CLUED-IN: Networking from Palm to intranet

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Like many of you, I've always felt frustrated when I take to the road.

The personal computer and networks at my office are great, and I'm very productive there. But a road trip is always a trip backward in time.

I know you face the same problem, because I see you at every trade show I cover and airport I walk through. You've got your cell phone in one pocket, either a pocket computer or a sheaf of papers in the other, and I usually find you grabbing for a pen or clutching at your hair, or doing both at the same time.

What you're doing, besides going crazy, is giving and getting information. You might need a price quote or to confirm an appointment. You might want to pass along results of an appointment or to make sure someone gets back to a customer or prospect.

The people back at your office are pretty expensive input-output devices -- when they're on the other end of your cell phone line, that's what they are. If you could synchronize your hands with your internal network, without the hassle, everyone would be more productive.

Technologists have been trying to do this, unsuccessfully, for the past decade. The problem was the computers didn't fit in your hand. Laptops were no good when you stood up; pen-tops, which required a pen-like stylus to tap or write on the computer screen, were too big and couldn't understand your handwriting. Then came the PalmPad, which turned out to be the great-great-grandfather of today's Palm Organizer by 3Com Corp.

Enter handheld computers

Creators of the Palm Organizer, originally called the Palm Pilot, thought nothing at first about making the thing usable. They needed it to fit in the hand; then they would worry about what you did with it.

While creators of portable technology spent the '80s trying to fit a usable machine into a laptop, they've spent the '90s trying to make a usable machine out of the Palm. The good news, judging from what I see and hear on those show floors and in those airports, is they've finally succeeded.

Thousands of people are buying Palms on their own. They're downloading their contact lists and schedules into them. They're scribbling notes on them. To analysts such as Matthew Nordan of Forrester Research, Cambridge, Mass., it's like the early PC revolution.

"It's a real stealth pattern of adoption," he said. "PCs in the early '80s were brought in one at a time by finance guys," often Apple II machines running Visicalc, the first electronic spreadsheet. "Handhelds are the same way."

The problem is, as it was 20 years ago, this is not organized. Nor is it supported. You have to go to a half-dozen software, wireless data and security vendors to make the Palm part of your network. For most people, it's easier to just take the cell phone out of the other pocket and dial.

It seems we've spent the whole decade getting back to where we started, with useful machines waiting for connectivity. The task now, as it was with the laptop a decade ago, is to connect all this power to the corporate network, which along the way became known as the intranet.

In the next few years, it will all come together. The cell phone will get inside the Palm and deliver data. The software linking the Palm to the intranet will come to market. Lots of new companies will emerge offering "complete solutions."

That will be great, but something tells me it won't be great enough. The Palm will seem clunky, the pen interface uncomfortable. The peripherals will take over your suitcase. It just won't be cool anymore.

What will come next? In the realm of "virtual reality," we've already seen input devices disguised as gloves and glasses. What if they could make a PC like that, maybe with a voice interface? That would be cool.

Dana Blankenhorn is a free-lance journalist who specializes in Internet issues and is publisher of the Web site

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