Tangled Webs
Hand-Held PCs
Jul 30, 1997
Issue 2.10

Getting Away

Two days ago I logged into a computer in New York and rebuilt a database there. Yesterday I ran with the bulls in Pamplona. This morning I modified a few accounts on an Internet server in Utah, and now I sit typing at an outdoor cafe in Granada. What makes this novel is that all the computing is being done via local phone calls and a 70,000 yen, 400-gram hand-held PC (HPC) powered by a pair of AA-batteries.

A few days before I left on my first real vacation in two years, I realized I had not made adequate preparations for my absence. There are, however, those who maintain that my own paranoia rather than the competency of those left in charge was the deciding factor. I regularly use my laptop when I travel on business, but the idea of throwing five kilos of laptop and accessories into my backpack and toting it all over Spain was decidedly unappealing.

Traveling Light
Welcome to the world of palmtop computing. The HPC I purchased runs on a 37MHz MIPS R3910 chip, and runs for about 10 hours on a pair of batteries. Using backlighting or the modem shortens battery life considerably, however. An infrared port allows wireless communication with other HPCs in the same room, and the device can even act as a digital tape recorder. Were it not for the fact that my fingers keep getting tangled on this tiny keyboard, I wouldn't be able to stop praising these things.

The HPC's 400-grams is hardly noticeable in my luggage, and by using its built in modem, and IBM's world net, which has over 900 access points around the world, I should be able to access the Internet and all computers connected to it via local phone calls.

The software for the HPCs is surprisingly good, and they come bundled with a word-processor, spreadsheet, e-mail client, contact manager, database manager and a web browser. Except for the lack of a spelling checker, the software would probably meet the needs of most desktop computer users today. That it runs on such lightweight hardware and uses minimal memory only underscores how ridiculously bloated our desktop software has become over the years. Ten of these devices working in parallel would probably not even be able to boot something like Windows95 or MacOS.

These devices run a lightweight, Windows95-based OS called Microsoft WindowsCE, or WINCE. Unfortunately, the Windows95 interface is terrible for handheld devices. For example, to set the properties of an item one must hold the device in one hand, press the alt-key with the other, and then tap on the object with the stylus -- which is to be held in one's teeth I suppose. Both the US Robotics Pilot and the Apple Newton have far superior interfaces, but now that Microsoft's marketing department is in full swing, developers are lining up to write WINCE software.

Almost There
My honeymoon with ultralightweight computing ended in Barcelona. I found that I could no longer connect to the IBM network, and there was not a thing I could do about it. IBM had no technical support number I could call, and although they maintain exhaustive documentation and FAQs online, it is of little use when one can't log onto the Internet in the first place. Further confounding the problem was the fact that my HPC's built in modem, provided very limited access to configuration settings, so there was not much experimenting I could do.

I don't know if my HPC, IBM's network or the hotel's phone lines were at fault, but clearly there are still a few bugs to be worked out. I was unable to e-mail this article in from Barcelona as planned, and had to wait until I returned to Japan.

As impressive as these devices are, I doubt I will be using my HPC much now that I'm back in Tokyo. For scheduling and note taking, paper and pencil remain faster, cheaper, and far more user friendly than HPCs. However, I am hooked on the possibilities these devices offer. If I can determine how to fix what went wrong in Barcelona, I won't have to wait two years for my next vacation.

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