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Palm Column

The future's so wireless I gotta have a Palm

by Shawn Barnett
February 2000, issue 32

I hope some of you saw the Jeff Hawkins story on Dateline NBC. I was honored to be interviewed for the story, and it was quite an experience. Writing is one thing, because you have time to reflect on your words and change them if you don't quite like how they're arranged. But when that big glass eye is taking the notes, what you say and how you look when you say it are all recorded, and there's no going back. But Lauren Ina, the Producer, and Josh Mankiewicz, the Interviewer, made it all bearable. Thankfully, the show was not about me, but about Jeff Hawkins, how he originally created the Palm Computer, and how far that computer has come. The show mentioned the Visor as well, but focused mostly on the Palm's wireless incarnation, the Palm VII. As I use my Seven from day to day, I see more and more how valuable it is, and why they would place their focus there.

As you'll see on the following page, the Seven now has some competition: the OmniSky service with its Minstrel V modem. I'm carrying this around with me as well. Its ability to run Palm VII applications as well as its own full-featured (relative to a wired Palm) communication applications is compelling, as is the ability to use your existing and much-loved Palm V.

"Wireless access to your desktop and internet data is the future," I keep hearing. Well, I'm telling you here that it is no longer the future, it is today. The Palm VII is the first fully-integrated solution for wireless computing, all that came before were bundles of technologies from different companies. That is not to bash on bundles, but full integration has made for a very reliable device in the Seven. Regardless how it proceeds from here, the industry needed this single technology demonstration, showing that it can be done, it can be mass-market, and it can make money.

The number of applications that can be written for the Palm have been staggering, serving needs no one knew they had; add wireless capability, and you've opened a whole new category of problems that can be solved. The ability to buy a book or CD while the title is fresh in the mind is one such solution, available in Anywhere for the Palm VII, for example. Anyone wondering if a wireless Palm would do anything that they need should visit and click on the Web Clipping Apps topic on the left of the home page. There's everything from Astronomy tools to Buckmaster listings for Ham Radio operators, from a wireless book download tool to a Zip Code finder. There's even a full text web browser, called DP Web, that I use almost as often as my browser at home (I still hate to boot that thing up just for a quick look at a web page).

WAP phones will give Palms a run for their money, surely, since most people will always have their cell with them for voice communication. But the difference is screen size. Whether the task is local, like retrieving addresses or your schedule, or wireless, like getting your email or viewing a website, a Palm computer is better able to display sufficient data to get the job done quickly. Where most WAP phones can display three lines with 15 characters each, a Palm can display 13 lines with around 37 characters each. Currently, that's a significant advantage.

But the word is convergence, not war. The Qualcomm pdQ phone is an example of convergence in action. It's a phone with a Palm. Or a Palm with a phone. Which raises another question: do we really want such convergence? It would be nice to have to carry only one communication device, but wouldn't it be harder to talk on the phone while retrieving a number to give to the person you're talking with? What about talking about a site you're browsing at the same time? Current wireless systems can't handle that kind of traffic on one connection, and until devices have the horsepower to handle voice, voice commands, and video communication, I think two communication devices will work for now.

A few issues back, Pen Computing's Executive Editor David MacNeill imagined a device called a "com," which served as his single communication device. When he was at home, his com was displayed on the wall, when he left, it came with him in his device. The com became a helper personality that was everywhere and nowhere specifically, probably present on his home server, but connected to him wirelessly wherever he went, and able to search the internet for items he was interested in. It could even make contacts for him like a secretary, patching a call back through to him when the busy signal ended and the person was available.

This idea of an agent has been floating around for some time, and yet has not been realized. I'm not sure that some version of this might not happen, but without the personality. The basic technology for a simple agent has been around for some time--not for a wireless com, but certainly for a wired one. I think the reason it hasn't happened is because we're used to treating machines like machines and humans like humans; any "com" will best serve only as a conduit, forget the personality. Let me clarify: we want our clothes washed by machine, but I'm not sure we really want to have to say, "large load, warm water, permanent press." The dials and buttons work fine for that. And I honestly don't want the dang washer to answer back, "Those settings will recolor your clothes, Dave." Just wash the clothes. And my name's not Dave.

But I digress. A lot of the magical stuff we can envision with mobile technology may eventually happen, but it will require significantly faster processors and much tighter code than we currently have even on the desktop. Many of those things are on the drawing boards right now. Soon to be released StrongARM processors from Intel will go a long way toward giving the programmers the horsepower they need. Palm already has plans on the table to migrate the Palm OS to such a processor in the near future, probably via the relationships with Nokia and Symbian. Add the implementation of Bluetooth, and MacNeill's vision of a com looks closer to fruition.

Soon I hope to explore a house remote controlled by a Visor with a ZiLOG 900MHz Springboard module that doubles as a cordless phone with a five mile range. It's ambitious, but it's here. The questions remain: Will we will need the services that are offered by such future gizmos? Will we need to be that connected? If so, which programs and methods will work for what we actually want?

To see the potential of wireless technology today, try one of the wireless Palm solutions reviewed in this issue. Others are talking about their wireless plans, but Palm is wireless now.

Shawn Barnett can be reached via e-mail at

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