The Palm Is Mightier...

No longer toys, handhelds are essential gear

When John A. McKinley Jr. prowls Merrill Lynch & Co.'s lower Manhattan headquarters, his e-mail is never further away than his belt. McKinley, chief technology officer for the financial-services giant, is one of a couple hundred Merrill employees who carry BlackBerry two-way pagers from Research in Motion. McKinley's BlackBerry is his 5-oz. information center. It gets messages from Merrill's Microsoft Exchange e-mail system, carries his contact information and calendar, and can fetch stock quotes, news, flight information, and other data from the Web.

These days, you can take your office with you. Handheld devices--from Palms to Windows CE handheld PCs to pagers and even smart phones--have been getting better and easier to use. At the same time, once-exotic wireless technologies are moving into the mainstream. The marrying of the two means that the old dream of information at your fingertips, anywhere, anytime, is becoming a reality.

Merrill was sufficiently happy with a trial of the BlackBerry that it is committed to using 1,500 of the pagers by yearend. "It's one of the few devices that can add time back to my day," says McKinley. "I can knock off a couple of e-mails any time--during dead time in the car or waiting for a meeting." Or even during meetings: "We rate meetings by the number of BlackBerrys," McKinley says. "You can tell how you're doing by the number of people tapping away as you wax eloquent."

Whatever their impact on meeting etiquette, there's no denying the popularity of handhelds. The original Palm Pilot got the ball rolling in 1996, and the Palm family still dominates the field. Its members come with and without wireless connectivity and include units made by 3Com Corp.'s Palm Computing subsidiary and a robust new model made under license.

In fact, that's the handheld getting the most buzz right now, the Visor from Handspring Inc., a company started last year by Palm's original founders. The Visor, which comes in three models ranging from $149 to $249, looks and works like a slightly clunkier version of the mainstream Palm III. It sports the same basic software, with improved versions of the datebook and calculator, and has the same ability to synchronize with desktop programs.

FLAKINESS. Visor's secret is a slot on the back called the Springboard that can accept a wide variety of devices, from memory modules to games to an accessory that will turn a Visor into a cell phone. Unfortunately, none of the wireless modules has hit the market yet. But many are under development and are due by the end of this year or early next.

The only real drawbacks to the Visor are that it's hard to come by and that Handspring's online sales operation, the only way to get one, has been plagued with startup problems. The basic Visor comes with a synchronization cradle that uses a universal serial bus connector and works only with Windows 98 or a Macintosh. Folks using Windows 95 or NT will need a $20 adapter.

The original Palm went wireless this year with the introduction of the Palm VII. Phoebe Miller, owner of a Denver hairdressing salon, and her husband, Andy, a commercial real estate broker, picked up a pair of $499 Palm VIIs on a visit to New York in the spring. They found a use for them immediately: The Millers are big fans of the Colorado Avalanche, and during intermission of a Broadway play, they were able to check on how the team was doing in the National Hockey League playoffs.

Since getting home, the Millers make use of a broad variety of the Palm VII "Web clipping" services--Web pages specially formatted for the small display. Their favorites include driving directions and traffic condition reports. "We were in Greeley [Colo.] and got so lost," Phoebe Miller says. "It told us how to get where we were going. It was so amazing." She also finds the Palm VII a nifty attraction in her shop, letting customers call up information such as stock quotes while they wait.

PALM KILLERS? The VII isn't the only way to go wireless with a Palm. The $369 Novatel Minstrel modem clips to your Palm and gives you full Internet access for as little as $9.95 a month over such carriers as GoAmerica Communications Inc., a wireless Internet service provider. Other modems for other carriers are in the works.

Palms don't need a wireless link, or even a conventional modem, to be useful. Keith Jean, who directs music bands for grades 5 through 12 at the Spencerville Local School District in northwestern Ohio, has been using his PalmPilot Professional--one of the older models--since the start of the school year. He already finds it indispensable. He writes letters to parents, then sends the text to a desktop PC for printing using Palm HotSync. "I only meet with my Band Booster organization once a month," Jean says. "Now, if I have a fleeting thought about something I want to discuss with them, I have a `Booster' category in my memos and I just jot it down. Last year, I had to do it all with Post-Its, and they kept getting lost."

The current status symbol among non-wireless Palms is the sleek V. While functionally identical to the more prosaic IIIs, except for its rechargeable--rather than replaceable--batteries, the V's ultrathin design and trendy brushed-metal look make it a favorite among execs. Next year the big news in the Palm world is likely to be the first color displays, though the company has not yet revealed any plans.

When Microsoft Inc. announced the first Palm-size PCs, or PPCs, in 1998, it declared them to be "Palm killers." It hasn't worked out that way. These Windows CE-based devices have had a rough time getting any traction outside specialized corporate markets. They are bigger and heavier than Palms, and their batteries don't last as long.

The PPCs have improved a lot, with color displays, but I still find the screen layouts, which are based on desktop Windows, cluttered and hard to use on a small device. They also work best with Microsoft software, where Exchange is your corporate mail program and Outlook is your desktop contact manager. About the only wireless options are cell-phone-based: infrared links to some GSM phones and a special cable connection for some Sprint PCS phones. Of the PPCs on the market, the new Hewlett-Packard $495 Jornada 430SE is probably the all-around best. Its screen is bright and easy to read, and it features a transparent, protective flip-down cover.

One problem with most color displays is that they can be downright hard to read outside in bright sunlight. The Compaq Aero 2100, starting at $350, solves this with a new type of display called reflective TFT, which is highly visible in even the brightest light. But it's not terribly readable in dim light, where the Jornada's display stands out.

Pagers are the original handheld wireless devices, but today's pagers bear about as much resemblance to the original numerical beepers as a Boeing 777 does to the Wright Flyer. The BlackBerry, which Merrill Lynch's McKinley uses, boasts integration with a corporate mail system, but it is just one of a number of versions of the RIM Inter@active Pager available. BellSouth Mobile Data, for example, offers a variety of information services, such as financial, news, and sports, in addition to e-mail and paging, with service plans starting at $14.95 per month.

The remarkable thing about the RIM pager is that despite its tiny size--3 1/2 in. wide, 2 1/2 in. high, and 3/4 in. thick--it may offer easier data entry than any other handheld device. You type on its tiny keyboard with your thumbs, and though it sounds weird, with a little practice it becomes easy to bat out even fair-sized e-mail messages. One thing that makes the process simple is the clever way the RIM anticipates what you are trying to do. For example, it automatically capitalizes the first word after a period or a carriage return.

MAKER'S CHOICE. The Motorola PageWriter 2000x does pretty much the same things as the RIM, with national paging and e-mail service from SkyTel Communications. But its design makes it clumsier. It's about 1/4 in. bigger in each dimension and weighs nearly 50% more than the Inter@ctive 950, and it opens up to reveal a screen twice the size of the RIM's six-line display. Oddly, the clamshell design and bigger keyboard make it harder to type on.

One problem with all wireless devices available is that you are locked into the manufacturer's choice of a communications network. None of the networks offers anything close to nationwide coverage. The Visor approach, however, is one way out of this bind, since the Springboard modules will eventually allow you to use any wireless network with the device.

If you're intrigued by the notion of wireless services but can hold on a while longer, there's a technology on the way called Blue Tooth, originally developed by Intel, Toshiba, and IBM. You'll start seeing it sometime next year. It's a low-power radio technology that lets devices communicate over short distances without the tangle of cables or the restrictions of infrared links.

CONSTANT LINKS. Blue Tooth radios are designed to be cheap, less than $5 in high-volume production. That means manufacturers will be able to include Blue Tooth in just about any device. Then a Blue Tooth-equipped Palm will be able to use the Blue Tooth phone in your purse as a wireless transmitter to connect to the Net. If things work out, Blue Tooth will become available first as an add-on for laptops in the first half of next year. By yearend, all new wireless phones should be Blue Tooth-equipped, and the radios will be cropping up in just about every mobile device.

That scenario is a far cry from the time not long ago when cell phones were exotic toys and handheld computers were unheard-of. Now those stand-alone gadgets will link seamlessly together: Your handheld will talk to your phone, and your phone will keep you in constant touch with the world.

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