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User to User: Everything Under the Sun at COMDEX

User to User: Everything Under the Sun at COMDEX

Hal visits the massive annual computer show in Las Vegas and tests out SkyTel's new 2-Way Pager and a method of converting Casio Digital camera pictures to Palmtop Topcards. He also reports on SanDisk's new CompactFlash storage cards.

By Hal Goldstein

Once again last November I made my way through busy Las Vegas streets and worked through the crowded aisles at COMDEX, the gigantic yearly exposition for those in the computer industry. In past years I used to take pride in the fact that I would walk the entire COMDEX show. That's no longer the case. COMDEX has grown tremendously (200,000 people and 3000 computer-related exhibits), but that didn't discourage me. The problem is that its emphasis has changed. Windows has completely overtaken DOS as the development environment and only a small percentage of the COMDEX exhibitors have products directly relevant to HP Palmtop users.

 SkyTel 2-Way Pager connected via cable to the 200LX Palmtop PC

 Although I spend some time tramping through the isles, I spent most of my time helping out at the HP Palmtop/HP OmniGo area of the Hewlett-Packard booth. At the HP booth the world seemed to come to me. I met many HP Palmtop Paper subscribers and advertisers, plus a number of the HP marketing, engineering, support, and administrative staff.

The HP Handheld area was very crowded. Many of the visitors had still not heard of the HP 200LX and examined and poked at units, asking questions all the while. The HP OmniGo side was mobbed. People three and four levels deep tried to get their hands on working units and attempted to get their questions answered. People liked what they saw in the OmniGo organizer.

As time goes on, I too am more impressed with the HP OmniGo organizer. It isn't an HP 100/ 200LX: missing is full PC Card support, communications, DOS compatibility, a full spreadsheet, macros, and in-depth PIMs (Personal Information Management software). However, there is an awful lot packed into the OmniGo organizer -- a strong subset of the HP 200LX PIMS, HP Calc, a 64-by-64 spreadsheet, and the HP 12C business calculator. But what really distinguishes the OmniGo organizer is that you can use its keyboard or take advantage of its pen interface and Grafitti handwriting recognition capability. The bottom line: the OmniGo organizer is really fun to use. It is great for short, fast note taking and comes with a host of organizer and financial tools.

 SkyTel 2-Way Pager

On the first day of the show Skytel representatives gave our advertising director, Brian Teitzman, and me 2-way wireless (Motorola) pagers. We were given access to the Skytel wireless network and installed Skytel software on our Palmtops. This let Brian and I communicate with each other within the gigantic Convention Center or across town. With these pagers we were able to keep each other updated about meetings, important contacts, delays, any time, any place.

 SkyTel 2-Way Pager interfaces with the HP 100/200LX Palmtop PC or can be used as a stand-alone pager.

 The unit itself is quite small, weighing just 5.5 ounces. Its powered by an AAA battery lasting two weeks. It can receive up to a 90 character message and display text on its 4-line 20 character LCD display but only has the ability to send pre-programmed push-of-the-button acknowledgments.

What makes this pager system of interest to HP 100LX and 200LX users is its Palmtop interface. The Palmtop connects to the pager via a custom serial cable.

System-Manager compliant Skytel software on the Palmtop (activated by pressing a hotkey) lets the user compose and send messages or questions requiring short answers that the recipient can respond to at the push of a button. So I could send Brian: I'm caught in traffic and will be late for 10:30 meeting by typing the message into the Palmtop connected to the Pager. Similarly, I could send a message that read, will you be at the HP booth at 2:00? - Yes, No, Not sure, Will be late. When Brian received the message, he wouldn't have had to connect to his Palmtop; he would just press the appropriate function-key-like button on the Pager to answer with one of the four choices I give him.

I also received news, sports, and business news via the Pager. Any information received by the Pager can be read on its small LCD screen. But when possible, I connected the Pager to the Palmtop and read the incoming messages on the Palmtops larger screen.

The system worked pretty well, in spite of the interference generated by all the electronic equipment in the exhibit hall. There were transmission problems in one of the main halls. The Pager itself was unobtrusive, clipping on to my belt covered by my suit jacket. I had the cable in my jacket pocket, ready when I needed to connect to my Palmtop.

Unfortunately, we do not have Skytel service in rural Iowa where our company is located. Since I am constantly on the move within our building, the Skytel system would have been of use at our office. I would have given one unit to my administrative assistant and one to my wife who often has problems reaching me or doesn't want to interrupt a meeting.

Displaying digital photos on the Palmtop; Japanese shareware

While at the HP booth, Kazuhisu Terasaki came up to me and said, "Remember me, you published the photo of us together at a users' group meeting when you visited Tokyo last year. I am now studying English in Palo Alto." Just then Mr. Kheng Joo Khaw the head of the HP Handheld division walked by to say hello. Let's take a picture, said Kazuhisu. We got subscriber Ron Roseburg to take the snapshot using Kazuhisu's Casio QV-10 Digital camera. Kazuhisu then asked to borrow my Palmtop. He connected the Casio and my Palmtop serially with the HP cable and several gender changers and adapters. He then worked on the Palmtop keyboard for a few minutes. The photo displayed above emerged as my topcard in a PCX file. Unfortunately the resolution is not that good with this conversion.

 Casio QV-10 Digital Camera with built-in LCD screen to view pictures. Connects to PC or Mac computers for up- and downloading images, connects to any TV or VCR for display. Camera stores up to 96 images in memory.

The software Kazuhisu used for converting the Casio digital image into a PCX file for the Palmtop was written in Japan and has a Japanese character interface and documentation. For those of you who remember my article featuring Kazuhisus photo, you'll recall that I discussed a number of interesting, fun, and useful pieces of software from Japan. In fact we included several contributions from Japan on this years Subscriber Disk: TYPER <See Shareware/Freeware index>, a Palmtop typing tutor; CGAHLP <See Shareware/Freeware index>, a utility for easily viewing DOS CGA programs on the Palmtop; and TREE <See Shareware/Freeware index>, which lets you watch trees grow on the palmtop screen. However, there is lots more good stuff we haven't yet seen in the West. I know it is a lot of work, but it would be great to see more Japanese software translated. We might even run a regular column describing some of this translated software and describing the latest developments in the Japanese Palmtop community. Perhaps, a bilingual person would volunteer to write the column or at least send us an update article on occasion. I know there was a group in Japan who were working on translations, but I don't know the current status of the translations.

CompactFlash storage cards

I also met with the major flash card manufacturer, SanDisk. They were excited about their new CompactFlash storage card.

This matchbook-sized flash card (36 mm by 43 mm by 3.3 mm) will work in such devices as digital cameras, pagers, and audio organizers. The CompactFlash can be used to store digital video, audio, and text data in future consumer electronic products. A committee of 12 companies, including HP, have formed The CompactFlash Association to create standards for these new devices. That means future palmtops might be developed with a CompactFlash slot and a normal PC Card slot. Such a palmtop would have room for both a storage card and a full-sized PC I/O Card such as a fax/modem or 2-way pager. The CompactFlash cards are compatible with current technology, and can be used in an HP 100/200LX using an adapter that fits in the Palmtops card slot.

If someone could create a modem and the electronics, perhaps it would be possible to have both a compact fax/ modem and CompactFlash in one PC Card slot.

The problem still is price. As Palmtop users know, flash memory is still a relatively expensive storage medium. The costs of high-end 85 MB Flash Card ($2000) and 15 MB CompactFlash ($650) are prohibitive. A 10 MB flash card ($500) and 2 MB CompactFlash ($150) are more reasonable but still high. The good news is as more Flash products become available in the consumer market place, prices should continue to drop.

I did spend some time walking through the show, and I always made it a point to talk with keyboard vendors. Travelers and those who use the Palmtop as their primary PC would welcome a full-sized yet compact keyboard for the HP Palmtop. On the road it would be nice to work on articles and do E-mail from my hotel room using a keyboard attached to my Palmtop. During the day I would just carry my Palmtop in my pocket, but in the evenings I could do work that required more intensive typing. The new IRDA infrared keyboards might offer that possibility if some enterprising vendor was willing to write the Palmtop software drivers.

All in all I came away from COMDEX optimistic about the future of the palmtop and wireless markets. However, I do think its still 2-4 years before small handheld devices become pervasive and wireless computing devices become commonplace. There are strong handheld and wireless seeds found throughout the computer industry, but those seeds still need to germinate a little more. It is like early Spring when we know it is only a matter of time before we see significant sprouting in the handheld marketplace. Technologies have advanced and are a bit easier to use. Consumers are beginning to be aware of possibilities. We Palmtop users are still ahead of the curve and have the vantage point of watching this whole new industry develop.

iPhone Life magazine


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