Play me at work

Tech toys your boss is sure to hate.

The Hamilton Spectator, October 19-21, 2002   

If you don’t have a hand-held information appliance yet, you may want to wait just a little longer.


The newest versions of what used to he called personal digital assistants are more like personal entertainment units — but we’ll need a better acronym than PEU, since this equipment is anything but stinky.


While most handheld data devices have been seen as organizers that help with productivity and efficiency, the new breed blurs the distinction between work and play. You’ll love these devices. But depending on how you use them, your boss may not be so captivated. Some research shows college students learned better if they took regular breaks to do something else for five minutes or so roughly once an hour. That excuse might come in handy, especially when you’re initially exploring what this equipment can do. And it can do a lot.


The hand-held computer business introduces new models every six months or so. But few have made as much of an impression on consumers as the very first Palm Pilot did in 1996. (Apple had tried rolling out a similar idea, the Newton, a few years earlier, but it frustrated consumers and mainly generated stories in the media — and the comic strip Doonesbury — about how maddening it was to use.) In 1999, Palm offered the Palm V. Its main advantages were better looks and a smaller size. But advances since then haven’t done much to spark consumer desire. Colour screens, better power management and other features haven’t made much difference, either. In two years, the number of hand-held device models has risen to 106 from 67.


Now, manufacturers are taking advantage of new Palm software that lets hand held instruments do more. But they’re not aiming that new power at traditional business or productivity objectives. Instead, entertainment is their focus.


Sony calls its awkwardly named Clié PEGNX70V a “personal entertainment hand-held.” For a $1,000 (beginning in November), you get a built-in keyboard, digital camera and rotating screen. The NX70V can record and play digital music files, too; you can listen to your MP3s on your address book and calendar, so to speak. You can also use it to take both still pictures and video, and view them, too. Finally, you can also access the Internet, provided you opt for the unit’s wireless local area network card. It uses the WiFi 802.11b protocol, which means portability and connectivity, but not the truly wireless movement afforded by cellular Internet access, however.


Take the digital camera out of the device, and you get the Clie NX60V, likely to retail for around $650.


Sony Canada’s Clié product manager, Samuel Yip, says Sony set out to take full advantage of the equity it already has as a company that makes entertainment equipment, and use the Palm operating system to deliver it. Palm’s OS 5 operating system uses less power and can do more with it, making it possible to take advantage of colour screens and applications that had once demanded too much processing and battery power — such as pictures, music and video. Sony believes consumers seeking to upgrade should be able to transfer their accumulated personal information — presumably already stored on Palm-powered devices — to the new Sony units.


Also targeted: consumers who have never owned a hand-held device. It’s hoped the new features will be enough of an inducement that they won’t be able to hold out any longer. “We want to expand the market by incorporating different and interesting functions that might attract non-hand-held customers,” said Sony product manager Ty Takayanagi.


Part of that drive is the company’s Vaio PCG-NV100 notebook computer. Its unique slot allows the user to swap a number of peripheral devices in and out of the machine. The most notable, probably, is the sub-woofer speaker unit, aimed at adding more powerful audio to a computer that comes with a built-in DVD player.


Your boss might not like you studying cinematic gems instead of a spreadsheet. But you could always argue that what you’re learning in terms of plot and pacing will make your next PowerPoint presentation something the audience will never forget.


Similarly powerful devices are on the horizon from other manufacturers, but it’s less clear when — or if — they’ll be launched here. South Korean electronics company Samsung, for example, sells something in that country called the Nexio. It has a 5-inch screen instead of the smaller (3-inch or 3.5inch) displays on many other hand-helds, with better than twice the resolution. Samsung maintains the Nexio “approximates a desktop viewing experience.”


But at a retail price hovering well north of $1,000, consumers might expect — or demand — that it do more.


An American firm called BSquare is developing a Web-accessing wireless device called the Maui that it says it will likely licence to other manufacturers. The Maui includes a retractable keyboard, and could appear early in 2003, selling for around $950.


Danger, Inc. — also based in California — makes a wireless e-mail and Web device called the Hiptop. It too developed the device, licensing its hardware and software to other companies. The companies who’ve bought licenses in the Hiptop’s case are cellular phone outfits that aim to offer consumers other ways to use their services beyond merely chatting wire-free.


Right now, the only consumers who can get the Hiptop are those signed up with wireless provider T-Mobile, which is marketing the device as Sidekick and selling it for $249 US.


People at Danger Inc. confirm they are talking to a number of Canadian firms about the Hiptop, but said they couldn’t identify which companies, nor could they speculate on when the device might be available here.


Finally, if you’re looking for something less expensive, Palm’s OS 5 has also made it possible to offer what pricier Palm-powered units costing $400 and more used to for a lot less money. Palm itself is rolling out a basic version of its device called the Zire for $99US. Microsoft and ViewSonic are collaborating on the V35, a Pocket PC selling for about $400, set to appear at retail by November.


Portable tablet PCs

Cool tool or niche toy?

The notebook computer is evolving...again. Of course the devices change constantly — more memory, faster chips, bigger screens. But this change is more fundamental. For years, the notebook aimed to be a portable version of the desktop, only with a screen attached.


But the new notebooks take their cue from another device: the handheld organizer. They’re called tablet PCs, and their screens function much like the screens on handheld personal organizers.


Users can write directly on the screen, keeping notes and drawing with a specially designed tool that uses digital “ink.” The machine is supposed to recognize users’ handwriting, too, making it possible — theoretically — to convert handwriting to standard text without having to type it a second time. That feature is still a work in progress, say those who’ve used the device.


It’s no worse that the existing handwriting recognition technology at work in devices such as Palm’s, but it doesn’t represent a big advance in the software’s capability, either. And it doesn’t improve itself, either — it doesn’t “learn” a user’s handwriting idiosyncrasies with time.


Microsoft’s own people at the TechXNY show last summer were working to downplay the handwriting recognition function — an indication that even the product’s developer knows that learning to read your writing isn’t its most impressive achievement.


The machine can also respond to voice commands, too, so perhaps there’s an alternative to having to correct mistakes the machine’s handwriting recognition software introduces. That said, the tablet PC is meant to increase the versatility that notebooks offer. The main reason for anybody to use such a device is portability. The tablet PC can be docked with a desk unit to make it behave like a standard desktop. The tablet can serve as the screen on a standard notebook base with the added ability to swivel, making it easier to share what you’re working on.


But it’s the final operating configuration that marks the biggest difference: the tablet/screen can fold flat onto the keyboard, covering the keys and making the tablet’s screen like a pad on a clipboard.


The one true unknown when the tablet PC makes its retail debut in November: consumer reaction. With a recession still running and many consumers probably more interested in getting more immediately appreciable bang for their computing purchasing buck, the tablet may well be a niche product — at least initially — that needs to convince consumers they can’t do without it.


Home network simplified

Microsoft's MN-500 elegant solution for linking computers

Even as computers proliferate in people’s homes — they cost less and they’re more powerful — their connections to the Internet are getting faster, too. Broadband connections are proliferating rapidly in Canada. Maybe it’s because we stay inside during the winter and rely on a fast Internet connection to make the winter go by more quickly. But even as the number of broadband connections grows, the speed of linkage between computers hasn’t always kept up. Many people have one PC that’s online and others that aren’t — a notebook, say, that can only be connected when the desktop isn’t being used.


A home network can solve that problem. But until recently, a home network meant running a lot of cable and fixed outlets that anchored even the notebook — supposed to be portable, remember? — within a cable’s reach of a network connection. And the complexity of setting up and configuring the software to run that network was another barrier for anybody who didn’t have the financial resources to keep a network service and maintenance technician on call 24 hours a day.


The wireless protocol known as 802.11b or Wi-Fi is changing that. Now, its possible to set up wireless home networks. But even though users don’t have to tear the walls open to run cable, there’s still the baffling software to grapple with.


Microsoft doesn’t want to pass up the wireless home networking business. It can approach its competitors on price. But hardware is a fixed cost, hard to undersell. Instead, Microsoft has cannily chosen to compete on the software front.


“Microsoft’s Broadband networking proves ‘easy networking’ is not an oxymoron,” said Chris Wolfe, marketing manager for Microsoft Canada. “These products will significantly improve the setup experience for anyone who wants to install a wireless network.”


The company’s Web site ( walks curious consumers through a step-by-step process to determine what they’ll probably need to network a particular location or set of machines. Armed with a custom list of hardware, you can go to a dealer for what you need or get it online.


Microsoft calls the central piece of equipment in its home networking package, the MN-500, a base station. In fact, the MN-500 is a box that serves as a router, wireless access point, four-port Ethernet hub, and a firewall. Connect your cable or DSL modem to the base station, then connect your desktop to the base station using either a standard Ethernet cable or wirelessly with a USB adapter.


Before you attach anything, the MN500 setup wizard takes you through the steps required to prepare your system and configure the network. The setup automatically detects ISP settings and translates networking terms into plain English. For example, rather than asking for a Service Set ID, the setup suggests that you give your network a name and provides an example (HomeOffice).


The setup also simplifies security. Many people are unaware that most wireless networks are open books.


But configuring security settings to close the network to interlopers can be so complicated that many users skip them. Many gateway units leave basic security measures off unless users turn them on, in order to avoid tech-support headaches.


Not so the Microsoft system. It prompts users to change the network’s name, but also the password for the base station so that only authorized users can get to it. Second, the program leaves 128-bit encryption on and generates a key that all computers need to work with the network. Without that step, anyone with an 802.11b card could park near your home or office and use your Internet connection, but have remote access to every machine on the network.


When you’re finished with the initial setup wizard, you can put all of the network settings on an included floppy disk and use that to automatically configure every other networked PC in your house or office.


A wireless network also means you won’t need extra printers, since the fixed desktop, for example, can also provide printer access to the notebook.