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Through the Looking Glass: An Old Hand Tries Some New Tools

Through the Looking Glass: An Old Hand Tries Some New Tools

Ed visits eBay.com for the second time and winds up with a WinCE machine and a custom database for the Palmtop.

By Ed Keefe

 I had my first encounter with computing over forty years ago. It was such an intense and satisfying experience that I was hooked. Worse than that, I became a true believer. I believed that everyone should get hooked on computing. It was great fun.

I had a similar experience when I got my first microcomputer almost twenty five years ago. Shortly thereafter I joined a team of computing enthusiasts and formed the "Computer Literacy Institute." Our goal was to get educators enthused about using microcomputers. That lasted for two years. We soon realized that we couldn't turn everyone into nerds like us.

For the past twenty years I've tried, off and on, to get my wife, Helen, enthused about computing. She has resolutely refused. Whenever I've asked her if she would like her own computer she has replied: "Thanks, but no thanks. Three or four of 'those things' in the house are more than enough. If I need one of those things I'll use one in your office. Besides, if your growling at those things is any indication of what you think of them, I don't need that kind of aggravation."

In the past couple of years, however, her younger brothers and sister have acquired their own computers and have been sending her e-mail. Last month, she asked me to get her a computer and help her set up an e-mail account. She stipulated that the computer had to be unobtrusive and easy to use.

 I immediately thought of getting Helen an HP Palmtop, but I had just missed the window of opportunity. Thaddeus Computing was completely sold out of new Palmtops and used Palmtops are in short supply.

I thought about getting another Win98 or NT machine. My immediate response was "NOT!" I considered getting an Apple iMAC or iBOOK. Nice machines, but beyond our budget. How about a Linux machine? I had to be kidding myself. How about a Psion handheld? No: too small and too hard to come by. How about a Palm Pilot? That would be OK, but a keyboard doesn't come with that machine. Finally, I considered a WinCE machine.

I asked Hal Goldstein and Rich Hall, the editor of Pocket PC (formerly Handheld PC Magazine), for their recommendation. They told me to look for an IBM z50, a subnotebook-sized machine that barely made it to market before IBM discontinued it. Retailers were dumping their inventory of z50's for about a third of the original list price. Again, I seemed to be too late. The retailers who showed z50's on their Web sites also indicated that they were out of stock or on back order.

A Visit to www.eBay.com
Call me old fashioned, but I've never done any business on eBay. I had looked at the Web-based auction site a year ago and was not impressed. This time I was impressed. What a difference a year makes!

I searched for "IBM z50" and found, to my surprise, that 83 people had one or more of these discontinued machines for sale. They were all brand new, in factory sealed cartons with a one-year warranty. Amazing!

 I set about bidding on one of these machines, but someone beat my bid in the last 15 seconds of the bidding period. I tried four more times using "robot bidding," i.e. letting eBay increase my offer automatically. Still no luck. Each time I lost by two or three dollars. Then I found a dealer who had two machines for sale in what is called a "Dutch auction". The machines had been sitting at $250 for a couple of days with one day remaining on the auction block. I waited until 15 seconds before the close of the auction and slammed in a bid of $350 and let the light-fingered bidders fight for the second machine. It was fun to watch the offers for the second z50 jump from $250 to $281 in the space of 15 seconds. According to the rules of the "Dutch auction" game, I only had to pay $281 even though I had bid more than that amount. I don't know if this is the way you're supposed to play the game, but it worked.

A couple of days later, feeling somewhat traitorous, I accepted delivery of a WinCE machine, unpacked it, snapped in the batteries and turned it over to its new owner.

Helen plugged it in, let the main battery charge for a couple of minutes and then turned it on. The next thing I heard was "Honey, come here, this thing doesn't work. It won't turn on. I pushed the ON button and the screen is still blank. The book says it's supposed to ask me some questions."

It was easy to fix that problem. I pushed the switch on the back of the machine from battery to adapter mode and the screen came to life. I spent a few minutes playing with the machine to satisfy myself that there was nothing a user could do to mess up the operation of the computer. There were no system macros, no Pocket Excel macros, no Pocket Access VBA scripts, very few fonts in Pocket Word, few, if any, ways to set defaults or modify a program, no programming languages and absolutely no way to reformat the RAM disk. My reaction was that this was not my kind of a computer but it would be great for someone who had never owned a computer.

The IBM z50 uses a trackpoint button in the middle of the keyboard to emulate a mouse or a touchpad. I tried it and decided it would take some getting used to. I didn't care for it but it might be ideal for someone who had seldom moved a mouse and had never touched a touchpad.

I turned the z50 back to its new learner and went back to work.

 Five minutes later I heard: "Honey, come here, the little arrow thing keeps disappearing." Fifteen minutes later, after finding the "trackpoint" setup program, the "arrow thing" moved much more slowly but at least it didn't vanish in a blur and disappear off the right side of the screen.

Helen figured out how to start Pocket Word and began writing a letter. Half an hour later I heard, "Honey, come here. How do you know if you've saved a letter and how do you print it out?"

 Sure enough, the shortcut command, CTRL+S, saved the document. However, when I tried using the toolbar's disk icon or the pull-down menu command, "File, Save", I got no indication that the file had been saved. I looked but I may have missed an hourglass indicator.

For printing, I decided to pop a PC Card into the z50, copy the file to it and take the PC Card to my laptop. I soon discovered that a Pocket Word document needs software on the laptop to interpret its file format.

So I tried saving the file again, this time as a Word97 document, but to no avail. The z50 informed me that the PC Card was corrupt. I thought WinCe machines could handle "hot-swapping" a PC Card. Maybe I was wrong or maybe the card was partially bad to begin with and it took a couple of disk-writes to go totally bad. Who knows?!

 Of course the z50, like most WinCE machines, has no way to check a PC card or reformat it. So I took the card back to my laptop where Norton's Utility informed me that the card was indeed corrupt. Five minutes later, the PC Card was "healed" and I'd managed to retrieve the document from one of the dozen or so files created by Norton's utility. Back I went to the z50 and tried again. This time the PC card worked and I was able to save and print the document.

 Why not just take the WinCE machine to the printer? That's what I asked myself until I discovered that the optional printer cable costs $50.

In the next couple of days I realized that the words "Honey, come here...", had changed. Initially, they carried the subliminal message "I need you." However, the words soon started to sound more like a visceral growl.

 All I could think of was an experience from 15 years before when I bought a car with a manual transmission and tried to teach Helen how to drive it. I quickly admitted defeat and called one of my friends, a professional driving instructor, to take over the teaching duties. It cost me a couple of bottles of Scotch, but it saved the marriage. Five years later, after lots of complaints and a new clutch and then a new transmission, the car was gone. We're still happily married and driving a car with an automatic transmission.

For the past several days, there have been no more cries of "Honey, come here". Of course, the z50 has been sitting idle for the past couple of days.

 Don't take me wrong. The z50 is not a bad machine. It's just that, with any new computer, there are bound to be some "growing pains." Climbing any learning curve is frustrating and I'll be the first to admit that our frustration has been abetted by one "WinCE newbie" trying to help another "newbie".

 As for the IBM z50 itself, I definitely like the instant-on feature, the display (small but acceptable), the keyboard (excellent feel), the quiet operation (no disk whir, no fan noise). On the other hand, I wonder if WinCE machines in general are as confusing for beginners as this machine. Microsoft would like you to believe otherwise.

Getting Down to Business

 For me, the most surprising part of this story has been my getting re-acquainted with online auctions.

I've participated in several "silent auctions" around town and over the phone, e.g., when our public TV station is having its annual fund raiser, but I've never seen anything on the scale of what's happening on eBay. Equally amazing is the number of people who buy and sell items in several different categories. I wondered how they kept track of all their transactions. Sure enough, one of the members of the HPLX-L mailing list, Bob Penick, had the answer. He'd created an auction database for his Palmtop (See the sidebar for a description of this unique Palmtop application). Way cool! I plan to use this database the next time I go to an online auction.

I mention eBay.com as an example of the many auction sites on the Web. If you're looking for a backup or replacement unit for your HP Palmtop, one of these auction sites may be your only source for the time being. Be forewarned, however: the units sold on eBay tend to go for a hefty price. Several companies are grabbing up HP Palmtops and they all seem to have deep pockets.

Also, if you're looking for used, discontinued DOS software, be sure to check eBay or one of the other auction sites. (Of course, you'll also want to find out what's available at www.recycledsoftware.com.) Be sure to ask the seller if the software has been checked for Y2K problems. That may determine how much, if anything, you want to pay for an older, DOS program.

 Until next time, Happy Palmtopping.
 
 

A Custom Auction Database For the HP Palmtop

iPhone Life magazine


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