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From the Editor (October 1999)

Palm OS and Win CE -- troubling growing pains

Despite a good number of exciting consumer product reviews, you'll find this issue of Pen Computing Magazine primarily dedicated to "vertical market" industrial computers and peripherals. This is partially because internally we call the October/November issue the "ScanTech" issue since its release coincides with Scan-Tech in Chicago, one of the most important industry trade shows of the year. It is also because the December/January issues (internally known as the "Comdex" issue) is generally dominated by consumer market products. So if you need an update on what's new and hot in industrial computers, this issue will be a treat.

Many readers have asked why we haven't been including Pen Computing's "Buyer's Guide" section in each issue. That's a good question as the "Buyer's Guide" consistently ranked among the most praised sections of the magazine. Well, here's the scoop. First of all, for the past two years we have published a special annual “Pen Computing Buyer's Guide.” The Guide is sort of a summary of everything we reviewed during the preceding twelve months, and contains much more detailed information than we used to provide in the Buyer's Guide section of the magazine. The second reason is that our advertising staff had been pestering us for years about dropping the Buyer's Guide. They claimed that many prospective advertisers turned them down, saying that they saw no need to spend money on advertising with us since their products were listed for free in the Buyer's Guide section.

As you can imagine, the relationship between a magazine's editorial and advertising departments can be a tedious one. Here in the editorial office, we want to bring you, our readers, unbiased and comprehensive coverage of all that is happening in mobile computing technology. The ad folks, of course, are besieged with requests for editorial coverage. And everyone is well aware that without ads there wouldn't be a magazine. As a result, you see many publications that have started running "infomercials" and advertising sections that are cleverly disguised as editorial. We will never resort to that. We also hope our advertisers appreciate the contributions Pen Computing Magazine has made to this industry and continue supporting us in our effort to cover everyone, whether they advertise with us or not.

Anyway, the Buyer's Guide is back as a regular section of the magazine. Since there are so many new products, we decided to split it into two parts, one listing vertical market and industrial computers and the other consumer products. We will run them alternately.

Updating the Buyer's Guide was an interesting (albeit very time-consuming) task. We mourned the loss of some very innovative pen computing champions (like Cruise Technologies), marvelled at how adept many vendors are at keeping proven designs technologically up-to-date, rolled our eyes over some vendors' now-you-see-me-now-you-don't product strategy (Hi, Big Blue), and felt validated in our belief in pen technology by the large number of new products released since we last ran the Buyer's Guide. We ended up listing over 70 products covering just about every aspect of the market, from small, ruggedized handhelds all the way to bullet-proof equipment that stretches the term "mobile." If we left out someone, let us know.

One aspect that makes covering this market so fascinating is the endless variety of form factors vendors come up with when they design computers to handle particular tasks. There's little variation in desktop and notebook computers these days, but the same doesn't hold true for mobile systems where form always follows function.

As a result, picking the right computer for a job involves much more than just checking off boxes in a list of performance criteria. The most powerful system may be useless when it doesn't fit into the work routine of the people who use it. In the best of all worlds, industrial computers would have all the performance of a high end desktop system, never run out of battery, have a screen that's perfect in any lighting condition, a keyboard that's large enough even for gloved hands or handwriting recognition that can reliably interpret the worst scribble. And, of course, that miraculous device would be light and small enough to fit into any pocket and cost next to nothing. That's Utopia.

In the real world, the road to success leads through many hours of figuring out what's required for the job and, more importantly, what is not. It is entirely possible that a given field force automation project is better served by a $149 CrossPad with custom forms than a $7,000 computer capable of running Windows NT. Then again, maybe not. Perhaps insisting on a keyboard is a wise move, one that makes the workforce actually uses their new systems. Then again, perhaps the clamshells turn out to be unusable for the job and teaching people how to use pen slates might have been better. Perhaps staying with the safety of a known, powerful operating system such as Windows turns out to be the right decision. Then again, maybe a full implementation of Windows may turns out to be overkill and Windows CE or the Palm OS may have been a better and much more economical choice.

As you look through the Buyer's Guide, you see that vendors are faced with these same questions. It's long been our belief that only a small portion of vertical market opportunities have been tapped. The vast majority of areas that would benefit from automation and computer support haven't made the step yet, primarily because equipment simply cost too much. Windows CE and the Palm OS may change that part of the equation. If you can get, for example, a Palm OS-based Symbol SPT-1500 with an industrial strength laser scanner for a few hundred dollars, a lot of companies will start using scanners for entirely new applications. In the same respect, Symbol will ask itself if the availability of much less expensive hardware won't cannibalize its more expensive product lines.

From what we can tell, virtually every vendor of vertical market mobile computers is at least cautiously optimistic in opening new markets with lower cost technology. As a result, a good number of new CE products have been announced. Let's take a quick pass through some of these product announcements.

The "Big Three" rugged industrial com-puter vendor—Symbol Technologies, Telx-on, and Intermec/Norand—have all an-nounced Windows CE-based products. Telxon equipped its venerable 1124 and 1134 product lines with new technology built around AMD's Elan chip set that can run both Windows CE and DOS. These products are now called the PTC-2124 and PTC-2134. Telxon also has a "flashlight"-style CE terminal, the PTC-960M. Intermec's Norand Mobile Systems Division has introduced the Pen*Key 600 line of small, but quite rugged, palmtop computers. They, too, are based on the Elan chipset and come in three version. One that runs DOS, one that runs Windows CE, and one that can handle Windows 95. Intermec itself contributes the flashlight-style Data Collection PC 5020, Symbol Technologies announced no less than three CE machines at ScanTech, the stunning PPT-2700 that shares its body with the Palm OS-based SPT-1700, the equally impressive, unique "PDA on a stick" PPT-7200, and the more traditional flash-light-style PPT-7500.

Among other notables, WPI Husky has been offering their impressive CE-based fex2l for several months, using the same “curved open book” design so successful in their ultra-rugged Windows 95 offerings. Fujitsu Personal Systems and Hitachi both offer handy little Windows CE pen slates. We reviewed the Hitachi ePlate in the last issue and the Fujitsu PenCentra in this one and came away more than impressed. Itronix has a very rugged Windows CE clamshell, the T5200; Kinetic the PC/Piranha meant for use in vehicles; Harris the Access Device 2000 which replaces a similar Newton-based design; TouchStar a special Windows CE version of its TouchPC Eagle; and Rockwell the brandnew DataMyte 4000. Casio still offers the non-rugged PA-2400 CE pen tablet that pioneered that concept, and Data General has been going back and forth about releasing its promising WiiN-PAD that would be available both with and without integrated keyboard. Psion, finally, has tantalized us with the incredibly impressive and blindingly fast EPOC-based netBook. The netBook is meant to become a mobile Java machine for enterprise systems.

Even though this issue is primarily ded-icated to vertical market hardware, I must mention what is perhaps the mobile com-puting product announcement of the year, the Visor from Handspring. It's a faster, more powerful, less expensive and infinite-ly expandable Palm OS device from the people who invented the PalmPilot in the first place. Handspring will be BIG. -

-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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