Time to Swap Your Palm for a PocketPC?

For calendar and addresses, a Palm is fine. But opt for the PocketPC if you need zippy networking capability

I have depended on a Palm (PALM ), or one of its progeny from Handspring (HAND ), Sony (SNE ), or others, since the devices came on the market in 1996. But for the first time, I'm thinking of swapping my Palm for a handheld running Microsoft's new PocketPC 2002 software.

I haven't made up my mind yet, because the Palm I use, a sleek Visor Edge from Handspring, does a splendid job of managing my calendar and address book. It's simple, comfortable, and reliable. After several years of trying, the PocketPC has finally made it to a point where it's about as good, although desktop synchronization is still a bit touchy. My Edge goes for three weeks on a charge, while PocketPCs tend to last only a couple of days. And even a color Palm m505 costs $150 less than Hewlett-Packard's new Jornada 568 PocketPC.

So why consider change? Simple. The Palm remains essentially what it has always been, a "connected organizer." It's great at exchanging data with a Windows PC or a Macintosh, but its other networking capabilities are primitive. For example, to use sophisticated wireless Ethernet cards, Palms have to treat them as dial-up modems because modems are the only communications devices they understand.

The PocketPCs are very different animals, designed to use corporate networks. In an upcoming column, I'll examine the capabilities of new PocketPC models from HP (HWP ), Compaq Computer (CPQ ), Toshiba (TOSBF ), and others. With the proper accessories, they can connect over phone lines or hook up to local area networks through Ethernet cables or wireless links. For example, I had no trouble using an HP Jornada with a Socket Communications Compact Flash Ethernet card to read and reply to messages in BusinessWeek's mail system from my home network.

The built-in software support is as important as the hardware abilities. The PocketPC 2002 software lets you set up multiple networking profiles to use in the office, at home, and on the road. A virtual private network (VPN) program lets you use a phone line or a high-speed Internet connection at home or in a hotel to reach corporate Web setups or mail servers behind a firewall. The integrated software works only with Microsoft-based VPNs, but an add-on program from Certicom (CERT ) (also available for Palm) gives access to VPNs from Cisco Systems (CSCO ), Nortel Networks (NT ), Lucent Technologies (LU ), and others.

There's even a program that allows a PocketPC to log into a Windows NT, 2000, or XP computer running Windows Terminal Server. In theory, you can run any Windows program on a remote computer from a PocketPC, but you'll be able to see only perhaps one-tenth of the PC screen at a time. This seemingly impractical arrangement can become a powerful corporate tool when running an application specifically designed for the PocketPC's small display.

The best software feature is the most capable e-mail program that I have seen on a handheld. You can get access to both your inbox and other folders on a corporate mail server, and you can view and edit common attachment types such as Word and Excel. With a $100 Targus Stowaway folding keyboard, I think I could get away without a laptop, at least on short trips.

All this power and flexibility comes at a price. PocketPC networking is quite easy to use, but it can be very difficult to set up. And although Microsoft (MSFT ) says there will be a setup wizard to simplify the task, it was not available in time for me to test. Even with the wizard, setting up a PocketPC for corporate use may require help from corporate tech support.

Both Palm and Handspring will come out with new wireless models around the end of the year, but there's no way any Palm can compete with the PocketPC's networking prowess at least until new designs, using a new operating system, hit the market. That's at least a year off.

For now, Palm and PocketPC handhelds seem to be less direct competitors than products that, despite a considerable overlap in function, are really designed for different markets. If your primary requirement is a simple and reliable way to carry contact and calendar information with limited communications requirements, you won't go wrong with a Palm. If, however, you need a handheld with sophisticated networking ability, the PocketPC may well be your best choice.


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