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The Palm Pilot Is Tough To Beat

By Shakil Ahmed

Nowadays your most important computer may not be the one that sits atop your desk.  At least that’s the consensus at our office where the Palm Pilot is king.  Created by 3COM in 1996, the Palm has inspired a host of imitators from Microsoft, Compaq, HP and others.  However, in our opinion these other hand-helds don’t hold a candle to the original.

This opinion was reinforced recently after I had a chance to look at the “Pocket PC” series such as the new HP Jornada 545.  It’s not that the Pocket PC doesn’t have cool features.   I agree with Walt Mossberg, a technology writer at the Wall Street Journal, who said in a recent column “the Pocket PC isn't inferior to the Palm for lack of features or power. It's inferior because it's just not the same kind of simple, focused product.”

I believe that what Mr. Mossberg is getting at is that the Palm is a digital appliance—rather than a shrunken PC--which is counted upon to do all the things we’d expect of a computer. The Palm is designed to done a few things very well rather than a traditional desktop PC, which is expected to do numerous tasks—some of which it does not perform with the greatest of ease.

What the Palm does exceedingly well is manage functions such as address book, calendar, to-do lists memos and email. The cool thing is that you can also synchronize your lists, email, address book, etc. with your desktop computer quite easily.   All you do is place the device in its cradle and press a button.  The unit’s pocket size, reliability, simplicity and long battery life (especially compared to the laptop that I’m creating this column on) are exceptional.  The Palm can also run numerous other third party programs.  For example, there’s a terrific PIM (Personal Information Manager) program called Info Select that organizes notes and lists in a free form manner. It’s been available on the PC for years but now been adapted to the Palm series and is available from Micro Logic (www.miclog.com) for around $70.

A Few Idiosyncrasies

Although the Palm Pilot dominates its class of technology there are still some idiosyncrasies that you have to get used to.  Sometimes the touch screen operates less that perfectly.  You have to tap the tiny screen with just the right amount of strength to get the thing to function and if you don’t keep your eye on the battery you’ll find yourself with one dead Palm Pilot at the most inopportune time.  Oh yes, I should also mention that there was that an occasion when my batteries ran out and all my data somehow was erased.  However, no worries. By synchronizing the unit with the computer I was home free. (I must say, though had I been on the Mainland on the way to a business meeting when this occurred it would have been a real pain).

A Useful Tool

However, these complaints are minor compared the great utility derived from the Palm.  Blaine Kimura, who runs our company’s networking division, explained that quite a few of our clients employ the Palm Pilot in unique ways.

“We have clients,” said Blaine, “who use their Palm Pilots to stay connected 24/7 with access to messaging and the latest financial and industry news via wireless Internet services such as those provided by Palm and OmniSky a company that provides wireless services for the Palm V”.

The types of applications that the Palm is capable of include:

        Synchronization of data with corporate groupware systems and desktop Personal Information Managers (i.e. Microsoft Outlook)

        Portability of Microsoft Word and Excel data via programs such as “Documents to Go”

        Remote connectivity to email and the Internet via modem attachments from hotel and conference rooms on the mainland.

        Conference and meeting note taking using portable keyboard attachments

Comparing Apples and Oranges

So let’s get back to comparing the Palm to the new devices from Microsoft & Co.  As I mentioned earlier the new Pocket PCs are pretty much shrunken PCs that are built to handle many functions.  Inherent within this design is that there are going to be compromises.  My hunch is that the more you expect of a Pocket PC (or any PC for that matter) the more you’re going to be disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are some cool features in the new Pocket PCs. They have color screens and digital music players.  You can also run stripped down versions of Word, Excel and Outlook.  However, the majority of people are really not going to need that kind of stuff.   I primarily use the Palm as an address book or a memo pad that enables me to stash the directions to my next meeting.

Then there’s price.  The Pocket PC gizmos cost around twice as much as the Palms ($500 vs. $270) and they weigh more than twice the amount (9 ounces vs. 4 ounces). 

There’s also an issue with battery life. The Pocket PCs will give you a whole 8 hours of use in between charges.  On the other hand, my modest Palm IIIe can last for a month or more with a couple of AA batteries.  Ditto with the Palm V which charges off it’s cradle mount and has a built in battery.

Perhaps in a few generations the Pocket PC will evolve into a must have gizmo for the masses but we’re not ditching the Palm Pilot at our company.  As Wall Street Journal reporter, Walt Mossberg says of the Palm, “Sometimes, less really is more.”  We’re with you, Walt.

Shakil Ahmed is the founder of PDC Systems, a Honolulu computer and networking company established in 1991. Questions or comments should be addressed to askshak@pdcsystems.com

Pacific Business News - June 30, 2000

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