Wireless world: Choosing a handheld

In the old days, as Intel Corp. took us down the road from 90MHz processors on desktops and notebooks to the approaching 2GHz, IT managers would roll the PCs over every 18 months or so without a second thought. They would create a schedule with Dell Computer Corp. or Compaq Computer Corp. that followed the so-called Intel road map. Some recent developments indicate that the same may happen with handhelds.

After a few false starts, Intel, the champion of Moore’s Law, is turning its attention to handhelds. Intel, as well as Motorola Inc., is what is called an architectural licensee of the ARM processor core, an embedded processor used on small devices from Advanced RISC Machines. The scope of the licensing agreement allows Intel and Motorola to go in and tinker with the ARM processor core, and make changes and improvements. Intel has rebranded its version X-Scale. And now, after what seems like almost two quiet years of using the same processor on Pocket PCs, all this is about to change in a big way.

More than likely, X-Scale will be introduced at around 450MHz performance. But expectations are for it to quickly scale up to 1GHz.

My colleague, Senior Writer Dan Neel, who watches Intel like a hawk, spoke with them recently. Here’s what Mark Miller at Intel told Dan.

“X-Scale won’t scale to 1GHz coming out of the chute, but you can see how the convergence of voice and data [in PDAs] and colour screens are requiring a whole lot more processing power,” Miller said.

I believe Intel will try and repeat the success it had on the desktop with rapid-fire introductions of ever-faster chips for handhelds. Perhaps speed bumps will come every nine months to a year.

And lest Palm users get too complacent, according to Miller, last July Palm began optimizing its operating system to run on StrongARM chips following Palm’s OS Ready program.

“The next step is to win Palm’s business on the hardware/platform side by getting Palm to offer X-Scale chips in Palm PDAs,” Miller said.

Of course, ARM’s other licensee, Motorola, which now makes Palm’s DragonBall processor and also knows a thing or two about tweaking processors, may have something to say about that.

Another product with a say is Handspring’s Treo. It may not have the processing power of the current Pocket PCs, but when it ships in the first quarter of 2002 it will have a built-in GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) cell phone plus a powerful Web browser and Palm organizer.

For all of the Pocket PC’s potential, one doubt lingers. I am told there is so much packed inside a Pocket PC that OEMs may never be able to squeeze in wireless, too. That service will always remain an add-on.

I would like to hear from readers about how their companies attempt to strike a balance between a product-approval policy and deploying new technology, and how their views of handheld devices might change as their functionality increases to the point where they become the next PCs.

Ephraim Schwartz (ephraim_schwartz@infoworld.com) is an editor at large in InfoWorld (U.S.)’s news department.