Handhelds proliferate but so do user qualms

Attendees at this week's PC Expo seemed relatively immune to the hyperbole about handheld, wireless computing and the Web.

The chief operating system vendors, Microsoft and Palm, and their hardware partners, are piecing together the elements that will make the marriage of handheld computers and the Web a happy one.

Palm announced software to let most Palm users access its Internet portal with a built-in wireless link. Until now it was restricted to users of the Palm VII. Users are limited to the applications and services that have been adapted for Palm.Net, a technique Palm calls Web clipping.

Palm will change its software to support a range of add-ons, including those that offer wireless connections or a cable to a cellular phone, which then acts like a wireless modem.

Handhelds running Microsoft's PocketPC software don't have built-in wireless access. It has to be added through such things as Novatel's wireless Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) card - the Minstrel 540 - unveiled this week for Hewlett-Packard's Jornado 540. Compaq Computer's recently unveiled Ipaq Pocket PC has an add-on that can accept a third-party wireless modem in PC Card format.

In both cases, users pay for a wireless service, and that doesn't come cheap. CDPD data services can cost up to $45 per month.

Even when they can connect, some users see most existing wireless connections as too slow because they are typically not as fast as a standard 28.8K bit/sec telephone dial-up link. Metricom announced this week it will launch its 128K bit/sec Ricochet service in Atlanta and San Diego at the end of this month. Initially it will focus on laptop users because the external Ricochet modem attaches via a Universal Serial Bus or serial port. Novatel and Sierra Wireless plan to offer modems in PC Card format later this year.

Despite vendor success stories, many users continue to be frustrated or confused by handheld computing.

"My question to these vendors is always 'Will people do real work with these, and how?'" says Avi Hoffer, CEO of Metastorm, an Orem, Utah, company that makes software for automating customer service actions. At PC Expo, he was visiting displays of software vendors and systems integrators focusing on the handheld market.

He agrees a handheld version of his software makes sense in theory for use by personnel visiting a customer site, but he has questions.

"If I'm in a store with a customer, will I be able to go through the entire ordering process with this kind of device?" he asks. "Is the device really an interaction point [with enterprise applications] or mainly a personal information manager, where I'm synchronizing some data and looking at a screen?"

Implementing the technology can be tricky, says Jeffrey Kraus, network manager at commodities trader Northville Industries in Melville, New York. Kraus tried to implement a Palm-based application to give the firm's traders streaming stock quotes, but it failed.

"Palm is request-oriented," he says. "I can receive data as long as I request it."

"It's a Microsoft world," he says."If traders or executives want to receive e-mail on their handhelds, chances are the e-mail will have attachments. And chances are the attachments will be Microsoft Word or Excel. You want to be able to open those easily."

Developers at Amano Cincinnati, a Roseland, New Jersey, vendor of server-based time and attendance software, have created a Palm version of some of those functions. It still requires users to plug the Palm in to its cradle to synchronise with the back end.

They want to create a wireless connection to let field staff, truck drivers and others submit job costing and payroll data almost instantly, says James Kovacs, development manager for Amano. "The issues are the speed of the wireless service, cost and coverage," he says.

For many, "mobile computing" still means a well-equipped Windows laptop, as it does for Stuart Jasphy, computer coordinator for Harold Zoreff, a New York CPA firm. "The Palm is a glorified address book," he says.

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