I have written and read e-mail during my commute, beamed my virtual meishi to new acquaintances, played cards in taxis, and once in a shameless display of computing on my feet I consulted a database of Tokyo restaurants, which I had downloaded from www.bento.com, and located a great Indonesian joint in five minutes, ready and able to feed a party of 10
Was it my ThinkPad, my Vaio, my Powerbook? No, look Ma, no laptop! I did it all with my little Palm organizer.
To be honest, I probably use my Palm IIIx more for nocturnal game-playing in taxis than efficiently managing my time, but that doesn’t mean that 3Com Corp.’s series of PDAs don’t have serious potential.
Relatively speaking, I was a late-comer to the PDA scene (research firm Dataquest, expects global sales of hand-held computers to exceed 5.7 million units this year), but I couldn’t resist the lure of the Palm cult any longer. It’s a handy gadget and a breeze to operate, but what attracted me most was how the software development community had taken such a shine to the PalmOS, churning out every little geegaw you (n)ever needed software apps for gardening, improving your bowling game, calculating tips.
Now with the arrival of the Palm VIIs, users can cut their desktop umbilical cords and access the Web from anywhere that is if they join Palm.net, which has extended its coverage to major U.S. cities.
Not surprisingly, Amazon.com plans to tap into the potential of wireless e-commerce. In conjunction with its new zSHOPS network, Amazon announced Monday the launch of a service that will allow Palm VII users to order goods online anytime, anywhere. In addition, partnerships with Fidelity and e-Bay will allow Palm VII users track to their stocks or monitor online auctions.
3Com also recently started lowering Palm prices. Why? Because three 3Com defectors will soon unleash the Visor PDA a cheaper, lighter and more versatile Palm. Actually, it sounds like a Game Boy for grown-ups: separate modules that slip into the Visor’s back can add the capabilities of a cell phone, a modem, a voice recorder, a pager, etc.
Meanwhile in Japan, wireless warriors have taken a slightly different path to freedom. PDAs such as Sharp’s Zaurus and IBM’s Workpad (which is Palm compatible) have definitely made inroads, with related services coming every week. But hang out on any street corner, and you’ll instantly see that the wireless world here is found in another kind of handheld: the cell-phone, the ubiquitous keitai.
My Cyberia colleague, Brad Glosserman, has expressed his dislike of the intrusive keitai appendages. I too regarded them as a scourge until I bought one and joined the microwaved masses. Indeed, our definitions of personal space have been eroded by these gizmos that have turned everyone into public speakers. (Who isn’t tired of hearing “Moshi, moshi, where are you?”)
But what about those silent thumb-typers? Surely, you’ve seen them on the train, keitai in hand, eyes glued to the screen. They’re not necessarily perusing their digital phone books, thinking of who they can call next. They could very well be sending a short message to a friend, making reservations, or booking a flight.
I’m talking about i-Mode, everyman’s passageway to wireless communication. Despite explosive Internet growth, experts say that Japan still lags a few years behind the States in both usage and conception. Sure, everybody and his cousin here has a home page, but the next generation of Web culture is just emerging.
But look at the thumb-typers, the i-Moders, all 1.5 million of them. Maybe Shibuya gyaru are the most visible users, but on the whole, these wireless communicators are a hard bunch to pigeonhole from kids to senior citizens, from housewives to salarymen. Maybe someday PCs will reach the same penetration in Japan, but a wireless future is already here, embedding itself into the fabric of everyday reality.
So on the one hand, primarily in the States, we’re seeing PDAs becoming more like mobile phones; on the other, predominantly in Asia and Europe, cellulars are evolving into PDA-like devices. Will the twains meet?
The convergence is already happening. Like the Visor, newer Japanese handsets are sprouting attachments: cameras for transmitting low-res images, mini-keyboards for simple e-mail, and so on. GameBoys, too, will soon be able to handle e-mail!
And consider this: Last week NTT DoCoMo announced that it would be working with Sony, IBM and Matsushita Communication on a service called the Mobile Media Distribution project. In the near future MMD subscribers will be able to download a song to their cellular phones (equipped with flash memory cards), then play it on a device such as an MD player.
There are definite minuses to this convergence. For one, to cell-surf, the keitai’s screen space will have to expand (to the size of a Palm?), and at the current cell-phone rates? Fuggedaboutit. Furthermore, in yesterday’s Asian Wall Street Journal, tech writer Stan Sesser wrote about the difficulties of setting up his Nokia 9110 Communicator, touted as the first cell-phone capable of connecting to the Web but apparently lacking compliance with Asian ISPs.
That’s another minus. The future of wireless communication is a dense jungle of communication protocols, telecom alliances and, of course, cryptic acronyms. Heard of 3G, GSM, SMS and PHC? And did I mention HSCSD, GPRS and W-CDMA? I’ll leave the nitty gritty to the engineers for the time being, but let’s just look at one: WAP.
WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) promises to be a major link between the Net and cell-phone technology, and best of all it’s an open platform. Next week at Telecom ’99, in Geneva, a slew of WAP-compatible goodies will be unveiled.
A lot of corporations want the WAP standard to succeed. I like it because it might put a little bit of the Palm into my cell-phone. I like the idea of a keitai that can be easily modified with apps downloaded from the Net. Maybe I’ll even be get to play cards on a keitai someday.