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Getting a grip on handhelds

About six years ago, the Palm Pilot started a tech revolution by making the personal digital assistant suddenly useful. Today's handhelds have advanced beyond simple datebooks and contact lists.

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2003


Javier Berolo carries several gadgets as he travels the Tampa Bay area for his job: a cell phone for conversations, a Blackberry for e-mail and a Palm organizer that he considers indispensable.

"I'm basically in my office where I stand," said Berolo, a wireless data consultant for Nextel, who uses the Palm for his calendar, contact list and memos. "I'm as virtual as I can get."

Berolo's passion for Palms carries beyond his work. For a while, he even ran a users group so others in the bay area could learn about the joys of handheld devices.

The group, which Berolo hopes to restart, helped people sort through the confusion caused by the mushrooming number of devices and features. "There's almost too many options," Berolo said. "Unless you educate yourself or find someone to guide you, you're going to be confused."

Personal digital assistants, or PDAs, have been around for at least 10 years. There were a few early failures, most infamously the Apple Newton. Its ability to turn handwriting scrawled onto its screen into gibberish became the stuff of Doonesbury satire.
[Times photo: Fred Victorin]
Javier Berolo shows off some of the digital hardware -- everything from a Palm handheld to a portable printer to a Blackberry for wireless e-mail -- carries with him on the job.

But the market didn't take off until the Palm Pilot was introduced about six years ago. The first Palm devices cost several hundred dollars and could hold a few thousand text records such as addresses, calendar items and to-do lists.

Its simple and well-organized software became the model for most that followed, as millions of Americans learned to use a stylus to tap information into the rectangular devices and to hook them up to computers to synchronize their data.

Now, users also can watch video, surf the Internet, play games, display photos -- even take photos by attaching a camera -- and listen to music. Add-on devices that plug into handhelds range from global positioning satellite devices to full keyboards that fold into a neat packet. Some high-end models even use biometrics, requiring a fingerprint to sign on for security.

Today's handhelds also are smaller and faster.

Buyers have dozens of choices. Microsoft alone has 35 manufacturers making handhelds that run on the software giant's Pocket PC operating system. The Palm operating system is available on models from companies such as Palm, Handspring and Sony. Some manufacturers offer models running the Linux operating system.

Prices have grown more attractive, starting at about $100 for basic models, and going up to about $700 or more, depending on features such as a full-color, higher-resolution screen and built-in wireless technologies for Internet access and to synch with devices such as cell phones.

Sales were down about 10 percent last year, as businesses cut back on purchases and consumers held off in a tough economy.
Things to snap on or plug into your handheld
Once you pick a personal digital assistant from all the offerings, you can start working your way through the array of accessories that are turning handheld organizers into the electronic equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife.

But that hasn't stopped the industry from its quest for the perfect PDA, one that's packed with goodies yet easy to use.

"We're going to continue to put more things into them," said Brant James, manager in Hewlett Packard's Solutions and Strategies group, "but at the same time make those things easier to use."

The market is broad, which explains the variety, and it's generally divided into three categories: businesses, consumers and people who use their handhelds for work and personal matters.

Business uses can range from managing inventory in a warehouse to doctors taking notes and managing records during rounds. Consumers go for personal management functions, such as calendars, and entertainment. In between, the mobile professional uses it for work and play.

"I ask people all the time" how they'll use a device, Berolo said. "Half the time it could be a paper and pen is all they need."

The first decision is which of two main types to choose: a device with the Palm operating system or one with Microsoft's Pocket PC software. Despite Microsoft's marketing might and deep pockets, the Palm operating system continued to dominate the market last year, capturing about 87 percent of sales, according to the NPD Group, with the Pocket PC at 12 percent.

Advantages of the Palm, according to Consumer Reports magazine, include smaller size, better battery life, more software programs, compatibility with Windows and Macintosh computers and lower prices. Pocket PCs are more powerful, have more memory, but work only with Windows computers.

"Windows products don't have nearly the consumer focus that Palm products have under $200," said Stephen Baker, director of research at the NPD Group. "The vendors that sell (Pocket PCs) and the way they go to market are very different. Windows (devices) tend to have more features and be a little more expensive."

Consumers usually look at price first. While it may seem as though prices have dropped, that's not necessarily so, Baker says. Instead, companies have introduced more gadgets in a wider range of prices.

Lower-end models tend to have less memory, so functions are more basic.

Models that appeal to cost-conscious consumers include the Palm Zire ($99), the Handspring Visor Platinum ($149), Dell Computer's Axim ($199) and HP's iPaq h1910 ($299).

In the Pocket PC market, where prices have been higher, Dell set out to sell the lowest-priced alternative, says Tony Bonadero, worldwide marketing director for the Dell Axim.

"We saw a huge void of value in the marketplace," Bonadero said. "The market was ready to grow, but it was limited by pricing and to some extent innovation."

Handspring caught the eye of the youth market when it came out with models in bright translucent cases that made it as fashion-friendly as designer cell phone covers.

"We got away from the gray and the kind of plain old handheld," said Brian Jaquet, a spokesman for Handspring. "We made it in different colors that definitely appealed to more of a youth type of movement."

In designing the $99 Zire, Palm added touches it says customers thought important: more memory slots, better battery life and a brighter screen.

It's "a $99 product that basically has all the same functionality that the original Pilot did but at a price that is affordable by the masses," Palm spokesman Jim Christensen said. "Based on registration of devices, 90 percent of buyers are new to the Palm family. It has the greatest percentage of women for handheld devices as well."

But Palm hopes consumers don't see the Zire as the ultimate device. "We say internally the Zire buyer of today is a Tungsten buyer of tomorrow," Christensen said.

People into audio, video, wireless and other heavy duty uses need more memory, and that costs more. The pricier devices are also packed with other goodies.

Palm's $399 Tungsten includes features such as voice recording and wireless Bluetooth connections to synch with devices such as phones and computers.

Handspring has shifted its focus into the wireless realm, emphasizing a higher-end Treo line of devices, which includes a combination organizer-cell phone. The two models in this combo line are expensive, about $500. It doesn't include a contract with a phone company.

The emphasis on wireless devices is an effort to catch the hoped-for wave of users who want to connect to the Internet using Wi-Fi technology.

Wi-FI's "not as mind-boggling and difficult to use as it was six, nine, 12 months ago," Jaquet said.

Baker of NPD consulting, however, says today's buyers of handless with built-in wireless capability tend to be sophisticated users, mainly for business. He doesn't expect wireless to be a big factor in sales this year.

Even as manufacturers pack more features into their devices, they keep looking for ways to make them smaller and more manageable. For example, HP's iPaq h1910 is 4.46 inches by 2.75 inches and a half-inch deep, and weighs only 4.3 ounces.

But miniaturization has its limits: Few buyers want to squint at a screen that's too small. "What we haven't figured out yet in the industry is what the optimum size is," HP's James said.

And though manufacturers say they are improving ease of use, Berolo says many buyers are still baffled. Berolo says many of the 15 to 20 people who attended the meetings of his user group (www. needed help with the basics: how to use the Palm's handwriting function or how to synchronize the devices with a computer.

"If they had taken the time to go to the manuals," Berolo said, "they could have figured it out themselves."

PDA prices
The average retail price for personal digital assistants has dropped from $351.91 in January 1999 to $224.40 in November 2002.

-- Dave Gussow can be reached at or (727) 445-4228.

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