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Palm Column

Palm Computers put the fun back into computing

by Shawn Barnett
June 1999, issue 28

When I walked into the computer store that day looking for a PDA, I was sure I would walk out with a Windows CE Palm-size PC. I've used Windows since its early days as Windows/286, and have been something of a die-hard user. But when I compared the two "Palm-size" platforms, the PalmPilot won me over with its crisper screen and quick, hour-glassless retrieval of addresses and data. Yes, the screen was of lower resolution than the CE devices, but even before the new screens came out for the new Palm V and IIIx, the PalmPilot was better at delivering raw text data than the higher-resolution Windows CE units of the time. Their finer pixels translated into smaller, less-readable fonts.

The simpler push-button interface of the PalmPilot also won out over the desktop-like interface of Windows CE. On such a small screen, the fewer taps the better, and the Windows CE interface required too many taps to complete a simple task.

So I walked out of that store with a PalmPilot Personal, and it was an excellent choice. Within a week, I saw that the product would be of such use to me that I returned to the store to invest in the 2MB upgrade, giving the unit full Palm III functionality, and I also bought the PalmPilot Modem.

The obsession had begun.

I have used personal computers from the early days of the Apple II, and I can remember the excitement of that product as well as the TRS-80, IBM PC, Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX81, the Macintosh, and the first computer I actually purchased with my own money, an IBM PS/2.

Since Windows 95's advent, the software that took the "tweakability" out of Windows and made it more boring like a Mac, there hasn't been much about computers to excite me.

Now there's the Palm platform.

I suppose had I been able to afford a Newton, I never would have lost interest, but Palm's affordability has made me a computer zealot again. And there is so much to be zealous about. For what started as a simple address and date book has turned into a personal computer platform.

The Palm Computer can be used for email, fax, word processing, data collection, data storage and retrieval, expense and phone call tracking, world time calculation-and that's just for consumer users.

The Palm Computer is becoming the Palm-size PC of choice for vertical applications because of its simplicity and reliability. It is being used to collect data everywhere from telephone poles to race tracks to under the sea in dive suit data collection.

There has been a lot of criticism about the Palm platform, that it hasn't evolved quickly enough: it doesn't support color, it doesn't record voice, its screen resolution is low. But the truth is that the Palm has been the most successful platform in the history of battery-operated computers. There's a reason for that: it addresses user's needs.

Several years ago, the desktop PC was criticized for not supporting color or graphics, and that criticism was warranted. For when it did support graphics and color, we were enabled to do things we never even thought of. We now layout whole magazines with ease on desktop PCs with large monitors and multi-pipelined processors which drive elaborate GUI-based operating systems.

I don't think I'll be doing that anytime soon on my Palm IIIx. I don't need to.

But I do need to get a phone number in a hurry, and to check my email while I'm away on a trip. The Palm platform allows me to do that and a whole lot more, all without making me wait for a beautiful, stylized, 3D window to open.

Do I really need a 10 pound $2,500 notebook PC with a multi-gigabyte hard drive and beautiful color TFT screen and the 10-20 pounds of accompanying hardware and batteries just to check my email while I'm on the road? When it comes down to it, do I need a color HPC or Palm-size PC to do that-something I have to remember to plug in at the hotel every night? And if I'm in a foreign country with a CE machine, I'll need a set of adapters in addition to the charging transformers so I can keep my "Little" PDA running. Why bother? Why not just have my Notebook, since it will do more if I really need it to?

Sure, there are things I'd like to do that would require color: slideshows made with pictures from my digital camera would be cool and wow my friends. I believe that's in my future... but is it necessary? Or is it just gee-whiz bang neato to show to all my friends (as we all huddle together to glimpse the 2 1/4 inch screen)?

All those things will come, and new purposes we haven't yet conceived will doubtless be found, but right now, today, I need my handheld device to store a lot of information and get it to me when I need it.

The Palm Computer does that, with attention to seven important details:

Price: The Palm is easily affordable, both for the individual and businesses wishing to put many to use across their workforce.

Simplicity: The fewer taps the better.

Size: It's small enough that it's not a burden, so you're more likely to bring it with you wherever you go.

Weight: Again, it's light and no burden.

Reliability: Its simpler OS is nimble and crashes infrequently.

Backward Compatibility: Microsoft and Intel killed their competition in the desktop arena largely by maintaining this feature, and Palm is doing the same.

Battery Life: This is the most significant feature where the Palm takes the prize. Recharging is a pain. Replacing expensive proprietary batteries just plain sucks, and carrying spares and transformers takes away all feeling of portability. With a Palm Computer, I can walk into any store around the world and buy another set of batteries that will keep me running another month. THAT's Portability.

I'm not anti-Windows CE. I'm not anti-Microsoft (though it is notable that the Palm platform is one of the few successful computing platforms that is completely Microsoft free).

I just say that--mostly because of short battery life and a slow interface--the handhelds with more bells and whistles still aren't ready for Prime Time.

The Palm is Prime Time. And with upcoming products like the Palm 7 with wireless data access, and Qualcomm's pdQ Phone with pure wireless internet service, Prime Time's about to get a whole lot more interesting.

[The preceeding was given as a speech at PDA Expo in Chicago on April 23, 1999. A slightly abridged version appears in the June issue of Pen Computing Magazine.]

Shawn Barnett can be reached via e-mail at

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