Wireless holds key to handheld computing

The lowdown

What's new? Many Pocket PC devices available today can add WiFi communications using a Compact Flash card as well as Bluetooth capabilities.

Do I have to load up on AAA batteries? Just about every handheld today uses a rechargeable lithium-ion battery.

Do I still have to brush up on my handwriting? Miniature keyboards in models from Handspring Inc. and Palm have supplanted Palm's Graffiti writing system for the most part. You can still use Graffiti on some models if desired.

Must-know info? Handheld makers are adding the power, features and wireless connections to make them part of the enterprise, but in many cases must wait for wireless networks to be built and for industry to solve security problems.

Last year was yet another "best of times, worst of times" for handheld computing. Better times may or may not be in store this year, but better products almost certainly are.

The market research firm Gartner Dataquest estimates about 70 percent of personal digital assistants are purchased by consumers and only 30 percent by enterprises. A shortage of wireless networks and persistent security concerns are among the factors holding back PDA growth in this area.

It will be a year before the enterprise embraces PDAs, said Todd Kort, principal analyst for Gartner Dataquest's Computing Platforms Worldwide group. In the next year, new products, lower prices and, perhaps most important, easier ways to wirelessly network the devices will increase PDAs usefulness to the enterprise.

Palm Inc. appears to be hitting its stride again with a bevy of new products aimed at both consumers and enterprise users, including a wireless, IEEE 802.11b-capable handheld.

Hewlett-Packard Co.'s iPaq has attracted fans and accessories, and Dell Computer Corp.'s Axim brought Pocket PC power within the price range of many Palm devices.

On the wireless front, the increase in built-in wireless capabilities ? WiFi and Bluetooth ? augurs well for users who are mobile in a campus environment or who travel across the country. Companies such as T-Mobile are turning up WiFi hot spots in thousands of locations, and Bluetooth phones are providing data communication access to handhelds as well.

Mark Kellner, a free-lance writer, wrote the weekly "Hand-Helds" column for the Los Angeles Times from 2000-2002. E-mail him at mark@kellner.us.

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