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ISSUE 571: New Economy- Oct 3 2000

The high-tech office


Handheld Web browsers useful but still primitive

Last week, my quest to replace a notebook with what would fit in a couple of pockets led me to add a folding keyboard to a Handspring Visor handheld computer (a popular Palm clone). Add a couple of small downloadable files and suddenly I could type letters, columns like this or, who knows, maybe a novel.

But I can't do without Internet access. E-mail is the best way to get hold of me, especially when I'm out and about. And the Web is my ongoing information source for everything from these columns to ferry time-
tables (and delays), weather, even the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The first step to get online, whether with a notebook or a palmtop gadget, is a modem. I looked at standard phone-line modems. (Wireless is another story.) As with keyboards, handheld users need to match the modem to their particular model. For instance, Palm sells separate 33.6-kbps modems for Palm V handhelds (about $250) and the Palm III series (about $150). Palm users can't use one of these and a keyboard at the same time, because both connect using the Palm's HotSync port.

Since I'm using a Palm-clone -- a Handspring Visor Deluxe (about $375) -- I can't use any of the modems designed for Palm models.

But Handspring's 33.6-kbps modem ($200) plugs into the Visor's Springboard expansion socket, leaving the HotSync port free for a keyboard, if desired. This modem draws no power from the Visor, getting about three hours of use from its own pair of AAA batteries and, like other Springboard add-ons, is automatically recognized and set up.

Getting set up to go online was more problematic. The modem's documentation was aimed at users wanting a modem to sync with their main PC using the phone lines instead of a direct connection. However, ignoring it and entering the phone number and other information for my Internet service provider in Network Preferences was straightforward. There's even a button right there to connect.

But while you can get connected, the standard Palm and Visor lacks any software to do anything once you're online. There's a Mail program, but despite appearances it's only useful to read and respond to e-mail from your "real" computer. It can't be used to get or send mail online. (Once again, Windows CE and Pocket PC users can gloat. Their handhelds come with Pocket Internet Explorer and Pocket Outlook e-mail.)

Eudora, the makers of a popular e-mail program for Windows and Mac, have recently released an Internet Suite for Palm, which includes both an e-mail program and a browser. It's downloadable and free, though with a catch. Anyone can use it for free to receive and send mail and browse the Web. Registered Eudora users can also use it to sync the Palm's e-mail with a main computer. If you use Outlook or some other e-mail program and want to keep your mail in sync, it costs US$30 to register.

As with Eudora Mail for bigger computers, this e-mail program is pretty capable, especially considering its small size, supporting multiple mailboxes and filters. A new version two, in downloadable beta, promises support for multiple mail accounts, fancy signatures and more.

The browser looks like nothing much, starting off with a nearly blank screen. In trying to maximize the handheld's modest screen size, there are none of the buttons, menus or address bars we've learned to expect. With 160x160-pixel screen size, there's not much to play with.

Still, the miracle is that you can enter a Web address and actually go there. In fact, while text-based e-mail is reasonably functional on these
tiny units, Web browsing is, at best, awkward. It will work in a pinch,
but it's not something I'd want to do regularly.

Some predictions suggest that within two or three years, more than half the connections to the Inter-
net will be made with devices other than personal computers. If you're prepared to put up with some limitations, you can do so now with
your Palm, Visor or Pocket PC handheld. u


n Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator and computer specialist. He can be reached at His column appears weekly.

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