INTERVIEW: Development of the HP OmniGo 100 and the Future of HP Handhelds

Kheng-Joo Khaw

Kheng-Joo Khaw, General Manager of HPs Asia Pacific Personal Computer Division, answers Hal Goldstein's questions on the development of HPs new OmniGo computers and the future of HP handhelds

Q: Given the relative success of the HP Palmtops why did you feel you had to start over with the OmniGo 100? How was the idea for the OmniGo 100 born?

A: The HP 200LX Palmtop PC and its predecessors are the leading products today in the category (Dataquest, May 1995). However, based on user needs, there is much room for other handheld products. As much as we would have liked it to be true, the HP 200LX is not for everyone.

The HP OmniGo100 organizer is meant to complement the HP 200LX and is aimed at customers who need easy-to-use organizational capabilities in a product that is not based on the PC paradigm. Within the industry, we often lose sight of the fact that about 90% of the population is not comfortable with the standard PC interfaces that exist. The HP OmniGo 100 organizer was designed to work the way people do, not the way computers do.

Ease of use was a primary design objective, allowing full function interaction using either pen, keyboard or both. There is no sign of DOS or the DOS file structure in the OmniGo 100, just application data. Finally, the OmniGo 100 is an HP handheld designed for those who need a useful, efficient organizer without the price and operational complexity of the Palmtop PC.

The HP 200LX will remain the best choice for people who prefer the standard PC interface paradigm. The HP 200LX will continue to be ideal for a great many people and will continue to address this part of the market. The OmniGo 700LX Communicator Plus was previewed at Telecom 95. It is based on the HP 200LX platform and shows our commitment to this platform.

Q: Why did you opt for GEOS?

A: GEOS was selected because it is a small and efficient operating system that takes advantage of the low powered hardware required for a cost-effective handheld product. It's real time multi-tasking GUI that is able to run within limited hardware memory resources on low-end CPUs like the 8086. It is also a tried and tested operating system, having been used both on desktop PCs and also on hand- held devices like the Zoomer.

GEOS is an open platform. Software developers can develop for Geoworks, not just specific proprietary product or brand such as Zaurus or Psion. It is critical that the industry grows, not just HP.

GEOS is flexible, we are able to customize the user interface based on our years of experience with handheld products. At the same time, a software developer can be assured that their software will run properly without worrying about the interface specifics across manufacturers who use Geoworks.

There is no other handheld platform today that offers these capabilities.

Q: How long did it take to develop the OmniGo 100 from inception?

A: A little over a year.

Q: Why did you choose Grafitti rather than use just straight hand-writing recognition?

A: The state-of-the art technology for hand-writing recognition is not at the level of accuracy acceptable by most users. The reality is that we humans have been writing for about 4000 years and are still struggling to read each others hand-writing.

Users will not tolerate finicky recognition, especially when better alternatives to data input already exist, e.g.. keyboard. Grafitti is a very practical approach to the problem. With Grafitti, users have to learn how to write in a way that the computer understands. Once they do this, they are guaranteed 100% accuracy in recognition. To a learned user, Grafitti is consistent, predictable and efficient it does the task. A system is only as good as how users perceive it, and as far as users are concerned, Grafitti works, and works well.

Q: What about Windows for palmtop products in a future version?

A: Microsoft Windows was designed for a personal computer with its associated hardware capabilities. It is obviously well done for its intended target given the dominant position it holds in the market today.

A handheld product is a much different environment both for hardware capabilities and the style of usage. To match up to these differences requires a different approach rather than just squeezing a desktop environment into a small package.

Q: According to published reports you are working with AMD developing low-powered X86 chips for HP handheld. Can you talk in general terms about what you are planning for future products?

A: We are working with AMD in future X86-based CPUs for advanced handheld products. It is a preparation for the exciting future.

I am not able to discuss any specifics, but it is safe to assume that the future handheld products will require more advanced system architectures than those existing today. We do not believe that proposed handheld "RISC" designs with their large memory overheads and sluggish performance are the answer.

Q: Is GEOS the operating system of the future for all HP handhelds?

A: Currently, Geoworks is ideal for the products that we intend to engineer. We do not see any visible competition available today. As always, if an operating system comes along which allows us to accomplish our goals better, we will consider it. The same attitude and rationale is the reason why we switched from DOS to GEOS for OmniGo 100.

We have been very impressed by the GEOS in terms of their technical skills and level of enthusiasm. Thus, I can now count on to GEOS to continue to innovate aggressively to keep ahead of competition.

Q: What does that mean for DOS or Windows compatibility in future HP Handhelds? Will future HP handhelds be able to run DOS programs?

A: Windows compatibility is a must. The OmniGo 100's Connectivity Pack as well as the Clip and Go product both offer Windows connectivity. We will continue to offer DOS as long as it remains the industry's open standard operating system.

Q: What was the most fulfilling part of the development process?

A: OmniGo 100 is a Class Act in teamwork, involving people from different companies, different cultures, different time zones and geography. We worked together with our partners in GEOS, Vadem, Palm Computing, Intuit & Skytel to achieve the vision of an affordable useful electronic organizer.

Even though this was the first project we did together, we managed to work cohesively as a team. The world wide geographical dispersion of the team meant that someone was always awake, working on the project, while others were sleeping. We had a saying The sun never sets on the OmniGo 100 project.

Q: What do you see as the most unique, innovative and useful features of the OmniGo 100?

A: The flip-over hinge, rotating screen, and drag-and-drop and jotter. These features are not in just for gee whiz impact. They offer real productivity gains by allowing the product to adapt to the user and the environment rather than forcing the user to adapt to the machine.

Q: In general terms what might we expect in future versions of the OmniGo?

A: This is a difficult question to answer. However, there is a saying (belief) that all technologies will eventually be miniaturized. Based on that, we can look forward to many exciting features that will eventually become physically and economically viable to incorporate into a handheld machine such as OmniGo 100 or HP 200LX.

Q: Why doesn't the OmniGo 100 accept flash cards?

A: The HP OmniGo 100 is targeted as a personal organizer, not a general-purpose computing platform. By doing this, the OmniGo 100 is much easier to use and adapts more easily to the persons work and lifestyle. The primary need for storage can be served by a simple SRAM card that is smaller in capacity, and less expensive than a Flash card. This allows our customers to meet their data backup needs and keep the cost of the system down. * On a broader sense, it is very often that many of the standard accessories items were designed with the notebook in mind rather than the small palmtop machines such as OmniGo 100 or HP 200LX. We will have to continue to recommend the suitable components.

Q: How come you can't save data files from PhoneBook and many of the built-in applications directly to a PC card?

A: There is really no need to do this. If a user needs more memory because many additional applications are added, they can be put on a SRAM card. This is not the PC world. Some very sophisticated applications have been written for Geoworks environment in the range of 20K to 100K size. There is just no need for exorbitant amounts of memory.

Q: What is the actual story about battery life?

A: The battery life on the OmniGo 100 organizer is at the level expected by those who use products of this type, and significantly longer than some other products in the market. It depends on usage, but around one month on a single set of batteries is reasonable.

Q: People complain the Grafitti is not that simple to learn, especially when it comes to certain letters, punctuation and switching modes. Do you have any comments, suggestions?

A: The typical user learns the basic Graffiti characters in about 20 minutes and is comfortable in about one hour.

Q: Who do you see as the OmniGo 700LX customer?

A: The HP OmniGo 700LX Communicator Plus enables the business person to stay in touch anywhere, anytime and take care of critical information needs. The HP OmniGo 700LX Communicator Plus will fit the needs of people who are away from their home or office more than 24 hours at a time. This encompasses a wide range of business professionals who travel for part of their jobs. The 24-hour range is the most common deadline for reacting to information or inquiries.

Q: How come you choose to base it on the HP 200LX rather than the OmniGo 100?

A: The HP 200LX is a third generation product with capabilities that are easily adapted to the communications world. The HP OmniGo 100 organizer did not even exist when we started the partnership with Nokia.

Q: How come the name OmniGo since it is Palmtop based. Will all your future handheld products use the OmniGo name?

A: HP OmniGo will be the name applied to all handheld products from HP in the future. Our intention is to build a family of products over time that are related, yet each addresses a different segment of the market. The HP OmniGo name signifies a common basis for the family of products.

Q: We understand the product will not be available in the US for some time yet. Can you explain the technical problems that slow down its release?

A: The product will be ready for world wide usage at introduction, but the wireless networks will not. Most of the world standardized on the Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) standard a couple of years ago for digital cellular service. The U.S. has lagged in starting digital cellular service. The recent FCC auctions for broadband PCS services will lead to digital cellular service using a variety of competing standards, one of which will be PCS 1900, the U.S. variant of GSM. As soon as compatible networks are operational in the U.S. we will make the HP OmniGo 700LX communicator available.

Q: When will the product be introduced in the rest of the world?

A: Early in 1996.

Q: Can you envision users owning either a HP 200LX or an HP OmniGo 100 with an OmniGo 700LX?

A: The HP OmniGo 700LX personal communicator, incorporates all the capabilities of the HP 200LX.

Q: Did customer feedback play a role in the creation of the OmniGo 100 and OmniGo 700?

A: All of our products are developed based on customers' input. We use a wide range of market research tools, inputs from customer support calls and letters, and inputs from customers whom we survey on a regular basis. In addition, we constantly monitor various on-line services and talk to people at trade shows and conferences.

Q: How exactly can a customer give you feedback as to the current product and what they would like to see in the future?

A: Any customer can write to us at the customer support address printed inside the back cover of every users manual. In addition, they can utilize on-line services such as CompuServe.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers, users of the HP 200LX and OmniGo 100?

A: Thank you for being such strong supporters of HP handheld products. You, the readers of The HP Palmtop Paper, have traditionally been our most vocal supporters and also the most vocal source of product design input. It is your input that continues to push us to constantly improve and deliver even more innovative and useful products to the market.