Product Review: Queries without wires: Palm VII holds promise

A few months ago, I reviewed 3Com's then-new Palm IIIx and Palm V handheld personal digital assistants (PDA). I gave them high marks as organisers but really disliked using them as communications tools.

Given that experience, I was highly skeptical about the likely usefulness of the announced but not-yet-shown Palm VII -- essentially a Palm IIIx with built-in wireless communications for e-mail and Internet access. I didn't expect much, and I was dead wrong. It's a better tool than I had imagined, and one that may make IT managers sit up and take notice of supporting PDAs.

The VII is notable for how it simplifies wireless setup and for the fact that it's a complete system out of the box. It also eases simplified, secure wireless access to an organization's private databases via query applications developed with Palm Computing's own tool kit.

Recognising the narrowness of the 8K-bit/sec wireless datapipe into the Palm VII, 3Com developed an approach to Internet access (their term is Web Clipping) that uses query applications resident in the unit. When you use one, you invoke a dialogue and make choices or queries appropriate to that application -- say, to inquire about airline flights between two cities on a given date and time. The application extracts the essence of that query and sends it to a server, which in turn translates the query for the host application and sends it to the indicated Web address, together with any required encrypted authentication information. The server gets the answer back, extracts the data, and compresses it for retransmission to your handheld unit.

That two-stage approach, relying on the handheld unit for defining the query and the server for Internet access and processing, reduces both the amount of data that the VII needs to transmit and receive and the amount of power it consumes while doing so. 3Com predicts that a pair of AAA batteries will last up to two weeks (and also recharge the nonreplaceable internal NiCad power cell).

In developing the VII, 3Com managers learned firsthand how difficult it can be to set up wireless communications: You have to involve an Internet service provider, a third-party wireless modem and a phone call to set up the account. Then you have to program (correctly) all the needed parameters into the machine.

But with the Palm VII, setup is quite simple, and the key is that Palm provides both the hardware and the communications channel. 3Com has established Palm.net, a central server farm that acts as the remote host for all Palm VII handhelds. The user just raises the antenna that tucks alongside the Palm VII's right side. This turns the radio on and checks for access to the BellSouth Wireless Data Network, which covers 260 US cities. If it's a machine's first on-air session, a dialogue prompts for registration information and payment data. When that's done, it calls up Palm.net via an encrypted link, opens an account (service plans begin at $US10 per month) and in about 90 seconds you're in business.

The real potential of the Palm VII, however, may be the control it offers the IT manager. The Palm VII wireless platform allows users to access information over the Internet, and this can include secure access to your own corporate databases. It's a limited-bandwidth, application-controlled, encrypted access path, it offers a lot of security along with its convenience, and it seems to give individual users fewer opportunities to do something improper. I believe it will prove a surprisingly effective tool for many roving professionals.

The Palm VII comes with several prepackaged query applications, including automated-teller-machine-locators and a variety of news, financial, travel, entertainment, weather and map services. But its CD-ROM also includes software that lets you write your own query applications in HTML to access whatever Web resources you wish. Better yet, because all Palm communications are standards-based, your IT department can set up a server outside your firewall to receive queries from Palm.net, authenticate them, and provide secure, encrypted access to corporate data, such as an SAP R/3 inventory database, a customer list, order entry and status information and more.

As good as the Palm VII is, it has drawbacks that will be significant to some users. For example, it doesn't notify you that you have e-mail -- you have to check manually. Also, although the Palm communications model is bandwidth-sparing, allowing you to download only parts of messages to see if you want the whole thing, it doesn't do attachments. Moreover, though the Palm's Graffiti handwriting system is acceptable for inputting very short messages, it can be a real nuisance for longer messages.

Even a tiny keyboard, such as those found on Research In Motion's Blackberry or Nokia's Communicator smart phone, would be a welcome improvement for sending e-mail. Despite these limitations, however, the Palm is a dandy package combining the extensive data storage of its organiser forebear with easy wireless communications.

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