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Where is Palmtopping Headed?

Where is Palmtopping Headed?

A doctor asks the question-will there be a sequel to the HP Palmtop called "Palmtopping: the Next Generation"?

By Dr. Nathalie Bugeaud, MD

 Don't you love those days when your Palmtop's Appointment Book greets you with the message, "No new or due items today?" When that happens, it's time for me to get on my bicycle and go for a ride. Cycling is, for me, a perfect time to think and let my imagination go free-wheeling.

 I rarely see the "No new or due items today" message. I'm an Emergency Room Specialist at three hospitals in the Atlantic coastal region of France. There are very few days when I am not faced with countless appointments and to-do tasks. I've come to rely on my Palmtop to help me stay organized and on time.

 For me, my trusty HP 200LX is a tool. It's a step in the right direction and sometimes almost a necessary evil.

My HP Palmtop is a personal reference tool: I no longer have to lug around several books when treating patients.

The size and battery life of the Palmtop makes it a "step in the right direction." It's a "necessary evil" because, now that I've became accustomed to using the Palmtop, it would be very difficult to be without it.

A Little Background

 Like many of you, I have always been a firm believer in the phrase "smaller is better." I've searched far and wide for ways to cram megabytes of information into as compact a form as possible.

 For example, during my residency in the mid 1990's I bought an Atari palmtop. Some of you may recall that these early palmtops had a serious bug. If you ended a line of text with a space rather than a carriage return, you'd lose all the information on the line. You could even wipe out the entire memory of the machine. Needless to say, I returned the Atari and received a refund. I immediately bought a Prolinear subnotebook computer with 1MB RAM. The machine cost me $1000 (a lot for a student). The Prolinear, made in Taiwan, had terrible battery life, needed frequent reboots and had a tendency to lose any data that was not copied to a PC card. The machine died a couple of months after I got it.

On the usenet, Palmtop forum, I read about the HP Palmtop's reliability and DOS compatibility. I bought an HP200LX 2MB and have never lost any data since. After several years of use, the Palmtop still works just as well as the day I bought it. Like a lot of Palmtop users, I think of the Palmtop as a "brain extender."

My brain extender carries my books, diary, photo album, phone book and GO game as well as other "little" tools. All my system macros are conservative. They're used to back up my data to the PC Card. The HP Connectivity Pack and the Accurite Travel Floppy make sure I don't suffer any data loss. I no longer have to go through the typical grief reaction of denial, anger, depression and acceptance whenever the Palmtop succumbs to Murphy's Laws.

What would happen if I lost or damaged my machine? Like a lot of Palmtop users, I would probably get a replacement unit. However, I realize that, eventually, the replacement units will be gone. What will take the Palmtop's place then?

 Looking Ahead to the Future

 I'm already looking for the Palmtop's successor, the next generation of small, data storage and retrieval devices.

I've looked at the Palm Pilot and WinCE machines but I don't consider them as "next generation" computing tools. For me they're a marketing department's idea of what a computer could be. They may have prettier screens and fewer hassles for casual users but they're definitely not a power user's tool.

I expected Hewlett-Packard to be the leader in this area but HP, along with a lot of other manufacturers, has jumped on the WinCE bandwagon. Let's face it, WinCE machines are not the equivalent of an HP Palmtop. In my opinion the WinCE machines, with built-in keyboards, are too heavy, have minimal battery life and are too large to fit in my shirt pocket. My search continues. I know what I'm looking for and, judging from the pace of hardware and software development, I may even find it in my lifetime.

 It's All in Your Head

 If Bill Joy, cofounder and Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems, has his way a future version of an Appointment Book may greet you with the message, "Today you will experience the following items and here are the ways to deal with these items." In other words, your computer will make decisions for you (as well as against you.) The messages won't appear on a Palmtop monitor. Instead they will appear in the portion of your brain that processes images. I know this sounds like science fiction and that's what I thought until I started to look into brain implant technology.

I became interested in brain implant research - hands free "palmtopping" - if you will, because of my working with head trauma patients in the ER. I looked at my Palmtop and wondered if there was some way that computer technology could be used to return brain damaged patients to a functioning level. At the current time, the answer is 'no', but that didn't stop my curiosity.

Here are just a few of the items that I've run across in my reading. It's always fun to speculate about what the future will bring, especially if the future is on the drawing boards of computer researchers today.

Work currently being done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at IBM will probably take us to an interim step in the evolution of computing. Such things as specially configured rooms, small helmets or eyeglasses that function as miniature LCD screens will allow users to connect to overhead satellites that are, in turn, linked to the Internet. Information can be processed and retrieved from the nearest node on the Internet. The widespread use of cellular telephone technology indicates that the widest use for such wearable computing devices will be for personal communication and information retrieval.

The next step, beyond wearable devices, would be the brain-implant computer. Sound far-fetched? Not really. The current, U.S. Air Force research has already produced the microscopic brain chip110 and researchers at Nagoya University in Japan (amongst others) are testing computer/brain interfacing, input-output chips and retinal implants. NASA's nano-technology research program in cell biology and neural research is another part of the puzzle. NASA's effort to produce smaller and smaller chips is part of their Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program but it spills over into brain-implant technology.

The implanted, microscopic, brain chip110 performs two functions. First, it links the individual to satellites thereby creating a seamless interface between the user and the information resources. In essence, the chip relays the processed information from a host computer directly to the person's brain. Second, the chip creates a computer-generated, mental visualization based upon the user's request. The visualization encompasses the individual and allows the user to be placed in the selected space.

 The search for a smaller and smaller computer is progressing at a rapid pace. Where it will lead is anyone's guess. Will we see "Palmtopping: the Next Generation" in our lifetime? Who knows? I hope so, if for no other reason than we won't have to contend with tiny keyboards and hard to read displays.

In the meantime I will continue contributing and receiving information and help on the HPLX-L mailing list. If you want to learn more about what could be the next step in computing evolution, send me an email via the mailing list. Be forewarned, I have earned the reputation of having a naughty sense of humor. As evidence of this I am about to upload alternative travel guides for France to the S.U.P.E.R. site at www.palmtop.net. Download a copy and you'll see what I mean.


 (1) Bill Joy:

 (2) US Air Force report:

 (3) Brain and Mind magazine:

 (4) Dave Peterson, Colorado State U, References on Brain Implants:

 (5) Nagoya University Bio Electronics Research Lab:

 (6) U of Southern California - Biomedical Simulations Resource:

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