IN THE PALM OF YOUR HAND PDA: Personal digital assistants have grown from geek gadgets to must-haves for professionals


No matter how we try to get rid of it, paper rules our lives.

Even with computers to keep our schedules, send electronic mail, track our bills and organize our lives, eventually we end up scribbling with pen and ink.

But the rule of the notebook, the Daytimer and the Filofax is under challenge from a generation of hand-held electronic gadgets designed to help us manage our lives and our work.

Officer John Lee of the Annapolis Police Department is a believer.

The 5-year veteran used to rely on steno pads to record the information he collected on patrol in the city's public housing projects. But keeping all that stuff on paper meant searching through a stack of notebooks when he needed to find a name, address or description.

Now Lee carries a PalmPilot Professional, a device the size of a calculator that puts everything at his fingertips. With the Pilot's search feature, it takes less than a second to find the information he needs. The Pilot even recognizes his handwriting.

"I'm almost to the point where I can write things into the PalmPilot as fast as I can write on paper," Lee says. "Sometimes, when I'm in a hurry, I have to write things down. But if it's a little more relaxed situation, I put everything right into it."

While personal digital assistants (PDAs) have been around for a couple of years, until recently they've pretty much been gadgets for geeks. But users like Lee and Fells Point bar owner Ron Furman and have brought them out of the executive toy closet.

"I've got my whole life in there - my phone numbers, my schedule, and some notes on serial numbers and other things," says Furman, owner of Max's on Broadway. "With the PalmPilot and a cell phone, I can take off anywhere and still be able to work. I can take off for the day and not feel as guilty about it."

These hand-held computers, small enough to fit in a pocket, keep track of your appointments, contacts and expenses. They maintain your to-do list and let you jot down notes. Some, like the Pilot, use a pencil-like stylus to enter information and can recognize handwriting. Others use a tiny keyboard.

Most will hook up to your PC and synchronize their data with the personal information manager on your desktop. That way, you can enter appointments or contacts in either device and have them available on both. The fanciest models sport modems for faxing, e-mail and Web browsing.

More than 3 million PDAs were sold last year, about two-thirds of them PalmPilots. The remainder came from manufacturers such

as Casio, Sharp, Franklin, Hewlett-Packard, Philips, Compaq and other.

International Data Corp., a market research firm in Framingham, Mass., projects that by 2001, more than 13 million hand-held computers will be sold annually.

Many PDAs are based on Microsoft's Windows CE operating system. Others, like the Pilot, the Casio Boss and the Psion Series 5, use their own proprietary interfaces.

Lee has tried a couple of them. He started with a Casio Boss digital diary, then switched to the Pilot a year ago. He uses the Pilot to keep notes on the people he deals with in a professional capacity, including lists of nicknames, known weapons carriers, and other information.

"If you want to know who 'JuJu' is, I can put it into the Palm Pilot and find him," Lee says.

Lee uses the Pilot's synchronization feature to download searchable text files from his desktop computer, including the department's "wanted" list and a roster of people barred from public housing property. He says colleagues often call him to check names because he can get the information faster than they can get it from the station.

In addition to information on suspects, Lee has stored his schedule for the past 5 years - including court appearances and the defendant's names and trial outcomes. Last week, he added Maryland's enttire criminal code.

"That way, when I want to charge somebody, I can search for the section I want and look it right up," he said.

It has taken years for hand-helds to mature to the point at which Lee can store all that information, and there have been casualties along the way. In fact, Apple Computer, which pioneered the technology, recently pulled the plug on its Newton line of PDAs - which were too big for easy toting and suffered from flaky handwriting recognition.

Other electronics companies have introduced models that look and work like shrunken laptop PCs. But the success of the diminutive Pilot showed that less can be more.

"I feel we're competing more with paper-based systems than with laptop [PCs] and portables," says Ed Colligan, vice president of marketing for 3Com's Palm Computing division, which manufactures Pilot.

One reason for the Pilot's success is that it can fit comfortably in a pocket. Another is its simplicity. The Pilot is designed to be an extension of its user's PC, rather than a replacement for it.

Handwriting recognition was another breakthrough. Like users of the Newton and other PDAs, PalmPilot owners "write" on its screen with a pen-like stylus. But where earlier devices relied on recognition software that was slow and unreliable, the Pilot took another tack.

Instead of trying to decipher your handwriting, the Pilot uses a slightly modified English alphabet called Graffiti. It's easy to learn, and as a result, the Pilot can recognize input faster and more reliably. Beginners can also tap on a virtual keyboard that pops up on the screen when they need help.

The Palm III, introduced late last month, is an evolutionary extension of its predecessors, with two megabytes of memory and an infrared port that lets PDAs exchange data automatically.

One barrier to acceptance of PDAs is price. The top-of-the-line Palm III costs about $400, while accessories such as modems and leather carrying cases can easily drive the price up by several hundred dollars. The least expensive Pilot is now $199, but Colligan said he hopes to drive that down to $99 by the end of the year.

High-end PDAs from other manufacturers can run as high as $700 to $800.

Even so, the PalmPilot's success has attracted Microsoft's attention. The software giant is helping its partners deliver Windows CE-based devices that are similar in size and form. Palm-sized PCs from Casio and Everex should start showing up on store shelves this month.

Microsoft is also trying to go well beyond the Pilot's basic functionality. The version of Windows CE that powers the new devices includes handwriting recognition. Some palm-sized PCs will have multimedia support - you may even be able to use them to hear voice mail.

Meanwhile, the popularity of the PalmPilot has spawned an industry of accessories and add-on software.

Lee invested in one of the more popular PalmPilot add-ons - a titanium case called the Rhino-Skin. "I found it on the Internet, and bought it for myself for Christmas last year," he says. It makes [the PalmPilot] more durable for use in the field."

Sean Gallagher is managing editor of Information Week Labs. He can be reached at

Want to learn more?

Surf over to these Web pages for detailed information about personal digital assistants.

Casio Boss Digital Diaries,

Franklin Rex PC Companion and Electronic Rolodex Organizers,

Hewlett Packard 200, 300 and 620LX Palmtop Computers, organizers,

Philips Velo and Nino handheld PC's,

Psion Series 3, Series 5 and Sienna Palmtop Computers,

Samsung Palm PC,

Sharp Wizard, Zaurus, and SE500 Mobile Organizer,

Pub Date: 5/11/98

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