Mon, 24 Apr 2000

WorkPad all you need to take to conferences

By Zatni Arbi

JAKARTA (JP) What is wrong with notebook computers? Well, they are either too heavy or too pricey.

And their batteries always live shorter than the interval between a seminar's coffee breaks. I have been yearning for a computer that I can use during a whole-day seminar without having to fight for a seat near a power outlet.

I would not mind if the processor was a slow Pentium 75 MHz, or if there were no CD-ROM drive, or if there was no sound capability. I would not even bother if it did not even run Office 2000; I would be happy if it would just let me type my notes for hours on a single battery charge. Later on, I could transfer the file to a desktop or notebook and continue to work on the notes. An organizer, which was the precursor of the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), seemed to be a potential candidate.

However, the first organizer I ever had did not really impress me. It was HP's OmniGo 100. It had a calculator-sized keyboard that was impossible to use for fast typing. It ran on two AA- sized batteries, and as the power ran down, the screen became increasingly unreadable.

Still, the OmniGo 100 possessed several worthwhile features. You could flip the cover and turn it into a writing pad. You could learn the Graffiti shorthand, and use the included stylus to jot down notes. Unfortunately, transferring the data to a PC would not be easy.

Afterwards, new palm-sized devices came and went. HP, Sharp, Phillips and a dozen other vendors introduced improved versions of their handheld gadgets each time, but I never bothered.

My skepticism actually stemmed from the realization that my eyes would not be good enough to read the small type on the screen anyway. Even when editors of PC Magazine and others began raving about Palm devices, I was not convinced. Recently, however, when I got an IBM WorkPad c3 as a gift from a friend, I experienced a paradigm shift.


IBM's WorkPad c3 PC Companion is actually a Palm V, manufactured by 3Com for IBM. Unlike the silver-colored Palm V, the WorkPad comes in black, just like the company's ThinkPads. The operating system and the standard software programs that come with it are all made by Palm.

Although its screen has almost the same dimensions as the one found in the long discontinued OmniGo 100, the text on the WorkPad c3's is quite sharp. It turns out that, with my reading glasses, I have no problem reading the text in its Phonebooks, To-do list, etc. There are other features that have been keeping this device next to my cell phone in my pocket since Day One.

First, it has a built-in Lithium Ion battery. Placing the unit on its cradle for just a few minutes every day will be sufficient to fully recharge the battery. I have not had the chance to really test out the length of the battery life, but it seems that it really has a lot of juice in store.

In addition to recharging the battery, the cradle serves another important function. Through the serial port of the PC, it enables me to synchronize the data and information on the unit with the information stored on my PC. All I have to do is place the unit on the cradle, press the sync button, and the synchronization will be executed automatically. If I have deleted an old phone number on my PC's Palm Desktop for IBM WorkPad application, for example, the one on my WorkPad will also be deleted during the synchronization. In other words, after the synchronization, both the PDA and the PC will have the latest updated information.

Like the other PDAs that use the Palm Computing platform, the WorkPad also allows us to jot down our notes using the Graffiti Power Writing software. However, I never bother with that, either. My handwriting has become so awful after using the keyboard for so many years, and learning to use shorthand will only ruin it further.

The WorkPad c3 also has an e-mail client program. I can write my e-mail, and when I synchronize it with my PC, Outlook Express will automatically load and connect to my Internet Service Provider (ISP). Incoming messages will be downloaded both to the desktop PC and the WorkPad. I had to disable this function, though, because it had once copied all of the thousands of e-mail messages in my desktop Inbox into the PDA, filling its 2 MB of RAM to the brim.

I soon found out other uses of the PDA in addition to providing me with a calculator, an address book, a to-do list, calendars and an e-mail program. I bought myself a foldable keyboard made by Palm for S$175, and I had just what I had been looking for.

This keyboard, which has four parts, can be folded into a box not much bigger than the unit itself. It is really a godsend. Now I no longer have to tote my three kg notebook and its AC adapter into a conference room. All I need is the WorkPad and the foldable keyboard, and I can type my notes all day long without any worry of battery run-down. IBM calls the WorkPad a PC companion, I'd call it my personal companion.


While I was looking recently at several PDAs in the computer store of the Changi airport terminal, a Singapore Airlines flight attendant came over and asked some questions to the store clerk. She certainly seemed knowledgeable about Palm PDAs, forcing me into admitting that I had been asleep.

Indeed, despite my past rejection of the PDA idea, it is a fact that the PDA has become a fashionable as well as useful accessory. You can buy a stylish case for it -- hard or soft, even in a neon color. Like what you did to your cell phones, you can also buy colorful overlays to personalize it. There is even a designer stylus that you can buy, if you really want to impress the others in your meetings.


Just last week, however, Microsoft launched its third attempt at the PDA arena, and this time it may have the same level of success as it had with Windows 3.0. A large majority of the reviewers I have read so far believe that Microsoft's PocketPC has the potential to kill Palm.

That would not be easy, though. Palm has been around and has been successful for quite some time. According to the Gartner Group, Palm has an 80 percent share of the PDA market. Clearly, Palm has collected a lot of followers. Besides, there are also so many third-party software and hardware option vendors that will not abandon Palm so easily and quickly.

On the other hand, the hardware for PocketPC comes from big names in the computer industry, such as Compaq, Casio and HP. The latter two have been making small computing devices for many years, although none has been as successful as the Palm. Yet, with these guys behind it, PocketPC will undoubtedly pose a real threat to Palm.

The competition between Palm and PocketPC will be very interesting to watch. At any rate, competition almost always benefits customers. For the foreseeable future, however, my WorkPad c3, which PT IBM Indonesia will introduce into the local market on Tuesday, will surely remain my faithful companion.