I have been a fan of the PalmPilot ever since the "connected organizer" was introduced two years ago. Originally, the "connected" notion just referred to the way the PalmPilot made it extremely simple to exchange contact and calendar information between a PC and the handheld unit. Now, the PalmPilot can connect to the Internet or corporate networks--even by wireless.
The $399 Palm III, introduced on Mar. 9, continues the evolution from techie toy to business tool. In addition to a sleek new design and more memory, the latest version can exchange information with other Palm IIIs via an infrared link. But the real growth of Pilot as a business communicator comes from an explosion of third-party software and accessories that enhance its ability to link up with corporate networks.
WEB DATA. One interesting new application for PalmPilots comes from startup AvantGo (650 638-3399). AvantGo lets you designate Web pages for download. When you hook up your Pilot to a PC, the contents of those pages are automatically copied onto your handheld for viewing offline.
At first glance, this looks like a stupid idea, since a 5-sq.-in. monochrome display makes for a wretched presentation. But AvantGo is designed for business, not surfing. Its power becomes apparent when it is used to download data from an internal corporate Web server. For example, a company could set up a Web page containing daily product price and inventory data, formatted for optimal display. When field salespeople synchronize their PalmPilots with their PCs, they automatically get the new data. For many, this may eliminate the need for a clunky--and much more expensive--laptop. The AvantGo software is being offered at an introductory price of $49 per copy, and a free trial version is available at www.avantgo.com.
Mobile users can't always get to their desktops to connect. So last year, Palm introduced a modem for the PalmPilot. The modem was fine--Palm's parent company, 3Com, is a huge modem maker--but the software, especially the E-mail, was clumsy. Improved software, such as the HandStamp E-mail program from Smartcode Software (619 597-7544), is making remote communications a lot easier. Also giving that trend a big boost are a willingness by corporate network administrators to support PalmPilots, and now, wireless connections.
The Minstrel wireless modem from Novatel Wireless (619 784-0620) allows a Pilot to connect to the Internet using wireless technology called cellular digital packet data (CDPD). Although the $400 Minstrel more than doubles the size and weight of the Pilot, the package is still smaller than a Hewlett-Packard 620LX handheld PC. Novatel offers national CDPD service, which runs over the conventional analog cellular network, through GoAmerica. It costs between $15 and $100 a month, depending on the amount of data moved. Service is also available from some local cellular carriers. CDPD is available in most large metropolitan areas, but it can bog down at times when cellular traffic is heavy, such as evening rush hour.
The Minstrel-Pilot combo is useful mainly for sending and receiving E-mail on the run. While the PalmPilot isn't great for long messages, it handles short notes well. Once you have mastered its Graffiti shorthand, it can be easier to use to write messages than the mini-keyboards on other handhelds.
REAL-TIME QUOTES. Other services are starting to take advantage of this communications ability. For $115 per month plus a $100 activation fee, your Minstrel can receive MarketClip from Reuters (888 978-6257), which provides real-time stock quotes, charts, graphs, and market news for traders.
If you want a wireless connection with less bulk, the $70 One-Touch cable and software from JP Systems (972 484-5432) allows a Pilot to send and receive E-mail through a two-way pager from SkyTel or MCI (BW--Feb. 16). The combination takes advantage of the good coverage and reliability of the two-way paging network, while overcoming the clumsiness of reading and, especially, entering E-mail messages on a pager. If you are lucky enough to live in Washington, D.C., Seattle, or the San Francisco Bay area, you can get similar, but much faster, communications for $349 plus $29 a month using a Ricochet wireless modem from Metricom (800 469-4735).
Most Pilots are still used as simple organizers. But new communications options are giving these handy devices real clout as business tools.