POWER IN THE PALM OF YOUR HAND
Sixty-five million years ago, the earth was utterly dominated by huge, powerful, and specialized reptiles. Underfoot scurried small furry beasts, not awesome but agile and adaptable. A short time later (geologically speaking), the dinosaurs were gone, and we mammals had the place to ourselves. A similar evolutionary trend may be taking place right now in the digital world as palmtop computers—those small, portable machines also known as handhelds or personal organizers—challenge laptops by evolving capabilities only desktop PCs had a year or two ago.
Palmtops differ from laptops in that they're smaller, less powerful, and can run only a limited number of applications. While most laptops aim to give you as much of the functionality of a desktop machine as possible, with portability as a bonus, palmtops are definitely minimalist. The typical palmtop looks like a glorified calculator and weighs less than a pound. It has a tiny LCD screen that shows no more than eight lines of 40 characters, offers a QWERTY or an ABC keyboard with keys so cramped that only a lemur could touch-type, and comes standard with 64K of RAM. You can't run standard PC applications on most palmtops; you're limited to applications specially created for them.
But what the current crop of palmtops do, they do well. Most often, these handy machines keep schedules and address books for execs on the go. Enter your daily or weekly schedule into one of the calendar programs that come standard with nearly all palmtops, and the machine will beep you shortly before each appointment. You can then check the screen for time, place, and notes as you get on your way—a priceless aid for all of us who are chronically late, lost, and unprepared. The integral address book keeps thousands of names and numbers more accessibly than in a paper Filofax or Day-Timer. Palmtops include calculator and world-clock functions as well.
All this might not be enough to tempt you to shell out as much as $400 for a palmtop and accessories, but they can do even more. Most palmtops offer additional software on slide-in IC cards. You can get language translators, dictionaries and thesauruses for law and medicine, spreadsheet and expense-account programs, travel planners, wine advisors, and even Tetris.
Two top-of-the-line models currently duking it out in the savagely Darwinian palmtop market are the Sharp Wizard OZ-7200 (Sharp Electronics, Sharp Plaza, Mahwah, New Jersey 07430; 201–529–8200; $300) and the Casio B.O.S.S. SF-9000 (Casio, 570 Mt. Pleasant Avenue, Dover, New Jersey 07801; 201–361–5400; $260).
Though useful, each has design flaws. The Wizard has a smaller 8-line × 16-character display, a hard-to-use ABC keyboard, and a maximum 32K of additional RAM (with an optional IC card). The B.O.S.S. (Business Organizer Scheduling System) accepts up to 64K of additional RAM and has a bigger 6-line × 32-character display and a QWERTY keyboard, but the keys are flat, not raised. Both models offer a range of software, but the IC cards are expensive, ranging from $50 to $180.
Under intense selection pressure, each company is developing new, improved palmtops. The latest models are the Sharp Wizard OZ-8000 and the Casio B.O.S.S. SF-9500. Both should be available by the time you read this. Since the new Wizard will sport a larger display and QWERTY keyboard like the B.O.S.S.'s, and since the new B.O.S.S. has raised keys for easier typing, it may be difficult to choose between the machines themselves—an interesting example of convergent evolution. Instead, you'll want to make sure that you can get the external applications you need for your work. Miniaturized versions of some popular PC applications should be appearing by the end of this year.
When it comes to palmtops and desktops, the dinosaurs-vs-mammals analogy at the beginning of this column isn't quite right. The big dinos were never really threatened by their furry cousins; it was the other way around—protorats and premonkeys made good eating for the smaller sorts of saurians. But desktops and palmtops have a symbiotic, rather than predator-prey, relationship. The palmtop manufacturers, realizing that most buyers also use a desktop computer, try to make it easy to move data back and forth between machines. Both the Wizard and the B.O.S.S. can interface with PCs and Macs and transfer data to and from programs like Lotus and HyperCard. (The simplest way to print out information from a palmtop is to move it to your PC first.)
Given their limited abilities, palmtops are no threat to the dominance of desktop PCs—yet. But laptops are a different story. Why lug around a 6-plus-pound laptop to do what a half-pound palmtop can do for you, at a sixth of the price? Within a year or two you'll see palmtops with voice annotation (voice-recorded messages) and text-to-speech capability, crisper displays, touchscreens that recognize your handwriting, and some type of integrated circuit-based mass storage. So as palmtops get more powerful, they may mean extinction for some species of laptops—it's a simple matter of survival of the smallest.