Most people in the IT sector love gadgets. Hence, the 3Com Palm computing family of products has captured the imaginations of millions of people - two million, to be exact - since the original Pilot shipped.
The idea of holding something in your hand not much bigger than a packet of cigarettes, on which you can store your appointments, addresses and To Do list has inspired many people to fork out for the latest, greatest version of the stylus-operated dynamo.
When I bought my Palm Pilot Professional in late 1997, I thought it was a revolutionary design. While not exactly sleek, it still had the potential to reorganise my cluttered life. Since then, of course, the company has introduced the Palm III, with its slimmer design, meaning that even though all models are backwards compatible I have been consigned to obsolescenceville.
A gadget lovers' heaven
Yesterday the firm was inconsiderate enough to launch two new models in the form of the Palm IIIx and the Palm V, making me look even less trendy among my gadget-loving business chums. The former is aimed squarely at the corporate market, targeting those employees that need industrial-strength computing power in the pocket. The latter targets those professionals who are primarily concerned with style and image, according to the company's marketing staff.
The Palm IIIx is designed to hold a lot of memory. It ships with 4Mb of RAM as standard, but it can be expanded to hold up to 8Mb in total.
The Palm III was only designed to ship with 2Mb of RAM on a SIMM. According to Owen Harries, distribution and channel sales manager at 3Com, the main reason for this is that corporate users are likely to want to add more functions to the system, which will require more memory capacity.
The company has certainly been busy working with big-ticket third-party names to accelerate the potential of the Palm Computing platform within the corporate environment. It has signed hardware licensing agreements with companies including Symbol, which can now market the device as part of a bar code reading solution. Others include FranklinCovey, which has developed a time management system for the platform, and Motorola has enabled customers to use it as a pager alongside its existing organiser facilities.
Because 3Com has close ties with IBM, which sells Palm devices under an OEM agreement, it is hardly surprising that the company also has an intimate software relationship with IBM-owned groupware vendor Lotus.
Other software partners include Remedy, which markets helpdesk products.
Sybase is another software partner working with 3Com, while Oracle has integrated Oracle Lite, its personal database, with the device. Perhaps one of the most interesting software companies working with 3Com on software for the Palm platform, however, is SAP, which wants to make 3Com Palm devices work with its R/3 enterprise resource planning package. Although the relationship between these two companies has yet to produce any deliverable software, if executed correctly, this would help to make all staff an efficient part of the business process, particularly if they are involved in manual work. An example of this would be the use of a Palm machine by warehousing staff who had previously used paper.
When corporate customers get hold of the Palm IIIx, one thing they will notice about the device is its sharper display technology, along with a better backlit screen which has an inverted glow, enabling you to see details on the screen more clearly in the dark. The flash ROM is still there, along with the infra-red transceiver, which enables customers to connect to suitably equipped mobile phones, or even other infra-red-enabled Palm devices. Palm users that want to exchange business information with each other will love this. Incidentally, reports from the US indicate that car thieves love it too - they have been using Palm devices to break through cars' infra-red alarm systems, but that's another story.
Boys with toys
For girls and boys with far too many toys already, the top-of-the-range Palm V is the ultimate yuppie accessory. Never mind that this is meant to be the end of a more rational decade, and that the conventional 1980s City boy is supposedly a thing of the past - this little gadget is intended to make all of your style-conscious friends green with envy. Unfortunately, at #349.99, it will take a lot of greenbacks to achieve this effect.
The first thing you notice about the Palm V is its sleek design. Made of iodised aluminium, the case is a metallic grey colour and tougher than the dark grey plastic of its predecessors. It is a little smaller than other Palm devices and is very sleek, with a depth roughly half that of the Palm III device. This means that it is also very light, at 4oz. One of the most impressive features of the system, designed especially for creative geniuses, is its dual-handed design. It has a slot-in space for a stylus on both sides, meaning that you can slot the stylus in either.
The other space contains a substitute stylus, but this can be removed to insert the spine of a leather cover that folds over to protect the screen. This means that the cover can open to either the left or right, making it easier for left-handed people to use the device. The case isn't exactly sturdy, as the hinge is made of rubber and could easily rip, however.
Pressing the "on" button at the top right-hand corner of the device reveals the updated, sharper screen. It soon becomes apparent that no changes have been made to the applications. Having said that, the application software was well designed in the first place, meaning that this isn't too much of a disappointment. In fact, many diehards will be happy to retain their existing interface and software functionality.
Apart from the snazzy design, perhaps the biggest upgrade to the device is the processor. It now uses an improved version of the Motorola Dragonball processor, and this really makes a difference to the speed. Unlike the two-year-old Palm Pilot Professional, you no longer find yourself waiting ever so slightly for the machine to catch up when performing basic operations.
That makes a lot of difference when trying to take down telephone numbers or recall addresses on the road, for example.
3Com gets hot in the cradle
Another enhancement comes in the form of the Hotsync cradle used to exchange data between the Palm V and the PC. Unlike previous versions of the cradle, which have been flimsy plastic affairs that can easily be pulled off a desk by the weight of their own cable, this new device is a little heavier.
3Com has managed to keep the footprint of the cradle small enough that it won't dominate the desk, but it has filled it out at the back.
This is not merely a cosmetic change; the reason for the added weight is that the company has included a recharger in the cradle itself. It has been able to do this because the power source in the Palm V has been changed. Instead of making you insert your own batteries, the company has included rechargeable lithium ion batteries inside the device. Apart from reducing the cost of ownership, this also means that using the Palm V is more convenient and less stressful to refuel. Users of the Palm Pilot Professional will recall the frantic fumbling as they rushed to replace fading batteries with new ones - that model only held data in memory for 60 seconds without a battery, before consigning your precious contact details to that great digital waste paper basket in the sky.
The initial charge on the Palm V takes three hours, but after that, 3Com says that you can recharge the device in as little as two minutes. 3Com also claims that this device will not suffer from the same problem as some other rechargeable devices, where the battery retains a memory of its charge status when connected to a power supply.
This has caused considerable problems for many laptop computer and mobile phone users in the past, who have found that their entry capacity has been reduced dramatically because they have failed to completely drain their batteries before plugging them back into the mains. The recharger is auto sensing and comes with multiple adaptors, meaning that it will be easy to take your Palm V abroad. In short, 3Com has effectively introduced transparent power management with this device.
In keeping with its image conscious design, the Palm V's recharger contains a stylus holder that lights up an attractive green when the device is recharging. Incidentally, the buttons at the bottom of the Palm V, used to access frequently-used applications such as the calendar and address book, are indented so that they can be pressed with the stylus. This makes it much easier to use the device when it is sitting in the cradle.
Theoretically, another big improvement for Microsoft Outlook users is an Outlook conduit that ships as part of the Palm Desktop software. This enables you to link Outlook directly to your Palm computer, without messing around with any of the third-party software packages out there on the market.
Although he couldn't confirm it at the time of writing, 3Com's Harries says that the company is unlikely to have worked directly with Microsoft on this development, which is not surprising given that the Redmond giant is an arch rival of 3Com's with its own Windows CE small footprint operating system. Rather, it is more likely that 3Com has been working with a third-party, he says, adding that the company would probably have been a Microsoft partner anyway. Nevertheless, this does raise questions about how quickly 3Com will be able to update its Outlook conduit as Microsoft brings out newer, more functional versions of its popular personal information management package.
The conduit certainly wasn't intuitive on my PC. I run Outlook 98, and the installation program for the Palm Desktop software provided me with an Outlook 97 option for mail synchronisation. I selected it, but gave up trying to get my Outlook 98 data into the Palm V. It may have been possible to import some archived Outlook 97 address book files into the Palm Desktop software so that I could transfer them into the device, but I don't want to have to mess around with file formats and imports. Your best bet may be to source software from other third parties if the final release of the system doesn't support the latest version of Outlook, but this shouldn't be an insurmountable problem.
Another thing that raised my eyebrows for the wrong reasons was the maximum memory capacity of the machine. In spite of the fact that you will pay #70 more for the Palm V than for the Palm IIIx, Harries says that the former does not let you expand the memory capacity above the 2Mb that it ships with.
This may not seem particularly bothersome - after all, the company's literature goes to great pains to point out that this 2Mb will enable you to store 6,000 addresses, five years of appointments, 1,500 To Do items, 1,500 memos and 200 Email notes. Having said that, Harries was also at pains to point out the number of applications available for the Palm platform. He says there are more than 2,000 pieces of software available for the machine.
Many people will be eager to surf the Palm-dedicated Web sites - more than 100 of them - in search of such software. It would be nice to think that you could install a considerable number of such applications on your device, not to mention the various reference titles and electronic books available for Palm computers. Enthusiasts may find that they get dangerously close to the RAM roof or even reach it if they install too much. Even if this turns out not to be the case, it would have made sense to give customers the option to expand the memory in the device.
File synchronisation and memory issues aside, however, the Palm V is a desirable device which will look very good when you pull it out of your inside pocket and position it strategically next to your cappuccino at the end of a business meeting.
The few complaints about the system are niggling ones, and in general the Palm V is the sort of machine for which I would auction my grandmother, mortgage her house and sell my pet cat into slavery. So, after this coup de grace, where next for 3Com?
Through the looking glass
A couple of weeks ago, the company announced that it had acquired French company Smartcode Technologie, which specialises in developing wireless data communications and Internet access software used by many cellular telecommunications firms.
According to Neville Street, European general manager for 3Com company Palm Computing, which controls the Palm platform, this enables the company to develop software that will make the Palm platform compatible with future wireless communications standards.
The company has been selling the Palm VII device - which enables users to communicate using the GPRS packet switched communications technology - in the US since Christmas, but it has been stymied by the inadequacy of the point-to-point GSM standard in Europe. This may change as wireless services evolve in the future, says Street.
While cagey about exactly what wireless communications technology will be offered as part of the Palm platform, Street seems particularly enthusiastic about Bluetooth, the wireless communications technology due to be launched in the second half of this year by a consortium of companies including Intel and IBM. 3Com is also a member of the Bluetooth consortium.
One thing is clear - 3Com's lead in the Palm computing market means that it doesn't have to play ball with anyone if it doesn't want to, and Street appears more aware of this than anyone.
When questioned about whether the company is interested in working with groups of companies such as the Wireless Access Protocol (WAP) forum (a consortium devoted to developing application interfaces for wireless devices), he is ambivalent. 3Com is working with the consortium, although it isn't a member, he explains. He prefers to point out the benefits of the company's Web Clipping technology, which is an HTML-based means of accessing the Web built into the Palm VII device.
"We are working with WAP but we're scaring them with our new technology.
While they're still talking about stuff, we're actually delivering products to the market," he says. "It really gave a shock to them when we delivered the Palm VII architecture, because they're still trying to work out how the WAP architecture works, and we went in and delivered a complete HTML solution."
The latest IDC figures indicate that 3Com had 47% of the handheld market in 1998. However, according to IDC analyst Alison McKenzie, as the big guns in the Windows CE market such as Hewlett-Packard and Compaq launch handheld devices, the company will find that its position is likely to be more threatened than it has been in the past.
Nevertheless, it seems that, for the moment, 3Com can pick and choose who it will work with in the palmtop and wireless device market. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the ultra-sexy Palm V looks delicious.
- In the second part of our handheld feature next week, Sean Hallahan takes a look at how these devices have penetrated (or not) the enterprise and asks whether they can ever take the place of the laptop.
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