Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

Pen Computing Magazine, Issue #8 January/February 1996

1995 was perhaps not The Year of the Pen or PDA, but a lot of good things happened. Prices of PDAs have come down. Interest is up, and expectations for 1996 are high.

The end of another year, and­p;by and large­p;it's been a promising one for pen computers and PDAs. It wasn't "The Year of the PDA", but a lot of good things happened, and we definitely see a sense of optimism in this industry that was lacking a year ago.

On the PDA side, Apple's major improvements to the Newton operating system overshadowed everything else. Version 2.0 of Newton Intelligence may not be perfect (yet), but it is a major step in the right direction. With Version 2.0, Apple's MessagePad 120 is far more versatile and useful than ever before, even though the actual hardware hasn't changed. It's so good that once you use a Newton with 2.0, you can never go back. So get your upgrade soon!

Magic Cap likewise saw its first major upgrade to version 1.5, even though the changes are much less visible than those in the Newton OS. The biggest news in the Magic Cap world was the advent of an improved Sony Magic Link communicator. The PIC-2000 proved once and for all that a PDA can have backlighting and two PC Card slots without unduly growing in size or weight. It seems likely that all other PDA hardware platforms will follow Sony's example. Soon your PDA will be usable in any lighting condition, and you will no longer have to swap PCCards every time you want to make a phone call. The other big Magic Cap news is the availability of Magic Cap for Windows, the beta version of which General Magic made available free of charge on the Internet. While it's certainly nice to see the friendly Magic Cap user interface in color, it should be interesting to see what Magic Cap will contribute to the Windows environment and, more importantly, to the desktop integration of Magic Cap communicators. The Magic Cap Developers Conference was a resounding success, and so was the PDA Developers Conference East. This bodes well for the future of PDA platforms which, after all, depend on active developer support to survive and thrive.

The Geoworks GEOS operating system also received a major boost with the release of HP's low cost OmniGo 100, the first in a family of future OmniGo products. While GEOS seemed sluggish on the original Casio Zoomer, it literally flies on the OmniGo. Geoworks' prediction that it will become a major force in personal devices may yet become true.

The HP OmniGo also heralded the advent of truly low cost PDAs. At a street price of around $300, mobile computing is now affordable for almost anyone. More low cost personal devices are expected shortly.

Another major event in operating systems, the successful release of Windows 95, was more of a mixed blessing. Even though version 2.0 of Windows for Pen Computing includes major improvements in pen functionality, it will probably take a long time until that promise is realized. For the time being, only a few pen vendors offer drivers for Windows 95. It will likely take years until corporate America has concluded its transition from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 and start demanding availability of the new operating environment on mobile platforms as well. However, for pen enthusiasts there is much to look forward to in Windows 95. Communications Intelligence Corporation (CIC) just released Handwriter for Windows 95. It's very easy to install and a pleasure to use, and gives a previe w of coming (pen) attraction under Win95.

1995 saw the formation of the PDA industry association (PDAia) as a forum and catalyst for the industry. The recent PDA/Handheld Utility conference, produced by the PDAia, was attended by almost 300 representatives from gas and electric utilities from all over the nation. 50 vendors displayed their products, including almost every manufacturer of pen hardware. The enthusiasm level was high. This was the closest to a pure pen-based technology conference that I have seen in two years. Also, it was apparent that utility companies are very serious about mobile computing. Unlike some Wall Street Journal reporters, these guys are open-minded towards new technologies and know that you can't carry around a keyboard when you're on the job.

1995 was also the year where every major vendor of mobile and field force automation equipment got into the pen market. Norand, Telxon, Symbol, Epson, Husky and others introduced powerful handheld pen computers. Despite their high performance and ruggedness, some of these Windows-capable machines literally fit into the palm of a hand and weigh little more than two pounds. Epson's new EHT-400 series pen computers, for example, are downright brilliant: Imagine a 486/50 processor, 20MB of RAM, a 340MB disk, and a color screen in a beautifully designed and finished unit weighing only 2.4 pounds! For extra heavy duty, companies such as WalkAbout, Texas Micro, and Badger designed pen computers that are nearly indestructible.

On the software side, handwriting recognition-the old Achilles heel of pen computing-made a lot of progress. The emergence and success of the Graffiti character recognition program caused several other companies to come out with their own character recognition products, with some of them improving on the original. Editing tools have become a lot better, making handwriting recognition easier and more powerful than ever before. Papyrus Associates' Recognition by Papyrus combines word and character recognition "models" into one system so that you can always use the recognition technology best suited for a given task. CIC's not-yet-released character recognition product for Windows is very, very impressive in its flexibility and performance. And Palm Computing has a stunner up its sleeves that we can't talk about yet.

One area where the vast potential for pen input remains unexploited are notebook computers. It's almost criminal not to offer pen at least as an option with notebooks and subnotebooks. Yet, at this point, if you want a pen-enabled general purpose clamshell notebook, your options are almost down to nil. IBM reportedly will only sell its pen-enabled ThinkPad 360PE in quantity orders. AMS stopped selling its blazingly fast MediaPro pen notebook, supposedly because they could no longer get the digitizers. Very strange. Ironically, the trackpads on notebooks are getting bigger and bigger, and soon they'll probably accept pen input. It will be like having a little pen tablet built right into your notebook computer. Why not offer a pen option instead?

In this issue of Pen Computing Magazine we're focusing on the two areas where pen technology is coming on strongest: PDAs and mobile vertical market applications. In our new PDA World section you'll find more insight into PDAs and more PDA software reviews than anywhere else. Mobile computing guru Andy Seybold takes a look at the status of the PDA industry. In our special utility feature we show you how pens and PDAs are helping utility companies around the country do a better job. Our utility specialist, Dominic Gingrasso, explains what ruggedness means and how it is measured.

We're also reviewing a slew of new pen machines. Texas Micro is now offering its much heralded "Grunt" military computer for commercial applications. And at WalkAbout Computers, a group of former Tusk employees are building the Hammerhead PC, an extra-rugged pen computer whose case is milled from a solid block of aircraft grade aluminum. The unit is using a Cyrix 586 processor, bringing Pentium-class performance to pen slates.

Will 1996 be the year of the pen or the PDA, or even mobile computing in general? Probably not, but I am certain that we will see lots of progress as mobile computing becomes more and more important to corporate America. Digitizer technology seems likely to make a breakthrough, and wireless connectivity will continue its slow but steady forward momentum. Also, it now seems probable that inexpensive pen-based Web browsers will soon emerge as a big success, eventually challenging newspapers and magazines as the primary means of information conveyance. At Comdex, Ricoh showed a pen-based multimedia reader which we consider an early prototype of that genre. It should be an exciting year, and the staff of Pen Computing Magazine will cover it all for you.