by Derrick Story
Free Starbucks coffee is served every morning in the lobby of San Francisco's Hotel Monaco. Of course, you have to stay there to drink it. Normally, I'm accompanied by my Handspring Visor as I sip from my cup of house blend. But today is different -- the Visor is back in the room. My drinking buddy this morning is a Palm Vx Limited Edition with a Novatel Minstrel V wireless modem.
Thanks to an innovative promotion at CMP's Web2000, I and scores of other conference attendees were able to test this state-of-the-art wireless package. And during the 24 hours that I put this setup through its paces, I evolved from basic consumer thinking (like using the wireless connection to find the next Starbuck's location) to contemplating how this tool could be used in business to increase productivity and efficiency.
But first, I want to show you the gizmo itself ...
Palm Vx with Novatel Minstrel V modem.
The Palm Vx is amazingly svelte considering that it packs 8 MB of RAM. It's a good choice for a wireless package because the Novatel modem adds considerable size and weight to the package. Compared to my Handspring Visor, the Palm/Minstrel unit was 1/8" longer and 3/16" deeper. And it did feel heavier than my normal PDA companion.
However, if you wanted to leave the modem behind and travel light, it simply slips off and you have the light Palm Vx which rests comfortably in a shirt pocket without even causing it to sag.
The Minstrel V features cellular digital packet data (CDPD) technology, which provides real-time data transmission at speeds up to 19.2 kbps over a secure open standard network. I was provided with an IP address that allowed me to connect to a Verizon Wireless network. The modem is always on standby, and if you need to retrieve information from the Internet, it automatically connects. The only way to turn off the modem is by launching the Minstrel software application and selecting shutdown.
Since both the Palm V and the modem are rechargeable, worrying about the unit remaining on isn't really an issue. Both units had enough juice to get me through a 14-hour day. And I simply plugged them into their respective charging units before dozing off for the evening.
For browsing, the Palm Vx included AvantGo with 14 preloaded channels ranging from ABC News to a five-language translator. This was a different face to AvantGo that I hadn't experienced before. Normally, I download the weather, daily news, and tech updates as I dash out the door and read them during the day as time allows. (This is one of my favorite PDA activities.) But now, with the wireless setup, I didn't have to worry about preloading. Whenever I wanted the day's top stories, I'd open AvantGo on the Palm and it would go grab them in real time.
Is this real-time benefit mission-critical to my life? Hard to say in just the 24 hours I used the device. On one hand, it was handy getting the weather report for "right now" before I dashed outside without a coat. On the other hand, the process of logging on the Verizon server and retrieving the information took considerably longer than checking my preloaded AvantGo channels. More on this later.
For e-mail, I used the excellent MultiMail 3.1, which is better designed and more reliable than most desktop clients. Since I already use this application on my Visor with a ThinModem module, I was able to quickly configure it and download my mail. By the way, one of the great functions of this app is the option to download "headers only." This prevents your PDA from being lobotomized by huge, mind-numbing e-mail files. I simply scan the headers, grab the messages of the ones I want, and delete the rest.
A copy of the Blogger Wireless Edition was also pre-installed. This innovative PDA app allows you to post and read blogs on your Palm. With the wireless edition, you could literally blog while commuting on public transportation or waiting for your lunch to arrive in a crowded restaurant. The wireless edition offers a subset of functionality found at www.blogger.com: account creation, blog creation, posting, editing, publishing, and a directory of blogs suitable for viewing on a PDA. For content providers on the go, this functionality alone could justify the investment for the wireless package.
A typical consumer scenario -- thinking inside of the box
Checking the weather in real time.
Back to my cup of coffee at the Hotel Monaco. After a few sips, I set down the cup and pulled up the antenna on the Minstrel modem. First stop, the weather channel. I typed in the 94102 zip code and was greeting with a partly cloudy, calm wind, 55°F report. Today's high was predicted for 72° -- perfect!
Next I checked the traffic and was happy to read that there were no accidents between the hotel and the Moscone Conference Center. However, I was sad to read that a Muni bus had crashed into a building at the corner of Battery and Broadway. Fortunately, no major injuries were reported, and the mess was expected to be cleared by 9:28 a.m.
ABC news reported that a car bomb had exploded in Jerusalem and that the dot.coms are dead. (I'm still weighing the merits of having access to real-time news ...)
I then located an ATM machine just three blocks away, right next to another Starbucks. Lastly, I checked my e-mail and logged off.
At this point, none of this functionality is really that different than what I could do with my considerably less expensive Visor setup. With it, I would download the same AvantGo information on my way out the door and read it as I had time over the course of the morning. "I need to expand my thinking here," I thought. "There's got to be more to wireless than traffic reports and depressing news."
Custom business applications -- thinking outside of the box
Later that day, I interviewed Bridget Hart, the Web2000 show director and project leader for the "try and buy" wireless promotion. She told me that this technology isn't just for finding the nearest Starbucks. (At this point I quickly scrolled the Starbucks locator off my screen and nodded in agreement.)
"I'm excited about this promotion, the largest of its kind ever, because it allows us to start thinking about the possibilities when using wireless with handheld devices," she said. "For example, how could we use these new tools in the corporate setting to improve efficiency? Wireless LANs are great, but they have a limited range. What if we could upload information in real time that our coworkers could be using right away instead of at the end of the day? I think the possibilities are limitless."
I then met with Handango Product Manager Brad Ellison to discuss how his company is providing business solutions to its corporate customers. Handango is mainly in the PDA software business with a library of 8,500 titles from 3,300 software developers. But they also specialize in pulling together complete corporate solutions including hardware and connectivity. They coordinated, for example, the Web2000 try-and-buy promotion.
According to Mr. Ellison, businesses are starting to explore these tools for use in the corporate environment. He pointed me to a partnership Handango entered into earlier this year with TRGpro devices where the two companies are going to work together to provide complete business solutions.
The Web2000 custom business application
The Web2000 group also worked with Centura Software to create a customized application dubbed "The Web2000 Brain" that provided conference attendees with scheduling, messaging, and networking capabilities. With it, I could check class times, read show dailies, exchange opinions with other attendees, and locate exhibitors. I loved not having to lug the paper version of the conference program around just to look something up.
Even though I enjoyed the functionality of the Web2000 Brain, it wasn't until that evening that it occurred to me that this was a working example of the types of custom apps that any business could create and implement. Companies such as Centura specialize in creating the middleware that is often the "missing piece of the puzzle" for businesses.
Once I began to appreciate that the Web2000 Brain was actually a custom application designed for the "business" (the Web2000 Conference), I began to think about how I could apply this technology in my own business life.
The cost of going wireless
All of these possibilities come at a price, however. The folks at Handango put together a convenient package for Web2000 attendees that read like this:
- Palm Vx Limited Edition -- $399
- Novatel Minstrel V Modem -- $345
- Monthly wireless service -- $39.95 a month
- Software package -- $125
There are more and more options appearing all of the time, but clearly this isn't an "impulse buy" type of purchase.
Bringing it home
Handango is one-stop shopping for handheld computing.
Centura creates the middleware that is often the missing link for business applications.
It's been a couple weeks since Web2000, and I've happily returned to using my Visor with AvantGo and a ThinModem module. I haven't really yearned much for wireless freedom -- even after having tasted the fruit.
But I have continued thinking about the possibilities. How much more efficiency could I bring to my business world with a wireless PDA? Would I (someday soon) be sitting in the backseat during a long commute posting a blog -- or catching up on my e-mail? As technology continues to improve and as prices come down, wireless Internet may become a normal part of my life. For now, however, I think I'll just enjoy the ride to work and chat with my driving companions.
Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit www.thedigitalstory.com.
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