PDAs: The new must-haves

PDAs have pervaded so many applications that it is getting difficult to ignore their presence in the computing scene. And why not, when it can double up as a pocket camera, a dictaphone or even an MP3 player.

You can configure a Cisco router with it and also use it as a portable movie player. Put your entire employee database on it, or use it to read an eBook on the bus. It can double up as a pocket camera, or an MP3 player, or a dictaphone. What is it?

INDIA (ZDNet India)-- Well, no prizes for guessing this one. PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) have pervaded so many applications that it is getting difficult to ignore their presence in the computing scene, not just abroad but in India as well. And by PDAs we are not just referring to systems that allow you to maintain schedules or calculate but systems that are capable of performing most computing tasks.

Take a look around you. People are using their handhelds to write letters in Word and do their accounts in Excel. They are browsing the Web using their PDA’s clip-on modem, or hooking it up to a mobile phone to check their e-mail.

Somewhere right now, someone is playing Quake on his teeny weeny Pocket PC, while someone else is using her Palm to send SMS messages to a mobile phone, or chat on ICQ. Linux fans are installing a stripped down version of the OS for the PDA and journalists are using theirs to take notes, compile news reports and meet deadlines. Need more persuasion? Here are some dedicated PDA users who will surely make a convert out of you.

Getting the job done
Meet Ashish Gupta. He stumbled on to PDAs quite by accident and was so taken in that he eventually founded the Indian Palm User Group (IPUG). “It all started when my dad brought home a Palm from his travels. He wanted me to check it out and see if it was useful. After sometime I got so hooked that I never gave it back.”

A busy executive, Gupta has found his faithful travelling companion in his Palm PDA. “When I leave home, I just download mail from my PC on to my Palm and check it during the commute. I also read eBooks and online newspapers, which I download from my PC on to the Palm.”

Whenever he goes out of station, he uses his PDA modem to stay connected. “All I have to do is just plug the modem into the hotel room’s telephone socket and get on the Internet. In case this is not possible, I use the IR port of my PDA to connect to my mobile phone and get connected to the Net.”

Gupta is among the 70 per cent of PDA users who use a product from the popular Palm family of devices, developed by 3Com. Other PDA manufacturers include Handspring, Compaq, HP, Psion, Sharp, Hitachi, and IBM. Palm and Pocket PC are leaders in the PDA spectrum. Both have their own operating systems on which their devices run.

While the Palm OS has been designed keeping in mind simplicity and maximum efficiency, the Pocket PC OS is a variation of the Windows CE system (the operating system from Microsoft for the handheld devices). While Palm is still a hot favourite among PDA-users, Pocket PC based devices are also doing their fair share of personal digital assistantship.

Janees E K, an M.Tech student of Computer Science at IIT, Mumbai, is the proud owner of one such device. Gifted with a Cassiopeia during his B.Tech days at M.E.S College of Engineering, Kerala, he lost no time in putting it to task.

“I found that it was easy to draw the diagrams that we had as part of the course on my Cassiopeia. It was very easy to organise my notes afterwards as I didn’t have to worry about losing any paper notes.” He uses the PDA to work on Word and Excel, and for playing games. Janees also had a go at developing applications for Windows CE. “I did some programming using Visual C++ for the CE toolkit.”

Not just businessmen and students, even professionals in fields such as law and medicine are arming themselves with tiny digital helpers.

While you’re probably more likely to see a doctor with a PDA in some American flick, it is a trend that is catching up in India.

Dr Behram Pardiwala of Mumbai uses this unusual assistant to help him in his hectic schedule. “Whether it is for checking mail on trips using Eudora or for jotting quick observations using Graffiti, I find that my efficiency as a physician has tremendously improved after getting my Palm. My PDA helps me keep in touch with my patients. AvantGo! is a good browser which I regularly use for browsing while on a trip. The PDA also helps me in keeping patient data organised,” he goes on to add.

Several developers have come out with medical software for use on PDAs. Drug reference guides and infectious disease guides are hot favourites among the medical fraternity, because they provide instant and accurate medical information at the tap of a stylus.

Another boon to practising doctors is pharmacopoeias, which provide various essential details on contraindications, drug interactions, and adverse reactions.

After all, which doctor wouldn’t like the convenience of instantly referring to a pharmacopoeia before giving a prescription? It would save him considerable amount of time as compared to going through the huge volumes that he would traditionally have to refer to.

Dr Pardiwala uses ePocrates qRx, a clinical drug database for Palm PDAs that contains information on more than 99 per cent of the commonly prescribed drugs, for checking up on a prescription. “More physicians should take up the use of PDAs. Being techno-savvy in this case has helped me and I feel that it will benefit the medical fraternity a lot,” he adds.

Some of the other medical software for PDAs doing the rounds are those used for patient management and tracking, medical billing and medical/ surgical procedure tracking.

Before you get a PDA
By now you’re probably checking to see if a handheld will fit into your budget for this quarter. But before you go rushing out to buy one, hold on for a second. First determine why you want a PDA and whether you really require it.

If all you want to do is keep track of contacts, appointments and do calculations, you’re better off with an ordinary organiser. On the other hand, if you are one of those people who have to regularly take work home, and you can’t afford a laptop, this is a great option.

PDAs can work on all common office software such as Microsoft Office. There are numerous uses of a PDA other than the ones mentioned here and more are being discovered daily.

Once you’ve decided that this is the thing for you, the next issue is, how do you get hold of one? No PDAs are being manufactured in India at present, except for a brief attempt by Videocon to market the daVinci handheld some time back.

Some agencies are importing PDAs, but because of various duties and other taxes, an entry-level model worth Rs 9,000 might cost you as much as Rs 15,000 when you buy it from them. So it’s probably better to get some friend or relative to bring one for you from abroad.

A base model costs approximately Rs 7,000 with prices going all the way up to Rs 45,000 for high-end models. But think of it this way—you are getting a mobile computing device at less than one-fourth the price of an entry-level laptop.

Oh yes! Don’t forget to add the cost of ‘optional’ accessories such as clip-on modems, foldable keyboards and battery-rechargers. Face it, these costs will be inevitable once you get hooked. And you will.