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Creative Rebirth

Creative Rebirth

The HP Palmtop s applications prove that smaller and simpler are better.

By Lawrence Dickson

At the 1996 HP Handheld Conference, there was a good feeling about the current state of the HP Palmtop. Everyone was congratulating each other on the surprising utility of this little machine. Discussions of the future of the Palmtop, however, displayed a common concern fear of rapid obsolescence. Questioners peppered Kheng-Joo Khaw with vague proposals of 386 systems, Windows and even Win95 compatibility.

This fear is not justified. I believe the HP Palmtop follows a different set of rules from a standard desktop PC. In fact, native Palmtop software is not just different, but decisively better than the mainstream variety.

 Palmtop software is a roaring success

 The surest sign of quality in software is that it has a cadre of enthusiasts using it, each of them having been shocked by some "jet assisted take-off" in power or convenience. I met and listened to many of them at the HP Handheld Conference.

Conventional wisdom displayed in jargon-laden articles in contemporary software publications scoffs at such amateur approval and tends to support the general misconception that nothing small can be good. However, nowadays many such articles are nothing more than an extension of marketing. They only measure the financial clout of the company developing the software, not the utility of the software being discussed.

I don t think Palmtop software writers really have an inkling how much they've accomplished. They seem to think themselves slow, when they've already developed ways to browse the Internet, send and receive wireless e-mail, run CAD programs on the Palmtop, and task switch between a number of different DOS programs. My analogy to this: imagine NASA s befuddlement if it discovered some garage mechanic had built a successful moon rocket!

Comparing the Palmtop to a desktop PC

But, you say, the Palmtop can t possibly compare favorably to a powerful desktop system. Let s take a look at that.

Built-in applications

The Palmtop comes with a spreadsheet, word processor, file manager, accounting program, database, scheduler, phone book, and more. The list is pretty much the same or better than an off-the-shelf Pentium desktop PC, and so is typical speed for everyday tasks. (My sister picked up an old floppy-driven Tandy PC at a junk shop with a similar list of applications.)

Power efficiency

Power usage depends not just on how long you have the computer on, but on the number of basic switches (transistors) in the computer. A good efficiency measure is the "transistor-year" (a year is about 500,000 minutes). If revising a letter takes 10 minutes on an 8086 Palmtop with 50,000 transistors, that s one transistor-year. If it takes 15 minutes on a two million transistor Pentium (reboots and sluggish file searches count too), that s sixty transistor-years.

Trouble-free operation

How often does each hang up or crash? A Microsoft engineer quipped, "If it doesn't hang up at least once, it isn't Microsoft Windows" (InfoWorld, 16 Sep 1996). Because of these types of problems, my son s classmate won t do his homework on his new Win95 machine he uses his old DOS 286 PC instead. The Palmtop, in contrast, is as reliable as a calculator. Why is it we trust a calculator to work forever without problems, but we expect and accept frequent failure in "top-of-the-line" computer software?

Never apologize for a small, simple, clean design that works.

The history of PC development bigger isn't always better!

Personal computers started with two design models. One, the closed system (Apple/Macintosh), imitated mainframes or client/server systems where the user proposed actions to a professional operating system or a professional operator who ran the machinery. The other, the open system (IBM PC), was derived from microcontrollers that directly drove machinery the user directly controlled the action of the computer. Early open system PCS came with IBM Basic or Microsoft Assembler programming languages so every buyer could create the applications and utilities he or she needed.

The PC has changed so that current Windows/Intel ("Wintel") machines are squarely on the Mac side of that fence. Professionals writing for today s huge operating systems use programming tools like Rational Rose C++ to develop applications. The process can require almost a year of design before any functional code is written.

A program for the old DOS PC could be written quicker, by fewer people, on a machine in the garage or wherever. Because development was quick and inexpensive, lots of programs were developed and creativity flowed like a river. This was the key to its huge success and market dominance. But now, expensive marketing flash replaces creativity. System bloat actually destroys creative work that already exists. If it can t upgrade to Windows, it has to be discarded!

The Palmtop is an open system computer. It encourages creativity and the development of a wide variety of inexpensive software. The proliferation of Palmtop-related software reminds one of the old PC software boom, returning to life again.

Power requirements and price keep going up except on the Palmtop

Compare your Palmtop s software to similar applications on your Pentium PC. You'll find that the software programs on your Pentium machine have a few more features. The Malthusian law of software is: each generation of software rises arithmetically (say, plus 10%) in utility, but geometrically (say, 300%) in size. The result is that the current software is unendurably slow on hardware more than one generation back. This means that laptop and desktop PCS, which have to be able to run current software, never go down in size, power requirements, or price!

On the other hand, the Palmtop is more than one generation behind in hardware so it never uses the bloated mainstream software. We reverse the Malthusian law. We give up very little in features and save a factor of ten in price, size, and battery drain. This takes us off the treadmill of bigger, faster, more expensive machines for smaller and smaller improvements.

Palmtop programmers have easily created software programs that provide the capabilities of recent mainstream programs like Net browsers. The developers of these mainstream programs must throw millions of dollars at a problem to solve it. Someone in a garage then does essentially the same thing on the Palmtop, for a thousandth of the effort. And the fact that the Palmtop has a mature operating system that is not continually undergoing "improvements" means that you don t have to spend precious time and money repeatedly upgrading programs. The usefulness-to-cost ratio, any way you measure it, is incredible.

Lean into our strengths

Technical illiteracy drives the Windows revolution, but there are huge niches filled with literate customers. College and high school students are one such niche. I found that out when my son Tom, a high school junior, appropriated my Palmtop after Labor Day. He now uses it all day at school and can t praise it enough.

The answer to the fear of rapid obsolescence is for Palmtop users and developers to lean into our strengths.

Strength 1: Cost

Freeze the hardware capability of the Palmtop and aim at reducing the price. If we get below $200, the market breadth will explode. We could put one in the hands of every capable high school and college student as a combination graphing calculator, PDA, scheduler, and note-taker. The programmers in the group will start writing software for our (stable) system, and the niche will be ours forever. .

Strength 2: Flexibility

Small specialty niches can t be served by software monsters. The million-dollar startup costs are too much and response to customer needs is too slow. CPAs, MDs, inventory specialists, sales professionals, and many other niche groups were mentioned at the Handheld Conference. Something that works is a treasure to a specialist. After he has taken the time to learn it, he will hang onto it grimly without worrying about whether it s obsolete or not.

Strength 3: Input/Output Breadth

Mainstream computer systems have become specialized to a single interface (mouse/menu) despite its sluggish response to expert users. We have no such baggage: dozens of transducers and sensors (input and output devices) are easy to code in DOS, without being treated as imitation mice. We can serve all these devices on their own terms.

 Avoid obsolescence stick with the design

 Imagine a rocket ship that controls its direction by thrusters positioned on different places of the rocket. The only problem is that once turned on, the thruster can never be turned off. If the rocket goes off course, the only solution is to weld on a new thruster and make it blast in the other direction. This "barnacle rocket" wouldn't be an efficient way to get to the moon. But it is a pretty reasonable model of current desktop software.

Mainstream software is trapped in a cycle of obsolescence. A single centralized "one-size fits all" system connects everything to everything else in a complex tangle, slow and prone to failure. User knowledge of program functioning is a thing of the past.

The HP DOS Palmtop runs small programs, each one useful out of proportion to its size. Through the combination of many such easy steps it will run circles around its competition. The limits on its capabilities are only imaginary. Stick with the design!

iPhone Life magazine


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