Let's Get Small

Personal computers are dinosaurs: They were the most powerful creatures of their time, but their time is coming to an end.

Computers, whether they run Windows, Mac OS or some flavor of Unix, have developed into formidable general-interest machines - but they've become too complex because they're pulled in so many directions at the same time. It's inevitable that single-purpose or few-purpose devices proliferate as more and more people look to new devices to perform specific tasks.

Unless, of course, the market for such devices never develops because the applications never appear. The dinosaurs may survive because the next step in evolution isn't trying hard enough.

Watch someone with a Palm VII or many of the newer cell phones and wait a few seconds - you'll see him pecking at the buttons more urgently than usual. These boys with toys aren't using these devices for their usual reasons: organizing or talking. They're connecting, tentatively, to the Net.

Yet much of what these guys with too much time on their hands (Net connections from these devices are still slow and unreliable) are getting through their playthings are dumbed-down versions of material that has trouble fitting in a 17-inch desktop PC display. In these tiny spaces, ranging from a square inch on some cell phones to a relatively roomy 4.5 usable square inches on a Palm VII, these people are supposed to navigate and enjoy Web pages intended for PCs. You try it.

So much of what purveyors of wireless content are offering or promise to offer is simply Web content reformatted for uncomfortable viewing on a Palm VII, pager or similar device. What about applications built specifically for post-PC platforms? The most useful Palm VII applications I've come across are ThinAir, a wireless POP e-mail client, and DPWeb, a simple Web text reader. These programs perform their limited functions well, but all they do is deliver a tiny subset of what you'd expect from a full-fledged Net application. They don't deliver anything new or different for the Web. Less useful but more common are not-quite-there applications like comparison shopper BarPoint that forces users to do all the work: Why should I type in a lengthy, senseless barcode in the aisle of a store when there's a perfectly good IR port on my Palm?

The applications we need won't appear until credible tools for building them appear. The current tools for building Palm applications are either integrated development environments that force Palm programmers to think like PC programmers or tiny compilers that package dumbed-down HTML pages for the devices. And programmers aren't the issue here; like the Web, these connected devices will flourish when authoring tools for nonprogrammers are available.

Who knows which wireless platform(s) will win? As with HTML (to a degree) and Java (to a slightly greater degree), we need wireless authoring tools that are built on emerging standards, not the idiosyncrasies of specific displays. If the next generation of two-way pagers has a slightly different-shaped screen, applications and content optimized for the different dimensions of the earlier version will either look bad or not work. Jakob Nielsen, a principal of the Nielsen Norman Group, notes that "most authors and designers are easily seduced into designing for a specific appearance instead of designing for a multiplicity of appearances." Let's not build tools that encourage the tendency. People should know by now they can't control user experience on the Net by hoping everyone is on the same platform. It's never the case.

The Palm, for now, has become the device of choice because its adherents think it's fun - to use and develop for it. How about authoring programs that reflect this? In college I tried to write a word-processing program for my beloved Kaypro II. I never got the application to work, except for one feature:

Whenever I chose to delete anything, a spaceship appeared on the screen and blasted the unwanted text into smithereens. The exploding text was goofy; we need authoring tools that aren't so rigid as to prevent goofiness. Right now the biggest thing on network television is the resurgence of the game show; wireless devices are ideal for distributed game applications like that. Why shouldn't Regis Philbin's next millionaire give his final answer sitting on a park bench with his Palm or pager?

Jimmy Guterman is president of the Vineyard Group, an editorial consultancy in Massachusetts.

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