Getting a good grip

Although the handheld computer industry seems to lurch from year to year, with vendors and products coming and going, the market has generated enough business to foster continued development of the technology.

Today, the concept of handheld has expanded from the original personal digital assistants, or PDAs, which would fit in the palm of your hand, to miniature notebooks, which are slightly more than a handful but still comfortably small.

The demand for these devices continues despite a history of buggy products because, for truly mobile workers, notebook computers just may not cut it. Users can carry notebooks from one place to another but cannot actually use them while on the move.

Take, for example, the Marine Corps, which has started giving computers to some of its officers in the field. "They've got to be small, and they've got to be light," said Maj. James Cummiskey, technical adviser to the commanding officer, Marine Corps Tactical Systems Support Activity, Camp Pendleton, Calif. "If a device is too heavy, a Marine is just going to throw it in the mud and walk away."

Apple Computer Inc. shook up the industry last spring by pulling the plug on its handheld device, the Newton. But the market in general has improved somewhat in the past year, particularly with Microsoft Corp.'s introduction of the Windows CE operating system, which is designed specifically for the handheld and other untraditional computing devices, and with a general effort across industry to improve overall functionality.

Design by Function

The design and capabilities of handheld computers are shaped by conflicting requirements: Color is useful but uses more power, more power can be provided by adding weight, weight can be reduced by removing mass storage capabilities and so on through a bewildering variety of permutations.

The configuration ultimately depends on how vendors are positioning their systems to be used. PDAs, the first popular handheld devices, tended to provide a narrow range of functions, supporting specialized applications.

For example, a PDA generally does not have a keyboard comparable to that of a PC but provides only a limited keypad and a pen-driven interface, in which a pen-like stylus is used to check boxes, click on icons or enter information by writing on the screen.

Several vendors, such as Palm Computing Inc., are pushing handheld devices as replacements for pen and paper in the maintaining of address books and similar organizational tools.

Handhelds also have emerged as a popular tool for collecting data in the field, where information can be entered into the handheld then downloaded into a full system later.

But other PC vendors that have entered the market often view handhelds as smaller PCs, and those vendors are positioning the systems to pick up more familiar computing functions, supplementing or replacing notebook computers or even desktop devices. Featuring small PC-style keyboards— although users often type with a stylus because of the small size— these PC-like systems might be used for limited word processing, spreadsheets and e-mail.

"People want something light [they] can travel with, still do [their] e-mail, interface with the Internet and not be conspicuous at meetings," said Barry Bittner, Apple's federal sales manager in Reston, Va. "People would get rid of their desktop devices if they could."

At the high end, Toshiba America Information Systems Inc.'s Libretto 100 mini-notebook, which weighs in at 2.35 pounds, is marketed as a full-function PC, said Mike Mellon, federal sales manager for Toshiba's federal sales organization.

Hewlett-Packard Co. is positioning its 20-ounce 600 Series palmtop to be "a key companion to the unit you have on your desktop," not a replacement, said Alex Cho, a product manager for HP's Handheld Product Division in Cupertino, Calif. Accordingly, the company is marketing its product primarily at the mobile professional market, "those that are away from their desk more than 25 percent of the time," Cho said. HP also has provided its products to the Marines.

Vendors said the applications will expand as the products are used more widely. "There will be a number of uses you can't even imagine today," said Ed Colligan, vice president of marketing for Palm Computing Inc., a subsidiary of 3Com Corp. in Mountain View, Calif. Already the applications range from tracking patient records to managing fuel depots, Colligan said.

However, any enthusiasm for the handheld has to be tempered by the fate of the Newton. One of the first popular PDAs, the Newton, was discontinued in the spring as part of a larger restructuring at Apple. The industry is still trying to figure out exactly what went wrong.

Apple's Bittner said the primary reason leading to its discontinuation was a nonstandard operating system. Some industry sources attribute the decision to internal Apple politics, not the technology itself.

But the Newton also was plagued with problems that may have contributed to its demise. "The Newton did several key things wrong," said Frank Muehleman, president of Psion Inc., Concord, Mass. "It was ahead of its time, handwriting recognition didn't work, the unit was too big, and [Apple's] price point was very high."

"The Newton was big, it was buggy, and it ate batteries," said Jill House, associate research analyst at International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass.

But many of the problems and limitations associated with the Newton are common to handheld devices, observers said. Users are constrained by the size of the keyboard and screen. Many systems do not have color screens, which rules out some applications, and the handwriting-recognition software, used in many devices, is still not perfect.

But even the best systems have design constraints, where trade-offs must be made.

The biggest decision facing vendors and users is whether to include color capabilities in a handheld device. Both HP and Toshiba say color is an important component because it expands the kinds of information that can be displayed. But color displays also require more power, cost more and, because of the technology needed, add to the weight of the machine.

The trouble with adding a capability such as color to a handheld device is that it requires more power, which will make batteries wear out faster. "Battery life will trump just about anything else," House said.

Colligan agreed that color "is a real barrier today. The devices are about twice as thick, and battery life is horrendous. However, I think color will eventually be part of all these devices, regardless of size."

But when concentrating on reducing power consumption and keeping weight low, something has to give, which is typically screen size and storage. Small screens and minimal storage are concessions frequently made by designers hoping to keep a handheld device, at the very worst, luggable.

In general, some of the loudest complaints are about the interface— pen or keyboard— which is often awkward, and the display, which can be difficult to use. "Two things about handhelds: Their input stinks and their output stinks; otherwise [they're] great," Cummiskey said.

Handheld Forays

Even with their limitations, some agencies have begun adopting handheld devices, at least for some functions.

The Patent and Trademark Office is using small handheld devices in its standard function as an asset tracker. The organization created a database of its computer assets in fiscal 1995 and almost immediately began looking into handheld devices to replace paper and manual data entry.

"It facilitates, streamlines the whole process, eliminates paper, increases reliability and improves accountability," said Dawn Fields, program analyst for PTO in Arlington, Va. The office uses 100 computers to track the roughly 70,000 assets throughout the organization.

The application is menu driv-en and "fairly intuitive," Fields said. Some of the 100 handhelds connect to the database server through a radio connection, and some store data on diskettes, later to be loaded on the server. Long battery life has proved important to PTO. "We need at least half a shift of power," Fields said. "In general, we prefer functionality over size or weight."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics is using handhelds to collect data in the field for its cost-of-living studies. Five hundred users are at work nationwide, downloading assignments from the central servers, taking to the streets to collect information and then sending the data back, said Stephan Gilbert, branch chief and supervisory computer specialist for the bureau's Division of Consumer Prices and Consumption Studies.

By using handheld devices, provided by Fujitsu-ICL Systems Inc., La Jolla, Calif., "We get a much quicker turnaround time," Gilbert said. "The paper schedules were preprinted, mailed out, filled in, mailed back and entered by a 60-person data-entry staff. We shaved off days at least."

However, the agency has had a problem with display quality: The sunlight washes out the colors, Gilbert said.

Some of the most ambitious applications for handheld computers are being developed by the Marines. The Marine Corps Tactical Systems Support Activity is using handheld devices to aid in its mission to "build tactical systems to keep Marines alive in battle," Cummiskey said.

One application provides situational awareness during battlefield conditions. Soldiers can pinpoint troop positions on a digital map using the handheld's Global Positioning System receiver and then e-mail the information over a wireless network to a distributed database system.

At today's prices the handhelds can be pushed down to the lowest level. "Even the small unit leader can carry the devices around in pockets. It replaces keeping the stuff in your head and [doing] guesswork," Cummiskey said.

The equipment has not been used in combat, but it was used with some success in a recent war game exercise, called Hunter Warrior, which was staged specifically to test the use of information technology in the battlefield.

The Microsoft Factor

With the market continuing to grow, vendors are looking for ways to improve handheld design and technology. But the largest impact may come from the appearance of Microsoft's Windows CE operating system, which is in its second release.

Handhelds are also getting a boost from Microsoft's Windows CE. Although Windows CE is not actually running on that many computers today, the Microsoft imprimatur seems to have revved up the market, adding an air of legitimacy to the market that has encouraged some buyers, vendors and analysts said.

Those vendors already involved in the desktop PC business have been among the more visible adherents of Windows CE. Companies, such as Compaq Computer Corp., are trying to provide as close to full PC functionality as they can manage. The Compaq C Series of handhelds uses Windows CE to provide pared-down versions of many familiar Microsoft desktop products, including Word, PowerPoint and Excel as well as Internet Explorer.

Widespread use of Windows CE will make it easier to share information between different platforms, said Greg Blatnik, a vice president of Zona Research Inc., Redwood City, Calif. The new OS also makes it easier for handheld users to share information with larger Windows-based applications. "They can become part of what is clearly a very large and pervasive environment."

However, it is also a new area for Microsoft, which may cause some users to hesitate, Blatnik said. "There hasn't been much impact from CE yet," said Palm Computing's Colligan. "Everyone assumes that because it is Microsoft it will be a success, but right now we're selling 70 percent of the palm computing devices." Palm Computing uses its own software rather than Windows CE.

"For Windows CE, it's mostly just the early adopters and [information systems] folks playing with the technology," said Chris Ohlandt, architectural engineer for Microsoft Federal. "There's a lot of interest from a lot of executives, but no large buys.... That's the nature of the beast."

Some observers see Windows CE battling for market share with PalmPilot in the coming year. "You can expect a Palm vs. Windows fight," IDC's House said. "We're looking for Windows to at least become a competitor. It probably won't oust the Palm, but it will probably take the market share lead eventually."

-- Lazar is a free-lance writer in Tenafly, N.J.



Status: Handheld computers have not attained the status expected when the Apple Newton and other products debuted. But the market remains alive, as feds and other users request truly mobile computing.

Issues: The performance of handheld computers is sometimes shaky, but even when the technology works well, size constraints force users and vendors to make compromises, particularly in terms of display size and quality.

Outlook: Good. Major PC vendors are pushing into the market with new technology. Also, possibly most important, Microsoft has developed an operating system tailored for the market, which may spur the development of more applications.


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