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ISSUE 540: Feb 29 2000

The high tech office

Hewlett-Packard's little computers are good, but no threat to Palm's market domination

Question: "Where does a 2,000-pound gorilla sit?"
Answer: "Anywhere he wants to."
For readers of this column, the big ape is probably Microsoft. But the company hasn't always got its own way. Microsoft wound up where it is today by following an I Ching-like path. Persistence brings success.
Microsoft Windows was first released way back in 1985, with five years of evolution before customers started buying it in any great numbers. Similarly, few users bothered with early versions of the company's Internet Explorer Web browser.
It's been a couple of years and a couple of versions since the debut of Windows CE, Microsoft's take on how to make a hand-held computer.
Since then, CE-computers have come from some of the biggest names in the industry -- Compaq, Canon, NEC and Phillips.
The result? The other guy, Palm Computing, dominates the market. According to Evans Research, Palm's handhelds account for fully 86.2 per cent of all personal digital assistants shipped in Canada during the third quarter of 1999. The overall market has grown 47 per cent over the previous year.
Palm's Canadian marketing manager Michael Moskowitz crowed, "We joke that Canadians like anything the size of a hockey puck."
With a half-dozen makers of CE devices fighting over what's left, it's no surprise that their commitment to the platform is wavering.
Hewlett-Packard, however, has remained a true believer. The company has achieved some success with its CE-powered Jornada models, with nice examples in both the hand-held with keyboard and mini-notebook sizes. More recently, it expanded its product line to compete more directly with Palm, introducing the palm-sized Jornada 420 and 430se models. They loaned me a Jornada 420.
Like the market-dominating Palms, the Jornada 420 and 430se are small enough to fit neatly into a shirt pocket or purse. And like the competition, they lack keyboards. Data is entered directly onto the screen, using a pen-like stylus.
Like other palm-sized models, they avoid the hand-writing recognition problems that plagued Apple's earlier Newton handhelds by demanding a simplified alphabet. It takes just an hour or so practice.
Being a Palm-clone, though, would not be enough. The two Jornada models have several features to make them stand out. The most obvious (aside from their purple plastic cases) is their colour screens. While it's rumoured that Palm is working on adding colour, its current models are all monochrome.
The Jornada's screen was a delight to work with. No squinting to read dark grey text on a lighter grey background -- real black and real white, along with a total of 256 colours for the Jornada 420 and 16,000 for the 430se.
The Jornada also features easy-to-use voice recording. A single button on the side starts the process, even when the computer isn't turned on. But a minute's recording uses about half a meg of storage -- and with a total of just four megs to play with (eight on the 430se), you're not going to be able to use this feature to "tape" an entire meeting.
Like other palm-sized CE units, the Jornada uses a Windows 95-like interface, complete with Start Menu and taskbar.
These features are not without their costs. While remaining palm-sized, the Jornadas are noticeably plumper than the Palm competition. Battery life is about six hours, compared to the days and days Palm-users expect. Nicely, the batteries recharge whenever the unit sits in its cradle. And while entry-level Palm devices are now less than $300, the Jornada 420 is about $679, with the 430se selling for around $750.
I liked working with the Jornada 420, but I suspect Moskowitz was right when he said "Size, simplicity and functionality really do matter."
In the handheld market, Micro-
soft's 2,000-pound gorilla doesn't get to sit wherever he wants.

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