Editor's note: This column is part of a two-day series on handheld devices, running May 6 and May 7. An overview details
You ain't seen nothin' yet.
That's the premise, and the promise, of the wireless handheld computing devices we'll see coming to market starting this summer. They're more useful, as a class, than the "unconnected"
machines we've seen so far, but they'll nonetheless provide only a glimmer of how useful these gizmos will be when they hit their stride.
When will that be? Say, two to three years from now. But take that guess with the large grain of salt reserved for how-fast-technology-will-evolve estimates: Things almost always happen faster than we expect.
subsidiary will get most of the attention this year, with the new
. (What happened to the Palm VI? Rumors say it was a short-of-wireless model under development but killed when Palm co-founders Donna Dubinsky and Jeff Hawkins left 3Com last year to form
, a start-up that has licensed the rights to the Palm platform, and is understood to be working on consumer-oriented Palm-like devices.)
A substantial increase in power over the current Palm IIIx and Palm V, the VII adds wireless connectivity. PalmPilots have long been able to get connected via modems and have been marginally useful for wired Internet email. But with the Palm VII, the handheld category moves into serious wireless connectivity.
Palm has struck deals with such information providers as
The Weather Channel
to provide data in a form usable by the Palm VII. Palm promises monthly fees as low as $10 for its
wireless Internet service -- though individuals can expect that number to climb fast as usage increases beyond a bare minimum.
And that "wireless Internet service" term can be deceptive. Even Palm execs admit that the machine would be a lousy Web browser: There just isn't enough screen real estate. Robust email will be questionable, too, since the Palms have no keyboard. Yes, you can tap-tap-tap on Palms' picture of a keyboard, and you can also use
, its "gesture-based" character-recognition handwriting input. But you won't want to write more than a few words of an email message using either system.
But the Palm VII promises to be a
messaging machine -- that is, an incoming email device -- a very smart pager, if you will. Add the promised access to financial, news and weather sources, and it looks pretty good.
You'll pay a stiff price -- Palm says the VII will be priced at just under $800 -- for that functionality. But I think many current PalmPilot users (who will not be able to upgrade their units, but may be offered trade-ins), and a large number of newcomers, will be seduced by the Palm VII.
Still, the Palm VII is only a stab at what wireless handheld devices can and will become over the next few years. We'll see a long list of new and generally useful functions, and as display size, user interface, battery life and wireless-infrastructure issues are resolved, you'll probably find one of these pocketable -- if only barely -- devices essential.
The battery-life and infrastructure issues are the most daunting.
Handheld computers, even the most efficient ones, consume relatively large amounts of electricity. Adding wireless connectivity adds to the power draw, since the always-on nature of two-way wireless communication means a small current is being drawn by the device even when you're not actively using it.
The original PalmPilots charmed users with great battery life; reports of going a month between charges were common. Windows CE machines (about which, more in a minute) generally do less well. And the newest, sexiest Palm, the Palm V, intentionally sacrifices battery life in favor of a near-perfect form factor and better screen brightness.
Wireless receiving and sending means an even greater power draw than in the unconnected Palms and CE boxes. What all these pocketable computers really need is something like
flat-pack battery -- the power supply built into every Polaroid SX-70 film pack -- but the operating life would be too short. Today's AA and AAA alkaline and lithium disposables and nickel-metal-hydride rechargeable batteries both offer enough juice (if not necessarily for long enough), but are much larger and heavier. New rechargeable lithium ion and other battery technologies on the horizon offer longer working lives between charges and are key to more useful pocket computers.
Wireless infrastructure is also limited -- a polite way of saying early Palm VII buyers won't be able to use them for wireless communications everywhere -- and caught in something of a chicken-and-egg syndrome, the infrastructure is likely to expand only as fast, or not quite as fast, as the market for handhelds themselves.
BellSouth Wireless Data
, a unit of
, is providing palm.net connectivity; coverage is nationwide, but with huge gaps, predictably, between the urban areas BellSouth has so far focused on. (View current BellSouth Wireless Network coverage on this
Software development tools will be important in growing this market, especially since displaying incoming wireless data on these devices' small screens requires reformatting of information usually laid out for PC's Web-browser-size displays. Palm has been striking smart deals with developers of wireless-prep software tools. With about 3,000 developers already writing tools and applications for existing PalmPilots, building on that base of generally happy developers won't be hard. But wireless development is a much larger undertaking than, say, writing a note-taking or calendaring application, so progress will be slow.
may be Palm's most important early wireless-tools partner. Its suite of "wireless integration" products is the current best-of-breed series to help information providers get data into shape for transmission to Palm VII users.
What are some of the new applications that will turn wireless handhelds from nifty toys to must-haves? Look for these to emerge over the next couple of years:
functionality will make calling much easier than with your
, since your "phone book" will already be loaded in your handheld. Look for
functions as well;
will also be a basic feature.
GPS satellite navigation
, combined with downloaded detailed maps of your area, will help you find and drive directly to new addresses -- and find the right turnoff in time, even on LA freeways.
for dictation is an obvious addition (and included in current Windows CE devices); onboard
will let you dictate emails and letters, then send them as emails.
Beyond what you can build in, consider how wireless connectivity will allow you to add services, as opposed to applications, that make these pocket computers even more essential.
has been running what amounts to a concept ad, touting live, online translation as an example of a handheld wireless system's value. Before you meet with your client in Beijing, just connect to a pay-by-the-minute translation service on your handheld, provide your credit card number, then get real-time two-way translation via the unit's speaker phone as you discuss that big contract.
Or use your handheld and one of the several online group-calendaring services to set up a teleconference, then record it and turn it into an email-able transcript or action-points outline on your handheld.
Or switch between
and E*Trade to get insight into what's happening in the market, then make fast trades to exploit market movements.
Wireless connectivity makes this possible -- and turns what have been clever but hardly essential tech toys into tools I think most businesspeople will decide they simply must have. But not this year. Or next.
The joker here, at least from 3Com/Palm's perspective, is how fast and how well
can establish successive, more-capable versions of Windows CE in the marketplace by persuading its hardware partners to produce more interesting wireless CE handhelds.
So far, WinCE handhelds have been all over the lot, from the stylish but limited
to Compaq's pretty but irrelevant new
with its awful color display. The Palm-vs.-Windows CE contest has so far been a seesaw, with successive generations of machines on each side playing "Can you top this?" ... but only by a little.
The potential, at least, of thin, elegant, powerful wireless handhelds based on Windows CE is great, since integration with typical PC desktop data sources is much easier. But that remains potential. With the Palm VII, Palm Computing has jumped a generation ahead. The response, coming later this year, by Microsoft and its hardware partners feels modest and late.
No one should discount the difficulty and the pain of competing with Microsoft. Remember that Palm made its mark and won a couple of million happy customers not by emphasizing the breadth of functions offered by Windows CE, but rather by focusing on only a few well-designed functions, packed into a small case, with excellent battery life.
That lesson still seems lost on Microsoft ... and as we stand on the brink of the Wireless Age for handhelds, there's little evidence that Microsoft is about to wake up.
Jim Seymour is president of Seymour Group, an information-strategies consulting firm working with corporate clients in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and a longtime columnist for PC Magazine. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. At time of publication, neither Seymour nor Seymour Group held positions in the companies discussed in this column, although positions can change at any time. Seymour does not write about companies that are consulting clients of Seymour Group, or have been in recent years. While Seymour cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites your feedback at