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Psion PSection

Psion prepares for the new millennium

By Ernest Lilley
January 2001, issue 37

When people think about the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, they usually think about HAL, the computer that slipped a cog and killed the spaceship Discovery's crew when it couldn't handle some conflicting programming it had been fed. While I love HAL and his rendition of Daisy, he upstages the real point of the movie, which is a whole lot easier to grasp if you had read the book first anyway.

When pre-man steps out of the cave and finds a big black monolith sitting there, he has about as much an idea of what's going on as the audience, but what's about to happen is an evolutionary shift in the way he thinks, courtesy of technology. Fast forward to the year 2001, and mankind makes another leap forward to the next step in his evolution. When author/futurist Arthur C. Clarke wrote that story in 1968, no one had any notion of handheld computers. In fact, even calculators came as a surprise to science fiction writers.

On the eve of the real new millennium, the way humans think is about to be fundamentally changed by technology.

I've been banging away on my Psion Series 5mx for a while now, and it's been and still is a truly useful machine. It wasn't the first handheld I owned (that was a DOS-running HP 95LX) but it has been the most useful. Now it is a dinosaur.

In fact, it's about the last of the dinosaurs, because Psion has been holding back this past year on jumping forward in product evolution while they laid some groundwork for the future.

The 5mx is likely the last of a dying breed of handhelds. It's largely unconnected to the web, though thanks to its IR port and the Psion IR Travel Modem, it has some of the evolutionary connectivity of the creatures that will replace it, though in a comparatively crude fashion. It uses two AA batteries and a backup lithium, and the batteries last for weeks of regular use. Lastly, its display is a simple grayscale. But all that's going to change. In fact, as this column comes out at Comdex 2000 in Las Vegas, I'm probably signing a non-disclosure agreement in a Psion conference room and ogling things to come.

The next generation of handhelds will likely have integrated wireless connections, rechargeable batteries that only last for a day or two, and color displays. I've heard a number of folks ask for replaceable batteries to be kept in the design, but it's just not going to happen. The power requirements of color displays are too high for it to be practical, but I'll miss the assurance that you can always pop in new batteries and be ready to go. Of course you know this already, so I'll get to the point. Crystal in WAPLand

The nature of knowledge is about to change with the new millennium, and largely by devices like the one pictured above, seen on the Norwegian website WAPland, purporting to be a sneak peek at Psion's prototype “Crystal" handheld. Incidentally, my sources at Psion indicate that whether or not Norwegians are prone to hallucinations, these pictures are considerably closer to the truth than the rumor of a red-nosed reindeer.

Up till now, being smart was as much a matter of how many facts you had committed to memory as how good you were at putting them together. The Internet has been changing that, but only for people who happened to be at a computer. Wireless handhelds are gong to fundamentally change the rest of us. Now intelligence is going to depend largely on your ability to acquire and integrate information on the fly. It's 2001, and nothing less than the sum total of all mankind's collected knowledge is at your fingertips 24 hours a day. By the way, 2001 will be re-released in December in a new digitally remastered version.

But enough of that. What are Psion and Symbian up to now?

As I mentioned above, despite the release of the Revo, it's been a quiet year on the product front. The Revo is a slimmed-down Series 5 and IR modems are only a stopgap on the road to wireless. But Psion has been very, very busy nonetheless. Like a good Monopoly player, Psion has spent the last year putting hotels on Park Place while other players collected easier money. What I mean to say is that they've been focusing on the infrastructure of the business in order to be able to move product when it comes out. Just this past October, Psion bought its French distributor, Tournachon, for £4.3 million, in order to strengthen its distribution capability in its major markets. Earlier this summer they signed an agreement with S3, a US based firm that makes handheld MP3 players, for much the same reason. Although Psion sells both the Revo and Series 5mx in stores like CompUSA, they feel strongly that S3 has better market penetration here and will allow them better positioning in stores.

So far, the S3 deal has only yielded one product, a re-labeled Revo Plus under the S3 brand name being sold as a Diamond Mako for $399. While the product has so far been met with limited enthusiasm, Psion was more interested in having something out there to keep people thinking about the collaboration. New products will come soon, both companies promise, and they will reflect the strengths of both companies, Psion for computing and S3 for media. Legacy support: PsiWin 2000?

How about those of us who will still have our legacy devices? Is Psion doing anything to keep us in the loop? Well, not a whole lot. There is a fix promised for PsiWin so that it has better compatibility with Windows 2000. I've been watching the newsgroups on this and while most people have been able to run PsiWin 2.3 under Win 2000, a few just can't get it to work. Psion says they know about this and will have a fix out, hopefully by the end of the year. No USB for the Revo or Series 5mx though.

One note on using PsiWin 2.3 under Windows 2000: I find that it runs great the first time I use it, but if I disconnect my 5mx from the desktop and try to use it a second time it just sits there. Opening the Task Manager (ctrl-alt-del) and ending PSCONSV.EXE and PRC32ENG.EXE seems to let you start over and reconnect. Otherwise, I've found it to work well.

By the way, remember Y2K? I'm kind of happy the way things turned out. Last year was the frantic end of a the 20th century and this year is the beginning of the 21st. Something I'm looking forward to.

See you next century. -

For comments, email Ernest Lilley.

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