Veitch Speaks: Handhelds up for grabs

A palmtop computer may be cool but is it better than a smart phone or an intelligent pager ? Decide carefully or you may to live to regret it, says Martin Veitch

For a long time, handheld computers have been the orchids of computing hardware: cool, desirable, another country entirely. In truth though, for many users they've rarely been more than a slightly weightier, much more expensive version of the trusty paper diary. In 1997, after a year using one of the best products in the category - the US Robotics Pilot - I swapped back to the redoubtable Ladbrokes Racing Diary. Now, despite the refusal of the Racing Post to issue dates for the next meeting at Market Rasen as a downloadable Java applet, I'm ready to move back into the electronic age.

I think a lot of you enterprise users feel the same. You're ready to take palm-based data seriously, albeit for different reasons to mine. For solo users like me it's because the products have finally matured to something truly portable, truly usable and truly affordable. I can carry a personal digital assistant around without it weighing me down. I can get data easily into its storage device and transport that data to my ‘real' computer without too many hassles. If my job requires it, the thing can double up as a business machine where I store meeting notes, appointments and contact data.

For you, the interest is more likely to result from the choice of application software, connectivity to desktop and back-end data, and a compelling business requirement that makes it possible to convince the financial director these aren't glorified Tamagotchi baubles.

I'd argue that there are some great products out there - and plenty more coming down the road - but also that there are snakes in the grass. You had better be smart making choices now or you might live to regret it. First the good news: the products are here. OK, so if you're a Psion user, the product has been here for several years. The UK's last representative in computing makes fine products - but users do tend to patronise the hell out of everybody who isn't a believer.

US Robotics' Pilot really exemplified that overused phrase, paradigm shift. The format is a real breakthrough, the user-interface elegant, the apps usable. It's just a pity that the original had a dull screen that needed good ambient lighting and that US Robotics purchaser 3Com couldn't leave the product name alone. So now it's the 3Com Palm III although everybody calls it something different - so much for brand equity.

Franklin's Rex is an interesting contender: a PC Card-sized device that is a marvel, albeit a read-only one for now. As for Windows CE, well that's the bad news. Has Microsoft ever made such a pig's ear of any of its previous efforts? The answer is yes - Windows for Pen Computing anybody?

But in handhelds, Microsoft has been trying and failing for a long time and its latest efforts don't show it getting much better. Its best bet appears to be at the top-end. The colour screen devices are nice, if pricey, and especially useful now that PowerPoint presentations can be created and edited in CE 2.0. But the bottom line is that CE is resource-hungry, rather inelegant and isn't selling.

So even if you're a Microsoft shop, beware of going with CE and take a long look at some possible future developments, especially Symbian, the consortium that brings together Psion's handheld OS with the backing of the big names in cellular phones.

Smart phone, intelligent pager or handheld PC? The next 12 months will surely go a long way to deciding the future direction of data in the palm.