Kewney: Latest Pilot is nothing new

The mystery of the "secret" 'Pilot III' may be solved. The reason we thought we knew nothing about it? There's not much new to tell.

Announced Monday this week, the main difference visible, is a small infra-red "eye" that enables the new Palm III (new name) to send messages to another. The software is improved, but not to the point that you will want to throw away the old model and upgrade.

Ed Colligan, marketing boss at 3Com Palm Computing, got quite huffy with this analysis. "Oh well, quite a few of the people we've showed it to have been very, very excited," he said. And then, without a noticeable comma in the sentence, he added: "But the idea was not to get caught up in the PC mentality of feature, feature, feature."

The really interesting thing about the new version, is that it will be launched in Europe first (at the Hanover CeBIT show).

It's bigger (2Mb of RAM and a bigger program store); prettier (with a fold-down cover to protect the screen); and smarter (an infra-red link, and some software to improve database replication); and is aggressively priced at £300 for the full 2Mb version in the UK. Also, an upgrade package of both hardware and software will cost just over £100 and can be installed by anybody.

"We don't want to be driven by the PC mentality. The PC business and PC press is so driven by 'new features' that we've actually had our customers begging us not to change anything, not to go that way," says Colligan but that is only part of the story.

First off, he definitely does have other products in the wings. "I'm not saying what," he said, "but they won't be in the 'connected organiser' business." He won't talk about wireless or phones, for example.

But the real reason almost nothing new has been announced, is simpler than that. The Pilot remains unchallenged in the US market by other hand-held platforms. Indeed, 3Com can show market research indicating that never in this history of the consumer market has a new electronic device been adopted so fast. It has reached the million-user level in roughly half the time it took Sony to sell a million Walkman personal stereo units.

I do know people who are excited about the Windows CE II or Palm PC; but the imminent arrival of Windows CE in its second version, has failed to distract developers of Palm applications, with 5,000 software and hardware companies signed up with development kits. That, honestly, isn't the problem facing Palm Computing. Nor is it a shortage of 'kewl' features.

The inclusion of IRDA infra-red communications is limited to comms with other Palm III units. "We've reached critical mass, and people will want to beam messages to each other," said Colligan.

He dismissed the idea that some users might want to use the IRDA port to communicate with a PC. "The reality of PC IRDA is that it's a configuration nightmare, and we don't want to get caught in the middle of it. Inter-Pilot communication is a real value add; but for synchronisation of databases with a PC, a reliable cable connection is far more suitable."

The bandwagon is rolling. IBM has licensed the design. So, as reported earlier, has Symbol -- which will release a water-proof ruggedised version for use under-sea! in December. So have others.

What's really interesting isn't the hardware, it's the connectivity.

We've seen research showing just how far ahead of the competition Pilot (Palm III) now is, but scratch the US label off that research, and an interesting imbalance shows. In Europe, Palm is not yet market leader - Psion is. I can't find out how Psion Series 5 is doing compared to the classic Series 3;but between the two, they have over 50 per cent of European handheld organiser sales.

Both machines now have software available to turn them into corporate dog-tags. Both Palm III and Psion 5 can be plugged into your corporate Lotus Notes network. All your data appears in the Notes database, and all the data from there, is replicated to your pocket assistant.

I've tried this, and not been overwhelmed.

If it ever gets to the stage where it works relatively easily, and doesn't fill my Notes database up with ghost messages, I'll still be sceptical.

Here's my problem: if my company buys me a Pilot, for integration with my Notes, then of course I'll use it. But right now, my Pilot is my personal assistant, not the employer's. So I've deleted Notes replication, and gone back to my own, private PC with my own private phone list and agenda.

Frankly, I don't need corporate sermons on my own time.