Small Is Dandy...Up To A Point

Handheld computers will do in a pinch, but Tolstoy would toss his

No doubt about it, the world is getting smaller. Consider that the article you're reading was written on a handheld computer small enough to fit inside a suit-jacket pocket. Just a gimmick? Not entirely: My deadline was looming, the laptop was back at home, and my only recourse on a recent flight was to start writing with the tool at hand: a Hewlett-Packard 360LX.

I found that getting started on handhelds is pretty simple. Microsoft Corp.'s stripped-down Windows CE operating system for so-called palmtops -- shipping now on devices made by HP as well as by Compaq, Sharp, Philips, and others -- looks like the familiar desktop Windows. Basic software is available in the form of "pocket" versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

There's a price to pay for convenience, however. It was difficult to type on the HP's cramped keyboard, a problem that makes it tough to write anything much longer than a brief memo on virtually all handhelds. Apple Computer Inc.'s solution for its Message Pad 2100 is to offer a detachable keyboard, which adds $70 to the list price of around $1,000. Of course, a bulky add-on compromises the convenience of a handheld.

So far, simpler is better in the lilliputian world. The best all-around device for executives on the go is 3Com's PalmPilot, which hits the sweet spot on affordability and convenience. For $249 to $369, you get basic organizer capabilities and 1 MB of memory in a 5.7-ounce device that fits easily in a shirt pocket. It also has the nifty feature of synchronizing information with a desktop at the touch of a button. "Talk about a device that works absolutely as advertised," says Michael K. Powell, the new FCC commissioner and an avid PalmPilot user. 3Com Corp.'s Palm Computing is adding features, such as a slick $169 device that turns any PalmPilot into a wireless pager. Just replace the small plastic serial-port cover on the back with a slightly thicker piece of plastic containing a pager's electronics.

Franklin shrinks that package even smaller with its promising Rex -- a credit-card-size device with a small screen that costs $129. The Rex plugs into the PCMCIA slot on a laptop computer, or into a $40 adapter for desktops, and lets you download your schedule and address lists for travel. "It fits next to my business card in my pocket," says Leon Navickas, CEO of Centra Software Inc.

The growing popularity of palmtops for fetching and sending E-mail on the go is spawning larger screens that will hit the market in the next few months. The Psion Series 5 sports a 6.7-inch screen and keys that look more like those on a laptop, though still considerably smaller. Geofox-One, due in December, pushes the screen slightly larger, to 6.8 inches, and adds a touchpad mouse controller to the keyboard.

Expect handheld screens to be jazzed up with color for the Christmas season. The new version of Windows CE supports color, and both Sharp and HP aim to have products using it by Christmas. But I'd suggest passing on these devices, at least for now. They add some $200 to the cost of handhelds and can dramatically cut battery life by up to one-third. Also, most business travelers don't use palmtops for color-critical tasks, like Web surfing. They want a calendar, address book, to-do list, E-mail, and a way to download files from their office PC while on the road.

With this season's added power and features, you can't beat these gizmos for E-mail and for toting contacts and files to review. But the one thing that doesn't get any smaller is the human fingertip. Until someone figures a way around that, handhelds will force users to keep it brief.

NOTE: This is a longer version of the story that appeared in the November 24, 1997, issue of Business Week.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE