Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 146 / NOVEMBER 1992 / PAGE 83

Palmtop strategies. (includes directory of palmtop computer manufacturers)
by Rosalind Resnick

Tools to make lives easier and work more efficient or just executive toys? If you think palmtops are too small to do useful work, read on.

Reed Barker, an agricultural researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture who works in Corvallis, Oregon, has what some people might consider the world's most boring job.

It used to be much worse--before he bought a palmtop computer.

That's because, as a geneticist, Barker spends much of his time studying plants to gauge the effects of various pesticides. Before he bought his hand-held HP 95LX, this often meant spending four hours at a stretch examining some 4000 plants while his assistant took notes. The handwritten jottings then had to be typed into the desktop computer back at his office, another four-hour chore.

Now that Barker's got a palmtop, his assistant merely enters the numerical ratings into a palmtop-size Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet and "dumps" the data into his Macintosh without any retyping. From there, the data can be manipulated quickly and easily.

"I can't do without it," Barker says.

Barker is not alone. These days, everyone from doctors and teachers to airplane pilots and major league pitchers are using palmtop computers to manage their business and professional activities. Nearly 400,000 palmtops were shipped worldwide in 1990, mostly in Japan, according to Data-quest, the market research firm. By 1994, palmtop sales are expected to top 5.2 million units.

A Computer for Every Pocket

Unlike larger portables such as laptops and notebooks, a palmtop typically weighs in at a pound or less, runs on AA batteries that last for weeks, and can be purchased for as little as a few hundred dollars. Many business users, such as sales managers and real-estate brokers, use palmtops to gather data in the field for later transmission to desktops; a few palmtop enthusiasts have junked their desktop computers altogether, making palmtops their main machines.

Nanci Williams, for one. Williams, who runs a home-based public relations firm in San Jose, California, needed a computer to take with her as she traveled to clients' offices throughout the Bay Area. Scrapping the idea of buying a laptop after finding out how heavy they were to lug around, Williams opted for a palmtop. Four years ago, she bought a Poqet PC.

"The Poqet literally just slipped into my briefcase," Williams says.

About a year ago, Williams got divorced. Her husband got the couple's desktop computer; Williams got the palmtop and the printer. Replacing the desktop, she says, is not a priority. With her Poqet, she can take notes, write press releases, track billings, store contact names and addresses, even keep her calendar.

The only problem, she says, is convincing skeptical clients to accept it.

"Nobody believes that this thing I carry around with me is actually a computer," Williams says. "They tell me, 'I want you to do my job on a real computer.'"

Not a Toy

Kyle Shannon, a graphic artist and aspiring screenwriter who lives in New York and uses a Poqet to jot down notes for his scripts, says "It looks like a toy. People don't realize that something this small could be this powerful."

Clearly, palmtop computers have come a long way. Ten years ago, Hewlett-Packard--the maker of the HP 95LX--introduced one of the first hand-held computers, the HP 75C. Weighing in at 26 ounces and powered by a rechargeable ni-cad battery that could operate for only 30 hours, it featured a 32-character display; a proprietary operating system; and 16K RAM. The price: nearly $1,000.

Today's palmtops are full-featured DOS-compatible computers that, with the exception of Poqet's top-of-the-line PoqetCom (formerly called the Poqet Communicating Computer), cost far less. The HP 95LX, for example, offers built-in software such as the popular Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet program, an appointment book with alarms, a world time clock, a phone book, a memo editor, data-communications software, a file manager, and an advanced financial calculator that operates in either algebraic or reverse Polish notation. One-key access allows users to launch applications instantly and move among them without losing their place.

Getting in Touch

Like larger portables, palmtops are gaining the ability to communicate with computers in remote locations, enabling business and professional users to scan E-mail, send faxes, and search online databases. The PoqetCom, which retails for $4,995, includes communications software, a 9600-baud fax/modem, and serial and parallel ports. For wireless communications via the ARDIS network (a radio network analogous to cellular telephone technology), the PoqetCom even has a built-in radio. A WorldPort 2400 Modem with a serial adapter or cable is available for $250 to $260 for other Poqet models.

More and more palmtop software is becoming available, too. Besides the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet program that comes bundled with the machine, the HP 95LX offers customized applications for doctors, pilots, sales reps, and other business and professional users. The FX-7 Flight Pak from Paragon Technologies, for example, provides pilots with a comprehensive set of flight-planning tools. CM Software's Pocket Salesforce is a contact management program that allows users to enter company records, sales leads, and other marketing information into a portable database. And Computer Books' Patient Management software lets physicians keep track of their patients' medical histories, medications, and lab results.

For the Atari Portfolio, another palmtop, Pulse Metric's Dynapulse program offers a computerized blood-pressure and pulse-rate measuring system. Features include systolic, diastolic, mean arterial pressure, and pulse rate measurements with clinical-graded accuracy. Essex Marketing Services offers UTIL, an interactive FORTH programming system designed to run on the Portfolio.

But today's palmtop market is not limited to DOS compatibles alone. There's also a thriving market for hand-held electronic organizers, such as Sharp's Wizard. LINK Resources, a New York-based consulting firm, estimates that 13.4 percent of U.S. households own an electronic organizer and that the number is expected to rise.

Calendar Computer

Though electronic organizers can't run PC software, they do provide basic personal information tools such as an appointment book, phone book, notepad, and calculator. Many also offer add-in software available on proprietary integrated circuit cards. Communications links are available, too. Sharp recently unveiled its OZ-8B02 Organizer Fax/Modem, a 4800-baud pocket fax/300-baud modem that gives the Wizard standard terminal and send-only fax capabilities. This means that Wizard users can now send and receive messages through virtually all E-mail systems, including AT&T Easy Link, U.S. Sprint SprintMail, MCI Mail, CompuServe, and GEnie.

The uses people have found for their Wizard organizers are as varied as the people who buy them. Relief pitcher Rob Murphy of the Seattle Mariners has compiled a pocket data-base of hitters in the American League. Each batter's name is stored alphabetically along with the hitter's style and other notes. To track his effectiveness, Murphy also records the pitches that he throws, the first and last pitch of each at bat, and the result. Likewise, Fordham University rowing coach Ted Bonanno of Bronx, New York, uses the Wizard to track the performance of his oarsmen.

And Robert Dunn, a Mountain View, California, writer of children's books, uses the Wizard to collect his thoughts and ideas, boosting his productivity.

"While I keep daily working hours, a writer is writing and thinking all of the time," Dunn says. "What truly amazes me is how much time I spend each day waiting for someone or something beyond my control. I've composed many of my best four-line rhymes while waiting in doctors' offices, post offices, airports, and even traffic jams."

In addition to the Wizard, Sharp also markets the PC-3000, featuring a CGA 640 x 200 pixel LCD screen, a 10-MHz 80C88A processor, 1MB of RAM, and 1MB of ROM. It can be connected to a 3 1/2-inch disk drive, but its principal storage is on memory cards.

Zenith Data Systems recently introduced two pocket organizers, the ZDS-106 and the ZDS-112. The 64K ZDS-106 and the 128K ZDS 112 feature equipment and software for transferring files to a PC. And Casio has long manufactured its B.O.S.S. organizer.

Limited Resources

Despite the many advantages of palmtops, however, users say that they still have a long way to go. One drawback is the tiny keyboard and display screen, which can make word processing a challenge. Another problem is the relative shortage of memory, which can hamper storage of lenghty text files and software programs. The Atari Portfolio, for example, comes with only 256K of ROM and 128K of RAM, which can be expanded to 640K. That's far less than the amount of memory that comes with most PC compatibles on the market these days.

Buying additional memory can get expensive fast. A 512K SRAM PC Storage Card for the Poqet, for example, retails for $295, while a 2MB card costs $1,095. That's why Shannon, the aspiring screenwriter, says he purchased an 3 1/2-inch DOS-compatible external floppy drive (list price, $495) for transferring data.

Another problem is the relatively slim selection of compatible software. Palmtops are too small to run conventional 5 1/4-inch and 3 1/2-inch floppy disks and require software applications burned into tiny ROM cards. Even using the external floppy drive mentioned above, users would have trouble using most DOS applications on a palmtop primarily because of its small screen size. Another problem is that some palmtops automatically shut down the microprocessor between keystrokes to prolong battery life. This can cause some conventional programs to terminate or make mistakes. Lucy Honig, a Hewlett-Packard spokesperson, says that software loaded into the HP 95LX must be XT compatible and warns that some graphics displays won't show up. That still leaves a fairly large selection of software. "About 85 percent of the off-the-shelf software will run with no problem on the Poqet," says Matt Schmist, a Poqet spokesperson.

Barker, the agricultural researcher, notes that his HP 95LX runs only Lotus 1-2-3 and not the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet program he uses on his desktop Macintosh. This has forced him to master both software programs. Shannon, for his part, says he's currently beta-testing an interactive scriptwriting program for a software company that he hopes will one day come out with a version for the Poqet. Ironically, the biggest problem with palmtops may be their small size. Unlike a laptop computer, palmtops are as easy to leave on a customer's desk as a pair of sunglasses. Lose your palmtop, users say, and you wave goodbye to hundreds or even thousands of dollars' worth of valuable customer contacts and data.

"My biggest fear is that I'm going to leave mine somewhere someday," says Williams, the home-based marketing consultant. "I'm surprised I haven't done that already."

Even so, say the palmtop enthusiasts, once you've experienced the freedom of truly portable computing, there's no going back to the desktop grind.