Add-on modules lure users to PDA demos

Handheld computers are taking on more and more functionality, mostly in the form of add-on modules. Handspring Inc. is showing several new add-on modules here at the Comdex trade show, the hottest of which extends mobile phone capabilities to its Visor PDA (personal digital assistant). However, many of the new products are still not out in the shops.

Among the most talked about products here at the show is the latest version of Microsoft Corp.’s Pocket PC, released earlier this year. The software maker hopes that after years of stumbling, its handheld software platform is finally ready to do battle with rival Palm Inc. for a bigger slice of the PDA market.

Bill Gates, Microsoft Corp.’s chairman and chief software architect, said in his keynote speech Sunday that Pocket PC users in the United States will be able to access the Internet wirelessly at up to 128K bps (bits per second) next year through the Ricochet service offered by Metricom Corp. Pocket PC devices are made by big-name computer makers such as Compaq Computer Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co.

Another feature Microsoft is keen on showing off here is handwriting recognition. When a user writes on a Pocket PC screen, the program transforms the words – usually the correct ones – into typed text. This feature has some time to go before it works perfectly, but it’s definitely one of the Pocket PC’s coolest features. The handwriting software is available with the Casio EM500 PDA, which is priced at US$558 and includes an MMC 16M-byte memory card.

The Pocket PC has some flaws, however, according to one user who got very frustrated testing one of the devices here on the show floor.

“I’m not so impressed,” said Peter Boy, a developer at Future in Germany. “I think this device is too complicated.” Particularly, Boy said he found it difficult to navigate the device.

“I like it, it has better integration with your desktop PC,” said Michael Landy, director of applications development at Dunn Systems Inc., who liked the Pocket PC devices a little more than Boy.

Spokespeople at Handspring are making the most of Pocket PC’s more complicated system for navigating between applications.

“A handheld needs to be simple,” said Handspring spokeswoman Julie Saska. “I want to have my diary right there as soon as I open my PDA. The Pocket PC is a lot more complicated, it takes several steps before you get to where you want.”

When asked what she thought about the handwriting recognition of her competitor’s product, Saska defended the Graffiti feature on Handspring’s PDAs, which she claimed works better.

Graffiti is a kind of shorthand that users must learn before they can input text into a Visor PDA or other handheld based on Palm’s software platform. Basically, the user writes simplified letters on the device’s screen which are then transformed into typed letters.

“It took me about 30 minutes to learn it,” Comdex attendee Jim Vakos, a lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Air Force, said of the Visor’s Graffiti system. “It’s a very nice device, it has good functionality … I use it to keep my schedule on. I’ve got one old model, but actually I won a new one here today!”

Among the new add-on modules that Handspring and its partners are showing here this week at Comdex is a digital camera, named Eyemodule that the user can slot into a PDA. Another is a GPS (global positioning system) module that can help a user to pinpoint their exact location. Few of the modules are out on the market yet, and most will be available in the shops around the New Year, according to Handspring’s Saska.

Battling against Microsoft’s Pocket PC, Palm Inc. announced Monday that it will immediately begin offering the Palm Mobile Internet Kit, which will allow users of Palm M100s, Palm IIIs and Palm Vs to access the Web wirelessly using a cellular phone. The kit costs $39.95. Even with the kit, however, users will only be accessing a portion of the Internet using Palm’s portal service.

Another PDA vendor showing products here is U.K.-based Psion PLC. Psion has a number of existing products on display, but the company’s booth is somewhat thin on new items. One of the new products the company is demonstrating is its Gold Card Bluetooth PC Card set to be released before the end of the year at an estimated price of between $150 and $160.

Psion also demonstrated a prototype of its netpad device, a ruggedized handheld with a colour screen. A narrow device encased in electric-blue plastic, the netpad will be released in early 2001. The device will feature wireless communication capabilities across a number of technologies, including CDMA (code division multiple access). Multiple versions of the device will be released, but at least one will retail for under $2,000, according to a Psion spokesman.

In its Memory Stick booth, Sony Corp. displayed a number of peripherals that it will be making available for its own Palm OS-based device, the Clie. The Memory Stick is a product developed by Sony about the size of a stick of gum that allows devices to store various types of data, including images and music files. Though none of the products for the Palm OS are shipping yet, the future seems exciting for Memory Stick as a TV tuner, an FM radio, a digital camera, a GPS receiver and a fingerprint ID system were all on display.

Taiwan’s Acer Inc. also demonstrated a Linux-based PDA featuring a Chinese-language interface at the Memory Stick stand. It was unclear if Acer has plans to sell the device outside of Asia. A few other Asian vendors, including Seoul-based Gmate Co. Ltd., also showed off Linux-based PDAs at the show.

Microsoft, in Redmond, Wash., can be reached at Handspring, in Mountain View, Calif., can be reached at Sony, in Tokyo, can be contacted at Palm, in Santa Clara, Calif., can be reached at