Spring’s in the air in PDA market

For the first time since I got one I have no use for my Palm. I look at my poor sad Palm Vx with its 8Mb of memory and it's grey-scale screen and I find myself pitying it. Yesterday's technology I whisper to it as its little green recharging light glows passively.

For the first time since I got one I have no use for my Palm.

Let me tell you, when I first got one I thought “all well and good but I’ll give it to Arron”, since Arron uses his all the time. Sure, it’s small, cute and I’d made it look like a Star Trek tricorder but really, what use is it?

Then I worked it out. I’m forever making appointments with people, moving them, changing the location, sometimes finding myself interviewing someone else entirely. My paper diary was a mess — names crossed out and scribbled on. Arrows point up, down and around corners. I was constantly stressed trying to simply manage the beast. I’d switched from ink to pencil to help, but really I needed another solution.

With the Palm sitting smugly in its cradle by the phone, I could see what I was up to, change times, dates, places without too much trauma and I could read it at all times. Once I’d worked out that I really needed to write down the contact phone numbers for people I was meeting, and take the Palm with me, I was set like a jelly. Practically dangerous, me.

But now I’ve moved on. I look at my poor sad Palm Vx with its 8Mb of memory and it’s grey-scale screen and I find myself pitying it. Yesterday’s technology I whisper to it as its little green recharging light glows passively. I’ve found another, I tell it. I’ve moved on. We’ve grown apart — well, I’ve grown: it’s just kind of stayed the same. But I don’t feel disloyal. I’ve been seduced not by the dark side, Microsoft’s PocketPC, but by the successor to the Palm — the Handspring.

A little background. Handspring is the company formed by the founders of Palm. It uses the Palm operating system and anything that runs on Palm’s devices will run on Handspring’s, which is nice. I like the Palm philosophy for developers as well — basically put you don’t pay anything to Palm to develop software or devices for the platform. Handspring has adopted this program and it works fantastically well — just look at the number of applications and add-ons that are available and compare them with, say, the iPaq from Compaq. Both devices have modules that snap on the back and increase the functionality of the basic box — the iPaq has a handful of modules while the Handspring has hundreds.

This then is the secret to Handspring’s prowess — it’s quite incredible how well it works. I have a loan device, a Handspring Visor Edge, which is the ultra-thin model and has an MP3 player module. Snap it into the slot and I have 64Mb of songs ready to roll. Take the module out mid-song and the system doesn’t freak out but copes quite nicely, thank you. I can add songs from my PC, thanks Napster, and take them away and generally do what I want with them. I can listen to music while using the other functions on the device, like the notepad or the address book. Cool, eh? Hardly a business use, though.

However, there are other modules — like the GSM cellphone module that takes your phone numbers straight from your address book. Or the electronic book modules that doctors are using in US hospitals that contain drug charts and contra-indications and other useful life-saving tidbits like that. Or try the Bluetooth module, or the GPS locator beacon module with the cool maps. There’s a presentation module that allows you to run a presentation into a projector and comes with a cool nifty remote control.

There are some drawbacks, of course. I spoke with Boris Bruges at Wireless Data Systems about the device — Boris loves these kinds of things because he takes them apart and gets physical with them. But he’s not so sure about the Handspring because he needs to be able to control the switching between functionality, and the port doesn’t allow that. Also there’s the price — the Visor Edge, set up to compete with my Palm Vx, weighs in at a hefty $1199 ex GST. Ouch.

Palm is fighting back — it’s launching new products that are “hip” and “funky” and will come with an expansion slot as well. But the edge, literally, is gone. Instead of leading the market, Palm is now following. It has the market share now, but for how long I wonder?

Brislen is a Computerworld journalist. Send email to Paul Brislen. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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