Stop palmtop madness now

I come away from PC Expo with one overwhelming impression: for the first time, mobile phones outnumber PCs.

Okay, I can’t be sure about that statistic, but mobile-phone folks jammed New York’s Javits Center aisles, flooding into every available nook and stairwell, with heads cocked to one side and yammering away at some unseen collaborator like street people touched by the spirits.

We all toy with mobile phones from time to time, of course. But there’s only one word that can explain the kind of behaviour you see at the Javits: addiction.

It gets worse. Most of these lost souls are also computer aficionados, so naturally they gather at 3Com’s Palm Computing booth for their next fix: wireless palmtops.

No surprise, really. While phones are second nature to us, voice is one of the worst conceivable ways to deliver information of any complexity, so we’re all looking for something better.

These folks go right over the top, though. With gleaming eyes, they watch the new Palm VII pluck information from the air: maps, corporate data, weather, flight information, headlines on competitors’ sites, shopping bargains, and anything else that can be grabbed from the Web.

They try e-mail and grunt with satisfaction when it works. They put their hands on their wallets. And as the attacks of digitalis tremens intensify, they pull out their credit cards and try to talk the demo machines away from the demonstrators. Sad, isn’t it, this hunger for information anytime, anywhere?

The Palm VII is whipping these wireless warriors into a frenzy. And if you live in metropolitan New York, you can actually buy the product and the services it requires. Apparently, many folks are doing just that.

At times like this, there’s only one thing Microsoft can do: launch a pre-emptive vapourware response. Sure enough, the software giant came through this week with an announcement of a joint venture with Socket Communications to offer wireless modems for its Palm wannabe Windows CE, sometime this fall.

The entire show is awash in wireless products, many of which are actually shipping. Big computer vendors like IBM have joined the telcos and other heavyweights in papering the convention centre with brochures about their conflicting and confusing services. Many smaller hardware suppliers showcase hardware — including quite a few wireless modems for PCs or notebooks.

Everyone has basically the same rap about the joys of invisible communications. The question is whether you should buy a number of separate trinkets (phone, PDA, pager) and walk around like a digital Christmas tree, or look for a device that combines them all.

The MIT Laboratory of Computer Science take the latter approach to an extreme with its Handy 21 project. This device will look much like a cell phone, but pack a small screen and other goodies. It can be configured to include whatever you need –microbrowser, e-mail, digital lint-picker. It will be “person-centric wherever you go,” as Lab Director Michael Dertouzos said. That is, it becomes your digital self, everywhere.

But we don’t have to go there, do we? Wearing digital ankle chains every waking minute?

I’ll cop to being a PC addict, and yes, I have been known to pick up a mobile phone. But who wants to be connected all the time? These days when I travel, I try to leave my fancy notebook at home, and just borrow someone else’s PC — you know, one with a real keyboard and a real T1 connection. Who really needs these little gadgets that don’t even let you type?

Of course, at this very moment I’m lacking a PC and a T1 line. So I do find myself wandering back to the Psion booth to look at the company’s new 5mx handheld.

This is a slick little 13-ounce device with a good VGA colour screen, workable software, a keyboard good enough for two-finger typing, a browser that runs Java, instant-on capabilities, and the ability to run for a month on twin AA batteries.

Hey, it says here that I can add a wireless PC Card modem — or shoot data via the infrared port to certain digital mobile phones like that slick-looking Nokia over there. It says I can even connect to the Web. Oh sure, let’s just try that, shall we? No doubt this will require intense praying to the invisible wireless gods. But what’s that? Gee, we’re connected. That wasn’t so bad.

Hey, pretty cool. Wait just a minute. I’m feeling this strange exhilaration. I’m hooked on being unhooked. Oh no — I’m unwired!