Guest column: The last bastion of PC absurdity

The portable computer may be about to take a tumble. Good thing, too.

You haul a clumsy, expensive, trouble-prone portable to all corners of the Earth just so you can get a little work done on the road. You suffer lower-back pain and wear creases into your shoulder. And if that machine -- which doubles as your desktop computer back at the office -- gets stolen, your company secrets are on the hook.

Sound familiar?

I feel your pain. But a couple of weeks ago, I saw relief in the form of Hewlett-Packard's nifty little Jornada portable. It's one of the first of the so-called Jupiter machines based on the Windows CE operating system. I suspect many imitators will follow.

The Jornada weighs a little more than 2 pounds and is the size of a large paperback. It has a keyboard on which you can touch-type, an internal modem, a readable colour screen and a PC Card slot. HP says the batteries last 10 hours (a claim I couldn't prove), and it lists for $US999. There's no boot-up time. There's also no hard disk, but you can stoke it with 64Mbytes of flash memory.

For my money, that's the way mobile computing will go. Eighty percent of business travellers do the same four things on their laptops: e-mail, word processing, spreadsheets and presentations. And there's absolutely no reason they need a small mainframe to do that. Jornada and other Jupiter-class machines are the first to be designed from the ground up as mobile Windows machines, not as slimmed-down desktops. They're not as powerful as full-blown laptops, but they'll do most of what you need.

It will be interesting to see how hard computer makers push Jupiter machines. That market is likely to grow at the expense of laptops, which are the last refuge of high margins in the PC industry. PC makers may not push those low-cost beauties aggressively, but it's in your best interests to check them out.

With a machine like that, you might be able to leave important data in the office and take only what you really need on the road. Now that's progress!

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