on the go is still too pricey for many businesses
by Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First published in Business in Vancouver
June 22-28, 2004; issue 765
High Tech Office column
The 1997 movie Wag the Dog opened with the participants at a
high-powered meeting slapping their PDAs on the table. Pocket-sized
Personal Digital Assistants powered by Palm or Microsoft operating
systems gave late-'90s executives on the go access to calendars,
contact lists and more. But traditional handhelds no longer seem to
have the same cachet. Sales are down; Sony, for one, just announced an
end to marketing new versions of its Palm-powered Clie models.
Instead, the gadgets-de-jour are smart phones combining the functions
of a handheld PDA with a cell phone, making it possible to wirelessly
read e-mail, and access the Web. I recently spent time with two smart
phones provided by Rogers Wireless.
PalmOne's Treo 600 ($600 with a two-year contract) packs a Palm-style
PDA, phone, camera and keyboard into a unit that's slimmer and easier
to handle than last-generation's Treo 300. The colour screen is easily
viewed, though it's lower resolution than the screens on Palm's
Tungsten PDA models. Like earlier Treos, it replaces writing on screen
with a miniature QWERTY keyboard. The catch is that this smaller Treo
has that much less room for the keyboard; many users may find it just
too small for comfortable use. This Treo works better as a phone than
earlier models; the phone-style on-screen keypad is easy to use, and
there's good integration between the phone and the Palm address book.
The 640 x 480-pixel camera makes it easy to snap a photo, save it, and
send it to an e-mail recipient. The Blazer 3.0 Web browser does a good
job reformatting Web pages so they can be displayed on the unit's small
screen. And its Palm operating system means you can add hundreds of
programs and games.
Waterloo, Ontario-based Research in Motion (RIM) has grown into the
fourth-largest seller of mobile computers, with a 6.4 per cent market
share, based on sales of their Blackberry devices. Besides offering
always-connected access to e-mail, the new Blackberry 7780 ($500 with a
two-year contract) sports a colour screen, Web browsing, PDA-style
address books and calendars and voice phone functions.
Wider than the Treo, it feels more awkward as a phone. Lacking a
touch-screen, you need to hunt and peck on the keyboard to dial a phone
number that's not already saved. It was impossible to dial Fedex's
1-800-GO-FEDEX, because the Blackberry keyboard doesn't match letters
and numbers like a traditional telephone keypad.
But that added width makes its mini-keyboard much more hand-friendly
than Treo's; it's much more comfortable for typing those e-mail
replies. And that's what these units are about: e-mail access. Either
can be used for real-time access to e-mail sent via a Rogers server, or
more awkwardly, to access messages on a traditional Webmail account.
Alternatively, RIM has sold a Blackberry server to over 17,000
companies, giving their users direct access to their corporate e-mail
systems on the go. RIM's Mobile Data Service can allow companies to
extend their sales or customer relations software to mobile employees.
Corporate systems can allow Blackberries to access Microsoft Exchange
or Lotus Notes systems.
Its home-grown operating system lacks the wide variety of options
available to Palm or Microsoft-powered units, but the built-in software
for calendar and contacts is usable if unexciting. The Treo 600 is best
thought of as a phone with integrated camera and Palm PDA that includes
Web and e-mail. The Blackberry instead is a handheld e-mail system with
added PDA and phone features, and is the clear choice for integration
with corporate networks.
Many individuals and small businesses, however, will find that wireless
data plans are still too expensive to make e-mail on the go an
affordable option for the rest of us.