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ISSUE 494: The high-tech office- April 13 1999

ALAN ZISMAN

New Palm computers offer more power
and a wider range of handheld services

If you saw last year's movie Wag the Dog, then you saw the Palm handheld computer, for instance, in the scene near the beginning where all the behind-the-scenes movers and shakers meet to figure out how to spin their way out of the (fictional) president's potential scandal.

Smaller than a pack of playing cards, the various Palm models are, by far, the most popular tiny computer. With more than a million units sold, Palm controls (depending who you ask) more or less 70 per cent of this market, with the rest divided between a multitude of models running Microsoft's Windows CE, the British Psion, Casio organizers, and more.

The Palm has been successful by not trying to do everything -- unlike CE, a scaled-down clone of Micro-
soft's desktop operating systems. Instead, it provides a simple and elegant way to keep addresses, To Do's and appointment lists, and to write short memos -- once you've spent a half-hour or so learning Graffiti, the Palm's simplified alphabet. Unlike Apple's no-longer-produced Newton, the Palm makes no attempt at learning to read your writing. Instead, it makes you learn to print its way.

But most people seem to be able to get up to speed with Graffiti pretty quickly and find they can write on the Palm screen at least as quickly and accurately as they could type on the mini-keyboards of some of the competing products.

Pop a Palm into its cradle and it automatically connects to your computer (PC or Mac), keeping your various lists in sync between both machines. Data can be shared with many popular personal information manager software products, though in some cases you'd need to buy a third-party product to convert the information back and forth.

Even though it's tiny, the Palm is a real computer and that means it can run other programs as well. A wide range of software has become available, from both shareware and commercial sources. It ranges from games -- yes, you can play Solitaire on it -- to connections to industrial-strength databases. But trying to do more requires more resources -- in this case, more memory.

The original Palm Pilot came with 256 kb of memory. Upgraded models offered first 512 kb, then 1 meg, then 2 megs of RAM, allowing users to store more addresses and run more and larger programs. Recently, 3Com Canada, makers of the Palm, released a pair of new models,
the Palm IIIx and the Palm V.

Both share a new screen, offering improved contrast and clarity (along with an odd backlighting that turns the screen into what looks like a photo negative at the push of a button). And both now connect to Microsoft's popular Outlook without needing additional software. The $549 Palm IIIx boosts the amount of memory to 4 megs, making it a good choice for users needing to connect to big Oracle databases. As well, a new expansion slot can be used for additional memory, pager cards or other add-ons.

The Palm V only offers the same 2 megs of memory as previous models, though 3Com points out that this amount can store 6,000 addresses, 3,000 appointments, 1,500 To Do items, 1,500 memos and 200 e-mail messages. But this $679 model is getting the most attention from Palm fans for its sleek aluminum packaging: half the thickness of the other models, weighing in at a mere four ounces. It's also the first Palm model to include rechargeable batteries that charge up as soon as the unit is slipped into the data synchronization cradle.

Older 1-meg Palm Pilot Pro ($299) and 2-meg Palm III ($449) models are still available, for those of us with more humble needs, but the real buzz on the street is about the still unreleased (but pre-announced and expected to cost about $1,200) Palm VII, expected later this year and promising wireless connectivity.

If you can't wait for the new Palm Pilot, you may still be able to stay connected using an increasingly commonplace alphanumeric pager. Cantel-ATT, for example, has recently started offering E-mail2go as a $3.95 a month option to their subscribers. That price gets you the ability to receive e-mail messages directed to a new e-mail address based on your pager number. Your pager lets you know when you have mail and displays the first lines of each message.

You can set the service to redirect messages to your main computer, so you can read the whole thing later or even to re-send by fax. While you obviously can't use your pager
to personally respond, a canned message can be sent automatically. The base-monthly fee lets you receive up to 300 messages, with a $0.10 charge for each additional message.

Not to be left out, BC Tel Mobility users can subscribe to a similar service -- if they are also using the company's Sympatico as their Internet Service Provider. It's a dollar cheaper a month, but only shows you half the number of characters per message.

All these gadgets and services get us a few steps closer to being always connected to work. I'll leave it up to you whether this is a good thing or not. *



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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan