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From the Editor (June 1999)

Mobile trade shows are back

In our last issue we ran baby pictures of our editorial staff in all the column heads, as a homage to April Fool's day, stymying quite a few readers in the process. We're back to our mature (physically anyway) selves in this issue. And speaking of maturity, we've been seeing more and more of it in the pen computing market as of late. Let's take a quick look at all the exciting things that have been happening in recent months in the mobile arena.

As I already mentioned in the last issue, the two trends currently fueling the mobile computing market are the increasing availability of indoor/outdoor-readable screens, and the emergence of Windows CE and the Palm OS platform in vertical market computing devices. Another indicator that mobile and pen-based computing is coming of age is the rising number of trade shows dedicated to the mobile market.

After several years of losing show after show, the trend has now reversed. In the past few weeks I attended no less than three mobile computing shows, learning a lot in the process, and feeling a sense of gratitude towards the organizers (read risk-takers) of these shows.

First was Dr. Gerry Purdy's Mobile Insights '99 in Palm Springs, California. Gerry has been running these shows for several years now, and each one was bigger and better than the one before. This year's show had a record attendance (partly due, I suspect, to it being held at the gorgeous Marriott Desert Springs Resort and Spa) and featured three product world premieres, those of the 3Com Palm IIIx and Palm V, and the Itronix T5200 vertical market CE device.

The show's unique "on-stage" demos provided rapid-fire introductions to some of the hottest new products. I moderated one of these sessions and got to introduce, among others, such pen computing luminaries as Dr. Stepan Pachikov of Vadem/ ParaGraph and Dr. Ronjon Nag, head of Motorola's Lexicus division. Between the two of them, they amount to a good chunk of the entire body of innovation that has been made in handwriting recognition to-date. Stepan was uncharacteristically nervous, but his engaging, flawless demo of the CalliGrapher handwriting recognition engine won him a "best demo" award. Mobile Insights was very professionally managed and provided a great way to mingle with the mobile industry's movers and shakers. Which, at times, can be quite fruitful. Lore has it that the stunning, Palm III-based Symbol SPT-1500 is the result of Palm Computing founder Jeff Hawkins sharing a table with Symbol Technology's Barry Issberner. The two masterminds began dreaming up concepts, and voila, a Palm with a tiny laser scanner was born. Those who can barely stay awake through the annual Academy Awards would have appreciated Purdy's almost equally classy, but definitely much faster-paced 1999 Mobility Awards.

The second was DemoMobile 99, the first ever mobile version of IDG's highly regarded "Demo" shows. To be honest, not being familiar with the Demo shows, I initially didn't know what to expect. The first contacts from Demo Mobile 99 were just a couple of emails and a fax. But then I saw that Jeff Hawkins was going to make a presentation there and figured that any show that can attract a Jeff Hawkins would definitely be worth attending. And it certainly was. DemoMobile 99 was held in surroundings equally as glamorous as those of Mobile Insights 99—the spectacular Coronado Loews' resort just south of San Diego. The unflappable Chris Shipley and Jim Forbes—the show's co-producers—had gone all out in giving us three unforgettable days of seeing the latest and greatest products in the mobile world.

Two major hardware products made their world premiere. Fujitsu Personal Systems stunned industry insiders with the PenCentra 130, a sleek, CE-based pen tablet with an abundance of features at a stunningly affordable price. IBM officially introduced their first “Jupiter” product. Though it looks just like a small ThinkPad, the new product will be marketed as part of IBM's WorkPad line where it is known as the WorkPad z50.

IBM also provided the sole gaffe of the show. A Big Blue spokesman, while pontificating on the history of the ThinkPad which had started life as a more name-appropriate pen slate, commented—with Fujitsu Personal Systems' prez Lou Panetta sitting in the audience—on how IBM couldn't make a pen slate work and how no one else could either. Well, Panetta created a $100 million a year business selling pen slates out of nowhere, and new pen slates are popping up all over the place.

Nonetheless, DemoMobile 99 was a hit. Jeff Hawkins enlightened speech gave an insight into the three steps of successful product design, Jim Belushi (yes, the Jim Belushi) and his Heartbreakers band provided great and very loud entertainment, and 100 lucky people left the show with big grins on their faces as they had been chosen guinea pigs to test a major new device.

Rounding out the trio of shows was Jon Covington's Mobile & PDA Expo in Chicago. I always enjoy the PDA Expos as they are very focused and provide a great opportunity for vendors and clients to meet and talk.

Compared to the other two, Jon's shows are much more down-to-earth. Everything is simple and efficient, and I always marvel at Jon's ability to get almost all the major vertical market players to bring their latest and greatest.

Mutoh America and MicroTouch were there, providing attendees insight into how one of the major enabling technologies in pen computing—digitizers—really works.

Dauphin, on their home turf, displayed an Orasis mobile computer sporting a camouflage paint job. They also had a genuine Navy SEAL demonstrating wireless day and night vision goggles attached to a helmet. Apart from providing night vision to the soldier, whatever he saw could also be seen at headquarters (on a Dauphin Orasis, of course).

Oracle and Sybase were both there, an indication that the big boys are getting serious about getting those little handhelds into the corporate database fold.

Sharp—undisputed champions of letting us take a glimpse at great Japanese market products that may never make it to stateside—showed the CE-based Telios, a thinner, sleeker version of the Mobilon Pro with a gorgeous, razor-sharp TFT color screen.

IBM demonstrated that you can indeed pop one of their new 340MB MicroDrives into a CE device. Stick one of those little marvels into the WorkPad z50's CompactFlash slot and, bingo, instant 340MB partition. Where will it stop? I very much look forward to next year's iterations of these three shows.

I should also mention that Palm Computing had a very strong presence at both Mobile Insights and DemoMobile, clearly outgunning Microsoft Windows CE at each event. It wasn't as much a lack of exciting CE devices—there were plenty at each event—than a sense of Microsoft not providing the same strong public support to its camp of supporters as 3Com does to theirs. There is still widespread skepticism out there about Windows CE and exactly how serious Microsoft is about it, and the mainstream computer press has a disturbing tendency to pan CE devices almost sight unseen. A bit more good old-fashioned public platform evangelism would go a long way, especially with Windows CE now being used in some truly exciting hardware.

Like, for example, Casio's E-100 palm-size PC, which is clearly setting a new standard for CE-driven PPCs and perhaps a lot more. What makes the Casio E-100 so special? Unlike its current competitors, it has an active matrix screen capable of displaying 64k color. Which means you can watch MPEG movies on it. Our demo unit had a stunning 40 second clip from Steven Spielberg's The Lost World that left everyone's mouth gaping wide open at the sight of sounds of all those dinosaurs. And since the E-100 has a stereo output jack, you can use it as a near-CD quality MP3 player, or you can listen to downloaded audio books. Could this be the beginning of a new era of personal multimedia devices? Will we soon be able to download feature-length movies before boarding a plane?

I should also mention that most of the new CE devices have exceptional battery life. Despite its great power, the Casio E-100 seems to run forever (or at least over ten hours) on a charge. And when I recently took my Vadem Clio to Chicago for a three day trip, I didn't have to recharge it once despite heavy usage.

Speaking of the Clio, I have been giving its CalliGrapher handwriting recognition engine a good workout. I know that one of these days my beloved Newton MessagePad 2000—which, to this day, I use to take handwritten notes wherever I go—will give up its ghost, whereupon I will need to find a replacement. While the Clio is perhaps a bit too large to be used as a handy notepad, I was pleased to see that CalliGrapher on Windows CE has now reached a level of accuracy and ease of use that will soon make me forget my Newton. If—that is—tablet manufacturers manage to exorcise one of the remaining bugaboos—spiking. The Newton, though using a touchscreen, never spiked, but almost all other touchscreen equipped devices do, which makes writing on their screens more difficult than it should be. I wish it'd be worthwhile for the digitizer wizards at Mutoh America to come up with an active digitizer for handheld and palm-size devices.

As you peruse this issue of Pen Computing, you'll find that we have started running benchmarks on all the CE devices we test in our lab. This thanks to the introduction of BSQUARE's bUSEFUL Analyzer that runs six major benchmarks and reports the results in normalized “SquareMarks”. To be honest, interpreting the results of the benchmarks can be tricky. You can't automatically assume that the device with the highest overall benchmark will also be the one that feels the fastest in everyday use. This is primarily due to the different processor families Windows CE devices run on, but also due to differences in overall systems architecture and I/O drivers. Read the explanation of the bUSEFUL benchmarks by one of its creators on page 73 of this issue to get a better idea of what to look out for when you evaluate the performance of a CE device.

In this issue we also continue evaluating the first generation of vertical market Windows CE devices with complete reviews of the Itronix T5200 and the WPI Husky fex21. Both are very interesting machines. The Itronix looks sort of like a shrunken version of its Windows 98-based X-C 6250 brother—a smaller iteration of a form factor that has been proven successful for its makers. The new Husky, likewise, looks like a pint-sized copy of the bigger Husky mobile computers. However, while both devices definitely display family resemblance, they are geared towards breaking open entirely new market segments.

We're also taking a look at an entirely new connected organizer platform, the Fuga eDiary. It is essentially one man's vision of a better organizer mousetrap and definitely worth a look. Which, of course, brings up the question of how many operating system platforms the market will successfully support. Sharp, after having gone it alone with its Zaurus line of keyboard-based PDA, finally joined the Windows CE bandwagon. Texas Instruments' innovative Avigo is on life support at best. Royal's daVinci shows surprising strength, but as Psion's rapidly waning fortunes have shown, when it comes to picking an OS platform, there is very little margin of error. You either make the right choice, or you're dead.

And a few more words on color screens. My position has pretty much been that whenever color becomes available, it will quickly replace black and white. I still believe that, but there are some caveats. Color comes in various degrees of usefulness. For example, the recent introduction of a new generation of color palm-size PCs has stirred quite a bit of interest, but it has also made it more difficult to pick the right device for your needs.

At this point there are no less than three major categories of color screens used in palm-size PC devices, and each has its definite strengths and weaknesses. The HP Jornada 420's conventional DSTN color screen is super-bright indoors, but almost unreadable outdoors. Sharp's high-reflective TFT, found in the Compaq Aero and the Everex Freestyle 420, can be read in bright sunlight, but indoors it's still somewhat of a compromise. TFT screens offer brilliant color and are suitable for multimedia, but they, too, are almost unreadable outdoors, and they usually cost more (a fact that must have escaped Casio's accountants). Finally, 256 colors is color, but just barely, and even if your PPC supports 64k color, most CE software will not. This is a CE weakness that must be addressed in a hurry. -

-Conrad H. Blickenstorfer is editor-in-chief of Pen Computing Magazine and general editor of Digital Camera Magazine. He is also a mobile technology contributor to the Fortune Magazine Techn ology Buyer's Guide.

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