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From the Editor (August 1999)

Palm OS and Win CE -- troubling growing pains

The dog days of summer are usually a slow time for technology news, so it was a pleasant surprise to see quite a bit of summertime activity in the pen and mobile sector this year. In this issue you'll find full reviews of several landmark products, among them the sleek new Stylistic LT from Fujitsu Personal Systems, Hitachi's Windows CE based "ePlate" pen tablet, and, of course, the controversial Palm VII, 3Com's wireless experiment.

I'm sure I am not the only one who's scratching his head over 3Com's release strategy for the Palm VII. The device was announced last fall and information on it was readily available. Yet, no official product shots existed—not really a big deal as it looks just like a slightly longer Palm III with an antenna—and 3Com seemed to play this cat and mouse game with the press. Just as 3Com blindsided much of the press with the Palm V and IIIx introduction, the company also never revealed the release date of the Palm VII. I asked both in my capacity as editor-in-chief of Pen Computing and as a contributor to Fortune magazine's Technology Buyer's Guide where I am responsible for the mobile technology section but never got an answer. When I finally got one of the 100 Palm VIIs 3Com gave away at DemoMobile 99 for a “field test,” I had to sign a NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) that, incredibly, was open-ended and hasn't been officially revoked.

I spent plenty of time with the Palm VII and had a lot of feedback, but no one at 3Com seemed to be interested in hearing it. E-mails went unanswered. The couple of "surveys" that were sent during the field test were disappointingly shallow, self-serving, and totally avoided the real problems the VII faces. But let me back up a bit. For those who are not familiar with the Palm VII, it is basically a Palm III with a wireless radio in it. You can send and receive wireless e-mail, and there are a number of "web clippings" that you can use to find ATMs, flight schedules, the weather, sports scores, news, and so on. All in all the VII comes with about 25 such mini applications, and you can download new ones from Palm's website.

So far so good. Some of the apps are quite useful, others are too limited, and some are mere infomercials to sign up for a pay service. I am a big basketball fan, so I often checked the Sacramento Kings' scores during games on the ESPN applet and I also used the VII to send e-mail when I travelled. When I checked the charges I had accumulated after three weeks of moderate use, I was in for an unpleasant surprise. Checking those scores and a few e-mails would have cost me over 90 dollars (we all had free accounts during the field trial). That's a big chunk of change, especially since 3Com's rumor-marketing had sort of created the impression that the wonderful wireless web access would be $9.99 a month. Well, there is a $9.99 plan, but if you plan on using the VII at all, you'll use that up in a few days. I eventually opted for the $24.99 plan but found myself so wary of racking up big charges that I was almost afraid to use the VII at all. Not exactly the kind of relationship you want with your organizer.

Then there's coverage. The Palm VII uses the BellSouth Wireless Data network formerly known as RAM MobileData. As far as wireless goes, it provides good coverage in over 260 metropolitan areas. Problem is that you never really know if you'll have coverage or not. I witnessed a strong signal in rather deserted places and no signal at all in some heavily populated areas. And once you enter certain types of buildings, the signal goes away entirely.

Palm also neglected to exploit an inherent advantage of wireless e-mail: instant notification. With the Palm VII, you still have to go get your e-mail. My RIM Inter@active 950—an incredibly useful device—uses the same network but alerts me whenever an e-mail comes in. As a result, I've stopped using the Palm VII altogether and went back to my RIM 950 for wireless e-mail.

I still think the Palm VII is a cool product and 3Com should be applauded for sticking its neck out with exploring wireless functionality in a consumer market device. They also did a marvelous job with the battery. Wireless devices have a tendency to eat batteries alive. On the Palm VII, battery life simply isn't an issue. It must be magic. However, between the VII's drab design, a badly handled field trial, the refusal to work with the press on release schedules, the cost of wireless service, and the coverage issue, the Palm VII seems like a missed opportunity at best and a PR disaster at worst.

And that is just one indication that all is not well at Palm. The platform clearly has a great deal of momentum these days, partially due to the sheer brilliance of most of Palm's products and partially due to Microsoft's seeming inability to provide a clear direction for Windows CE. But what about the abrupt departure (dismissal?) of former boss Robyn Abrams, the certain long-term impact of founders Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky's departure, and the Palm legal department's unfortunate tendency to send condescending letters to the press, lecturing on how we are to refer to and describe Palm products? I'm not saying the platform is in trouble (yet) and the relationship with the press can still be repaired. Perhaps it's just a matter of someone within 3Com/Palm providing strong guidance, or a stunner deal like Apple badged, iMac colored "iPalms." Now that'd be nice.

As mentioned above, a good part of Palm's ongoing success is Microsoft's inability to clearly explain what Windows CE is all about. This issue's big "Jupiter" shootout shows that the original H/PC concept has morphed into something entirely different, something which is increasingly difficult to explain as more and more "B5" mini notebooks come to market. On the palm-size front, the prospect of CE-powered multimedia devices is quite compelling. Casio's E-100/105 is one hell of a technology demonstration and as full of potential as any consumer electronics product in recent history. I hope Casio realizes what it has in the E-100. A few enhancements here and there and a marketing push might make the E-100 a megahit and create an entirely new class of devices: personal, pocket-sized multimedia machines.

There is also much Windows CE action in the vertical market arena. Over 20 industrial CE devices of varying ruggedness have already been announced, and many more are in the works. Some of the major players in industrial mobile computing are pretty much betting their future on Windows CE. Microsoft's mini OS is uniquely suited for the task even though porting existing applications to Windows CE has turned out to be a much bigger headache than Microsoft led developers to believe. That's because CE only supports a fraction of Windows' APIs, and there will inevitably be something in an application that CE doesn't support. Intermec's Norand division, for example, has so far invested 7,800 personhours in CE conversions of its main applications. Nonetheless, we're all used to Microsoft taking a few revs to get it right, and CE may soon come into its own.

As far as other platforms go, just when we were ready to declare Psion officially dead on the US market, the UK company releases the terrific Series 5mx and teases us with a Jupiter-sized, StrongARM-powered, color Psion code-named "Jedi" (see PenNews page 11). It is a truly superior device in every respect and we sincerely hope it will help keeping Psion's US mobile computing presence alive.

In this issue you'll find an interesting mix of features. Executive editor David MacNeill spent days on end installing alternate operating systems on his notebook, investigating their suitability for mobile computing (see "Linux Goes Mobile" on page 38). Fujitsu Personal Systems' new Stylistic LT provides all the power of the flagship Stylistic 2300 at roughly half the size and weight, sacrificing only battery life and a degree of ruggedness in the process. Hitachi's new SH-4 powered "ePlate" Windows CE tablet straddles the consumer and the vertical market both in design and features. We're impressed. The latest Frisbee from Ramline has become a surprisingly mature product with absolutely the brightest LCD we've ever seen. We also reviewed the latest member of Mitsubishi's AMiTY series of pen tablets, the AMiTY XP. It's much tougher than its filigreed predecessors and joint marketing with Symbol Technologies should result in much higher market penetration.

In this issue you'll also find some of the results of our exhaustive benchmark testing of every Windows CE device that passes the doors of our editorial offices. Unlike Intel processors and their clones, the various families of RISC processors used in CE devices actually have very different performance characteristics, excelling in certain areas and lagging in others. This could be of significant importance to anyone planning a CE device for a particular, narrowly defined purpose. Picking the right processor family for the job could result in a huge performance advantage. -

-Conrad H. Blickenstorfer is editor-in-chief of Pen Computing Magazine and general editor of Digital Camera Magazine. He is also a mobile technology contributor to the Fortune Magazine Technology Buyer's Guide.

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