The early days of the PC saw an explosion of radically different computers. Some, like the IBM Personal Computer, found fame and riches. Some, like the Apple III, disappeared into well-deserved oblivion. And some, like the Commodore Amiga, fell victim to bad luck or bad marketing.
Today, PCs have become boringly alike, but we're seeing a flowering of "information appliances," specialized devices that share information with computers either through a direct connection or over networks. Some, especially 3Com's PalmPilot, have demonstrated staying power. But others, from two-way pagers to combination cell phone/organizers, feel like experiments in search of a useful function.
ADVANTAGES. The CapShare 910 from Hewlett-Packard (www.capshare.hp.com) definitely falls into the latter class and shows both the potential strengths and pitfalls of these devices. It's designed to give the traveling exec a way to scan newspaper clippings, handouts of presentations, a storyboard of a proposed ad campaign, or just about anything else printed or drawn. The captured images can be transferred to a computer for faxing, sending as E-mail attachments, or storing for future reference.
The $699 device, which initially is being sold only to HP's commercial customers in the U.S. and Canada, has several advantages over traditional scanners. First, of course, it's portable and battery-powered. Second, it doesn't need to be attached to a computer to work. And third, it's equipped with clever software that lets you scan a wide page in columns that are automatically stitched together to re-create the page.
The CapShare takes advantage of a promising HP technology called JetSend, which lets devices learn each other's capabilities. The CapShare, for example, can send a scanned page to a computer running Windows 95, 98, or NT. A new version set for release in March (planned as part of a free upgrade) will connect with Windows CE handheld devices. CapShare can also send to an infrared-equipped printer, such as an HP LaserJet 5P or 6P. Computers and printers call for completely different data formats, but JetSend understands what sort of device it is talking to and prepares data accordingly, without any intervention by the user.
Despite JetSend's advantages, the CapShare's major weakness is communications --which bodes ill for other appliances that function as freestanding devices but need to be able to share information with PCs. The CapShare's favored method of data transfer is an infrared link, technology that works well for TV remote controls but has lots of problems with high-volume data transfers required by computers.
No one has tried harder than HP to promote infrared communications on computers, but to little avail. At best, it requires a clear line of sight between sending and receiving units. And some types of light, especially bright fluorescents, can interfere with transmission. Virtually no desktop computers and few printers have any infrared capability. Nearly every laptop has an infrared port, but most notebooks ship with infrared communications disabled. I had to call an HP tech-support staffer to get the CapShare to talk to my HP OmniBook 900 notebook. Even then, the link worked only some of the time. By contrast, I had no trouble sending scanned pages to an HP LaserJet 5MP printer. Fortunately, the CapShare also comes with a serial cable that allows trouble-free communications with desktop or laptop computers. But that approach is less convenient than a good wireless link.
RADIO HOPE. My struggles with infrared indicate a basic weakness that all information appliances share. Since they perform limited functions, they must communicate with each other and with PCs to be truly useful. So if cables are a pain and infrared doesn't work, these devices are practically useless.
Perhaps the best hope is a wireless radio technology called Blue Tooth that is being developed by an industry group led by Intel Corp. Radio communications, even at the extremely low power output and short range that Blue Tooth calls for, are inherently more robust than infrared. If the technology can be made cheap and reliable enough, it could solve the communications woes of these appliances. Blue Tooth would also have to clear some regulatory hurdles, especially rules that would prohibit the use of Blue Tooth-equipped devices on airplanes.
I'm a big fan of simple, specialized devices. But the bottom line is that just coming up with a clever appliance, or even a clever technology such as JetSend, is not enough. Simple, foolproof communications among devices has to be part of the package.