Thursday, October 17

Column: PDAs have come of age


Personal Digital Assistants: people have lived without them for
millennia, so why buy one now?

If you have been waiting for wireless internet, now may be the
time to take the plunge. This month, both T-mobile and Sprint are
releasing the first implementations of the 3G wireless internet
protocol. This high-speed protocol promises to offer a fast and
reliable link to the internet for PDAs or laptops.

Coupled with this new connectivity, new PDAs, like the Sony Clie
or Compaq iPaq, seem very cool, but the same old question remains:
what can they really do?

Like many modern PDAs, the Clie has a high resolution color
screen that displays amazing photos and even handles small movies.
It plays MP3s and stores thousands of documents. With a single
button, you can sync email, contact lists, appointments, and
documents with a PC. Considering that some people buy $300 MP3
players, $450 seems like a bargain.

But where does it really fit into my digital life? Does it
really replace a laptop? Can students justify the expense? Does
anyone want to spend the extra $150 to import the wireless internet
adapter from the Sony Japan website?

Ideally, PDAs should serve as extensions of desktop computers.
New internet features make PDAs reach further, but PDAs can be
useful even without a constant wireless connection. Now that USB is
ubiquitous, connecting PDAs to various computers becomes a fairly
simple task, making them useful as mini-hard drives that can
transport data.

As always, small, well designed applications remain crucial for
PDAs. When shopping for a PDA, look for design efficiency.
Applications that are difficult to navigate become too painful to
use. A poorly designed PDA can be worse than none at all.
Currently, Palm OS devices seem to have the best designs, but
Microsoft Pocket PCs are rapidly catching up.

Thankfully, all PDAs offer some upgradability. Both Palm OS
devices and Pocket PCs can use thousands of cheap or free
applications which are easily downloaded from the internet.
Although boring Date books and memo pads are still the most
important features in PDAs, it’s now possible to transform
modern PDAs into mini command centers.

Combined with hardware add-ons, PDAs can be used for various
functions ““ ranging from global positioning to gaming to
business presentations.

Students might not need GPS or the ability to hook up to a
projector, but date books and games are always useful. With the
pressures of life at UCLA, who doesn’t need a reminder beep
from time to time?

Still, the wireless internet may be the most exciting new
feature. One standard, known as Ethernet 802.11b, is being tested
on the UCLA campus for use by students and staff. 802.11b is also
the main standard used in wireless home and business networks.

In the wider world, T-Mobile just announced that it would offer
802.11b access points at 70 percent of the Starbucks in North
America within two years. In other words, there will be probably be
too much coverage.

(If Starbucks continues to spread, our PDAs may beep at us even
in the backwoods of Timbuktu.)

Bluetooth, a new wireless standard, is also appearing on cell
phones from various companies. Bluetooth allows cell phones to act
as internet connections for laptops, PDAs, and even desktop PCs.
Unlike 802.11b, it promises to connect PDAs anywhere the phones can
get digital reception.

It seems that PDAs have nearly come of age. With color screens
and snappy processors, they are both more interesting and more
useful. Ultimately, it seems that expandability will determine how
long a modern PDA lasts. With memory upgrades and add-on internet
receivers, today’s PDAs might actually be useful for at least a
year.

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