDAs, we can point out two main camps: Palm and Microsoft.

Palm is the standard, the original recipe, the model on which all other PDAs have been based. The Palm Pilot was a success because it was so intuitive and easy to use. Just like many technology companies that started in the 1990s, Palm has gone through some rocky times, but through it all the Palm operating system has continued to rule the world of PDAs.

Microsoft introduced itself to the PDA market with its operating system called “Windows CE” (which stood for “compact edition”). The Windows CE operating system found its successful niche on devices called “Pocket PCs.” The major advantage of the Pocket PC was that it could handle color and multimedia files, and it even came complete with “pocket” versions of Word, Excel, and Outlook.

There used to be clear-cut differences between Palms and Pocket PCs that made it easy to answer the question, “which one should I buy?” Palm PDAs were usually cheaper, easier to use, more efficient on power usage, and had a ton of additional applications available for download. Pocket PCs were bigger and more expensive, but they could play music and movies and they just looked slicker with a color screen running an operating system that looked very similar to the Windows operating system for desktop PCs.

These distinctions have since blurred away to nothing as technology has marched forward. Sony introduced PDAs based on the Palm operating system that sometimes put similar Pocket PCs to shame and cost about as much. On the other side, Dell took the Pocket PC and offered a very affordable and functional product that competed in price with Palm’s low-end units.

In today’s world, you are going to get the same basic functionality regardless of which type of PDA you go with. I personally prefer the Microsoft-based products because I feel they better cooperate with my computer’s Windows operating system. However, I’ve been using a Treo 600 for the past several months, which is a Palm-based system, and have been blissfully happy. It really comes down to what people feel comfortable using.

Palm will continue to live strong because of a hearty fan base and hopefully because the company will continue to innovate with products like the Treo. But I suspect that Microsoft-based PDAs will become more popular in the future because people have become so comfortable with the Windows operating system.

Power in the Palm

The current Palm line of PDAs has a lot to offer, while legacy products continue to live many years past their prime. The company is now called PalmOne since the Handspring company came back home after splitting off several years ago. PalmOne offers three models in its basic Zire line and three models in its higher-end Tungsten line. Topping all of those products is the bold and beautiful Treo 600.

The Zire models are perfect “starter” PDAs offered with or without color. I am very impressed with the Zire 72, which offers a high-resolution color screen and built-in Bluetooth (wireless) connectivity. I actually enjoyed watching movie clips on the unit and snapping mediocre pictures with the built-in camera. If you have a Bluetooth-enabled phone, the Zire 72 can use it to surf the web and access your e-mail.

The Tungsten models offer everything you can find in the Zire line but with a little more panache. The Tungsten C is at the top of the line and offers a thumb keyboard and built-in WiFi access, which will allow you to take advantage of all the wireless hotspots that keep popping up in coffee houses and airports. The Tungsten C does not come standard with the much-loved Graffiti writing area (the data-entry, writing-recognition area found on some Palm PDAs), but you can find it in the similar Tungsten T3 model.

The golden child for PalmOne right now is the multi-functional Treo 600. Originally developed by Handspring, PalmOne has embraced the Treo 600 as its own, and it has become the standard for all converged devices today. The Treo 600 (earlier Treo models included the flip-styled 270 and 300) offers a thumb keyboard and easy-to-use navigation buttons. The biggest draw, of course, is the phone functionality that has been so innovatively integrated into the device. Need to dial a number? Simply jump into your contacts, highlight and click the number you see there, and the phone automatically dials it. Got an e-mail that has a hyperlink? Just highlight it and you’ll immediately jump on the web.

To fully use the Treo 600, you’ll need to have a data plan in addition to your voice plan from your wireless carrier (Cingular, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon all now offer plans for the Treo 600). The data plan lets you surf the web and retrieve your e-mail.

Most of the Palm devices I’ve mentioned here will accept memory cards, so you can expand their abilities. Because the Palm operating system has been around for so long, there are a multitude of applications and accessories available for whatever Palm-based device you choose to snuggle with.

Other notable converged devices based on the Palm operating system include the Samsung SPH i500 and the Kyocera 7135.

Is That a PC in Your Pocket?

Microsoft’s strategy for PDAs revolves around bringing the power of the Windows operating system to a mobile platform. That’s why Microsoft has officially dubbed its PDA operating system “Windows Mobile” (formerly Windows CE).

Microsoft has made great strides in making Windows more mobile for professionals on the go. Pocket PC devices appeal to the coolness factor in that they just look good, with slick, color screens that can show high-resolution pictures and videos. They come very close to being a complete portable computer. Pocket PC devices come standard with “pocket” versions of popular desktop applications such as Word and Excel. (Palm users must install third-party applications such as Documents to Go from Dataviz or WordSmith from Handmark to work on Word or Excel documents.)

The Windows Mobile operating system also provides the familiar “Start” menu. This may sound like a minor point, but little things like this make it much simpler for people to ease themselves into the world of mobility.

There are a plethora of Windows Mobile devices available today. Most common are the traditional Pocket PCs from manufacturers such Dell (which has the “Axim” line) and Hewlett-Packard (which has adopted Compaq’s former “iPaq” line). Asus and Toshiba also offer high-quality Pocket PC PDAs.

To add a phone, you can look at the handful of devices appropriately named “Pocket PC Phone Editions.” These devices could be described as a PDA first, with a phone tacked on. T-Mobile was one of the first wireless providers to offer one of these devices, and the company still sells it. Today you have other choices, including the Samsung SPH i700 and the Siemens SX56. None of these devices offer a keyboard, but if you need one, you can opt for the gargantuan Hitachi G1000.

But the Hewlett-Packard iPAQ h6315 will lead the way for Pocket PCs. It is shaped like a regular Pocket PC PDA, but you can elect to pop a small, functional thumb keyboard into the bottom of the unit when you need to type. The h6315 also includes a phone (available only through T-Mobile at present), as well as WiFi capability. This is literally one device that offers everything you could ask for in a single PDA.

Last, but not least, the Windows Mobile operating system will also be ported to devices officially dubbed “Smartphones.” In contrast to the Pocket PC Phone Edition, the Windows Mobile Smartphone is truly a mobile phone first, but with several traditional PDA functions integrated into the unit. You won’t have access to pocket versions of Word or Excel, but Pocket Outlook will be loaded and ready to download your e-mail straight to your phone. The Windows Mobile Smartphones sacrifice screen space and full thumb keyboards (they keep a traditional mobile-phone keypad), but these losses might be a fair trade-off if your priority is compact size.

Rumors of PDA Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

Contrary to what many are predicting, the PDA is not dead. The PDA is simply evolving into converged devices that can handle all the traditional functions of PDAs but also access the web and download your e-mail. Traditional PDAs will still hang around, but the progressive crowd will start investing in converged devices.

 

Brett Burney is the legal practice support coordinator at Thompson Hine, LLP, in Cleveland, Ohio. You can e-mail him at Brett.Burney@ThompsonHine.com.

 

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