Can PocketPC finally break Palm's grip?

Will Microsoft finally muscle its way into the PDA market?

LAS VEGAS -- Comdex/Fall '00 is a major milestone in the advancement of the PDA (handheld, or whatever you want to call it) as a platform. The things are everywhere: Attendees in cab lines are using them to take notes and check their schedules; exhibitors are using them to show their latest wares; heck, I even spotted the things on the casino floor!

It should come as a surprise to no one that the PDA platform is growing. After all, it makes a lot of sense to own a $150 pocket-sized computer, especially for businesspeople on the go. Having access to your contacts and calendars is an indispensable business tool, especially while traveling. Add wireless Internet access to the equation, and you have an extremely compelling platform.

PDA vendors such as Palm, Handspring, Sony, Compaq, HP, and Casio recognize this financial imperative, and each brought its best wares to hawk at Comdex.

The strength of Microsoft Corp.'s marketing muscle is apparent as soon as you enter the Las Vegas Convention Center. The throngs of people wearing Microsoft lanyards and carrying Microsoft bags and other tsotchkes are evidence of the full-court press that the company is putting on at Comdex. But the physical evidence is just the beginning.

I promised myself that I was not going to get caught up in the PocketPC hype before I even arrived at the LVCC, but almost immediately after entering the South Hall, (and promptly acquiring a Microsoft lanyard and shopping bag), all that was out the window. Microsoft is the scrappy underdog in the PDA race, but one with a lot of money to spend.

Microsoft's sprawling PocketPC booth and hands-on demonstration area is easy to get absorbed in; after all Pocket PC gives good demo. The new PDA models are bright and flashy and almost impossible to ignore. The new Compaq iPaq H3650 ($519) is extremely flashy and looks like a futuristic perif out of a James Bond movie, as do the HP Jornada 540 ($489) and Casio E-125 ($599).

The things are colorful, shiny -- and loud. Loaded with the Windows Media Player and IBM MicroDrives playing endless loops of decent music and video, the tiny devices just draw you in. I found myself playing with an iPaq for about 20 minutes before I had to force myself to put the thing down. Sir! Step away from the PocketPC!

The problem with PocketPCs is that they are essentially expensive peripherals with several features that you really don't need. Sure you can buy a $500 Waterman pen, but a less expensive (or free) model will usually write just as well.

The new generation of Pocket PCs have MP3 players built in, and they can even play full-length movies courtesy of the new 1GB IBM MicroDrive, but is all this really necessary when you just need a few phone numbers and access to a calendar? OK, some people will use all this stuff, but it leans more toward the entertainment side of the fence than productivity -- the traditional Palm stronghold.

Easily the most compelling Comdex manifestation of the PocketPC platform was the demo of the new Ricochet PC cards from Novatel and Sierra Wireless. The PC card and service enable you get online and surf the Web at an astonishing 128 Kbps -- almost three times as fast as the best dial-up connection I can achieve with a wire. The only caveat is that you must live in an area that has Ricochet service. Unlike CDPD and other cellular protocols, Ricochet requires your area to be wired with special base stations that are mounted atop telephone poles and street lights every quarter to half mile.

The coolest thing about PocketPC devices is that you can insert a full-size PC card into some of them, like the iPaq 3600. Adding the Novatel Merlin for Ricochet (available in December, exact price and availability to be announced later this year) or the Sierra Wireless AirCard 400 ($329 Q1 2001) to the iPaq turns it into a fire-breathing Web devices that puts CDPD dial-up service, like that found in the Palm VII or Omnisky, to shame.

When you take into account that Ricochet is only available in limited areas and that it can be rather pricey ($70 per month for unlimited access), CDPD modems are not a bad alternative. But if you are lucky enough to have Ricochet coverage in your area and you are independently wealthy, run, don't walk to your nearest vendor to pick up this killer combination.

The MP3s and movies are all good to look at show your friends, but a 128-Kbps Internet-enabled handheld has got to be the sexiest and most useful PDA to come around the block. Now, if I could only use the Ricochet PC card with a Palm or Visor. ...

Jason D. O'Grady is is the head of the wireless practice at Odyssey Systems Corp. and publisher of Go2Mac.com and PalmLounge.com.

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