Are Evolving Handhelds Leaving Portable PCs Behind?

Peter Coffee: CPU-intensive applications no longer overwhelm our pocket devices. How should workplace IT environments change to use handhelds best?

When I hear a pungent exclamation coming from my familys computer-game room, I remind my sons that its much more cultured to swear in a foreign language. (Depending on the exclamation, the reminder is sometimes delivered in units of minutes off the machine.)

In particular, they know theyll never lose computer privileges if they respond to a Blue Screen with a vigorous "DoHa!"--a Klingon expletive that translates, more or less, to "That is unfortunate." Not only is it fun to say, it also comes with the usage note that its often followed in practice by someones execution--a happy thought to a young man whos entertaining a vision of putting the entire Windows development team up against the wall.

Im moved to share this child-rearing tip after reading about last weeks introduction of IBMs ViaVoice Translator for the Pocket PC platform: a handheld application with a recommended memory allocation of 128 megabytes. Yes, I said "mega" with an "M." Is the "Star Trek" universal translator coming soon?

This announcement sends two trains of thought steaming out of my station, so I hope you dont mind if I take you along for both rides.

First, Im moved to recant my oft-quoted comment of four years ago that "a PC in your pocket is a dumb idea." At the time, I was arguing that the only useful role of a handheld device was as adjunct to a full-featured client, and that doing this job with the minimum resources--at that time, clearly the Palm OS model--was the Right Thing.

Its been a year now since I gave the lie to those words, buying the heftiest Hewlett-Packard Jornada ever made (a Model 568 with 64 MB RAM) to take with me to Comdex--which had become grimly laptop-hostile in the post-9/11 foofaraw. I didnt just want a shirt-pocket electronic calendar and address book: I wanted something with enough CPU to run Acrobat Reader with lengthy document files, like eWEEKs own post-9/11 "Five Steps to Enterprise Security"; a big enough color display to share family photos with people that I only see once a year in Las Vegas; and the full-strength HP software bundle, with utilities like LandWares OmniSolve, that I needed before I could stop carrying my Alpha Geek scientific calculator as well. (Yes, I know that Acrobat Reader is now available for Palm OS, along with many good calculator programs; please, no platform wars, Im making a point here.)

When I argued for minimalist handhelds, it really was a failure of vision. Processors keep getting faster, memory keeps getting cheaper, connectivity keeps getting more transparent, and its really nice not to lug the weight and bulk of even my ultralight Vaio 505FX notebook (oddly enough, a surprisingly popular Linux testbed) on many of my trips when I dont have a lot of typing to do.

One can still argue that small screens and lack of keyboards are fundamental limits on what we can do with a handheld device, but let me see if my vision is working better now. If theres one thing that Bluetooth and other short-range wireless schemes can do well, its discovering and using the nearest available keyboard and display with the handheld processor and memory module--that is, with the PDA--of the user who has just sat down at a shared workstation.

When you think about it, a person could look pretty silly lugging a laptop, when one could be using a PDA with wireless access in a workplace thats been equipped with handhelds in mind. Its like taking a limo from New York to Boston, when you could take the Acela Express in less time, for less money, with more comfort. Its just a matter of building the right infrastructure.

The destination, then, of my first train of thought is this: How would you equip a workplace if youd never seen a notebook or desktop PC? If Pocket PC or Palm OS devices were what you thought of as normal, and if any other IT hardware that people needed was envisioned as an adjunct to those handhelds--rather than the other way around? For hospitals, schools and many other workplaces, I can imagine that this might be the better way.

And next week, well take my second train on a tour of the implications of language translation--and other interactive tools--that are with us everywhere.

Tell me what makes you wish you could swear in fluent Klingon