Handhelds in a new world order

Handheld computers find a new role in the office network

Most people who use handheld computers view them as handy — albeit limited — personal organizers that can substitute for their PCs while they are outside the office. However, many experts see this one-or-the-other dynamic breaking down as wireless networks become more common and handhelds become more powerful.

As this new order takes shape, products such as Palm Inc. handhelds or the iPaq Pocket PC from Compaq Computer Corp. will no longer play second fiddle to PCs. Both PCs and handhelds will be part of a set of tools that workers will use to communicate, collaborate and carry out government business.

"There's a lot of interest in finding ways to enhance the interoperation of [personal digital assistants] and desktops and laptops," said Alex Slawsby, a research analyst with IDC's smart handheld devices practice. "As PCs and handhelds become virtually indistinguishable in capability, one [enduring] difference will be the size advantage of handhelds. This guides thinking on how the devices will be used for different roles."

Product developers and researchers are already pondering ways to take better advantage of handhelds' portability within an everyday work environment — whether it's outside or inside the office — by tying the devices more tightly to office-bound computing resources.

For example, in a project sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency called the Command Post of the Future, researchers are exploring how handheld computers can help military planners access information and interact more effectively during face-to-face meetings.

"People have had notebook computers for a long time, but they don't usually bring them to meetings, in part because it's considered impolite to be typing away while someone's talking," said Brad Myers, a senior research scientist at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), which received DARPA funding tied to this project. "But people do bring in [pen-based] handhelds to take notes, so we're trying to take advantage of what they're already using."

With software developed by CMU (which is available for free to federal agencies), meeting participants seated around a large wall-mounted display can use their handhelds to privately retrieve more detailed information from the presentation without interrupting the group's focus on the display.

A person can also take control of the main display from his handheld to change or annotate the information presented on it. "In our prototype multimodal command post, handheld devices provide a convenient platform for handwriting and gesturing, since it can be awkward to write directly on large displays," Myers said.

Although the handhelds could be connected to the fixed network by basic serial cables, the preferred method involves using wireless radio frequency networks, Myers said.

Plugging handhelds into an always-on wireless network creates opportunities for many government applications, according to John Inkley, manager of federal sales for Palm.

For example, Inkley imagines an electronic notification system for a cross-agency disaster response team that can automatically determine the best way to relay information to key individuals — regardless of the transport mechanism or the device. "It might see that this individual used his wireless PDA 10 minutes ago, so that is the best place to send the data," Inkley said. "It's a way to build an electronic team that can accelerate deployment."

IN THIS SERIES

Introduction: "Emerging Technologies"

Search technology: "The search continues"

VoiceXML: "A voice from the near future"

Wireless: "Breaking the tether"

Grid computing: "Girding for the grid"

Visualization: "Data analysis: Picture this"

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