Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

Pen Computing Magazine, Issue #6 August/September 1995

Vertical market hardware manufacturers are growing stronger, but they're now facing a challenge from consumer electronics giants and their marketing savvy.

It's becoming increasingly clear that, for the foreseeable future, it will be the requirements of working field forces, and not those of a horizontal mass market, that are going to shape the development of the mobile/pen computing industry. This is a sharp departure from the initial belief that pen computers were the ultimate answer for those millions of people who do not know how to use a keyboard. As time goes on, the number of people in that segment of the population is shrinking steadily, and since most personal computers are primarily used for online access and word processing, getting rid of the keyboard may not be a good idea in the first place, at least until technology has advanced to a point where alternative input methods become clearly superior to our old friend, the keyboard. The situation is entirely different for field force automation where mobility, ruggedness, and flexibility are key requirements. It's simply not practical to lug around a heavy notebook with a full size keyboard that requires two handed operation. Field force automation is not one field, but rather a term describing many different disciplines with many different requirements.

But there are some common denominators: many field service tasks require very lightweight computers that can easily be carried in one hand and operated with the other, similar to the way we handle a clipboard. Other tasks may require greater ruggedness, a full-size screen, or certain special peripherals. As a result, the area once called pen computing continues to change and evolve.

In the last issue of Pen Computing Magazine I talked about the threeway split of this formerly almost homogenous field into a) pen-enhanced notebook PCs, b) PDAs, and c) vertical market pen tablets, with the latter two gathering steam and the former stagnating. This trend is accelerating, but additional factors are coming into play and once again blur the borders. For example, some of the newest vertical market pen tablets-such as the Norand PEN*KEY6100 or the Telxon PTC-1134-are barely bigger than a Newton MessagePad, yet they are fully functional Windows machines. Does this make them vertical market PDAs? Can a 486-based Windows machine be a PDA or does this stretch the term "personal digital assistant"? Apple, of course, is now very much into vertical markets and so even JohnSculley's original mass market PDA has, to some extent, become a vertical market platform. Another interesting thing is that consumer electronics and general purpose computer companies such as Apple, Panasonic, Motorola, and Casio are increasingly challenging the specialized vertical market hardware vendors. With their marketing savvy, economies of scale, and huge R&D budgets one would expect them to be more than a match for the smaller vertical market vendors who have more specific expertise, but fewer human and financial resources. It's thus almost a paradox that the big consumer guys haven't yet gotten a handle on the marketing thing and are taking heavy hits for technological shortcomings whereas the vertical market specialists are scoring contract after contract and release one innovative, future-oriented design after the other. The "Big Three" of the vertical pen computing specialists, Symbol, Telxon, and Norand are bringing a wealth of powerful, lightweight, and extremely well engineered and designed pen computers to market. With brand-new machines like the Symbol PPT 4600, the Norand 6100 and 6600, and the Telxon PTC-1134, all with industry standard architectures, powerful processors, plenty of memory, and the ability to run Windows, who would still talk of the demise of pen computing?

Let me talk a bit about internal matters: we're seeing just as much change as the volatile industry we're covering. Two staffing changes have occurred: our beloved European Bureau Chief Nigel Ballard decided to pursue other literary interests. A great loss indeed, but you'll find that Tim Schmidt, his successor, has a virtually limitless number of contacts in the mobile and communications industries. I am sure his Personal Devices Journal will grow to be a worthy replacement of Nigel's column (he did this first installment on just a few days' notice). David MacNeill has joined our staff as Associate Editor. David is a Newton specialist and we're glad to have him, especially now that Intelligent Newton Magazine is no more and we're going to expand Newton coverage.

Speaking of Newton, while there are frequent changes to the staffing and the organization of the former PIE group (now Newton Systems Group), their willingness to help and make themselves available for interviews and discussions is almost unique in the industry. Over the last few weeks I spent many hours talking with various Newton group engineers and managers, thanks to Jeni Johnstone, who should be cloned as a model for PR persons anywhere. Apple's Newton strategy is one of incremental improvement to the MessagePad platform, with a great amount of work going into continuing development of the Newton Tool Kit and desktop integration libraries, and provision of low levels tools for developers. Apple continues to see the Newton not as a minimalist portable computer running junior versions of desktop software, but as a whole new business tool entirely. Integration into, not merely extension of, the desktop is the goal. Apple is also working furiously on version 2.0 of Newton Intelligence. Apple won't talk detail yet (and not a word about their upcoming new hardware platform), but says that 2.0 is hardware-independent and that MP 120 owners will be able to upgrade. Apple also emphasized that they are not backing away from the horizontal market with their PDAs and that much of what John Sculley once said about the future of PDAs is still considered the goal. The hiring of Larry Reich, formerly of ultra-aggressive New York-based J&RComputer Marketing, as their new director of Sales and Marketing for USA speaks volumes about Apple's intentions for the Newton. On a sadder note, likable Shane Robison's tenure as Newton chief turned out to be a short one. He left for an engineering job elsewhere and has been replaced on an acting basis by Sandy Bennett.

A few words about those beleaguered general purpose pen notebooks: Their ranks may be shrinking alarmingly, but the situation is far from hopeless. Windows 95 has much better pen support than Windows for Pen Computing ever had. Despite Microsoft's curious decision to unbundle the pen drivers, I am certain that Windows 95 will be a boon for pen computing. On the digitizer front, companies like Wacom and Kurta continue to a improve their offerings (Wacom's new 3.3-volt chipset may do wonders for PDAs), and if Scriptel's much publicized WriteTouch technology takes off, we may soon see some pretty terrific pen notebooks. Speaking of terrific notebooks, thanks to California-based AMS, Inc., pen computer enthusiasts are no longer banished to the slow lane: we found and tested the AMS MediaPro, the first clamshell-type notebook with a 90MHz Pentium processor. Needless to say, its performance far exceeds that of any other pen machine we've ever tested. You still don't get an active matrix color screen with it, but with a low price, blistering speed, and very decent battery life, pen speed addicts need look no further.

I am also encouraged by the continuing improvements in the handwriting recognition arena. It would have been easy to simply give up when everyone and their brother made fun of the technology, but that's not what happened. CIC released version 4.0 of its already excellent Handwriter, Advanced Recognition Technology (ART) is gearing up for release of the new version of their smARTwriter, newcomer Synaptics has its minimalist, but very fast and very accurate new HR 1200 recognizer, and at the high end, Nestor, Inc. introduced its rumbling, snarling $14,440 quad-processor PCI 4000 Recognition Accelerator board with a total of 15 million transistors to process up to 80,000 patterns per second. MDs with lousy handwriting, watch out.

In this issue, we have a special feature on field force automation. It is not complete by any means, but will give you an idea of what you should look out for, and what you can expect, as you include your field forces into the corporate reengineering effort. We're looking at forms generation software, different field force automation solutions, and an actual scenario of how one might go about field force automation. If you have success stories to tell, please contact us!