Computer sales may have dipped industry-wide, but the popularity of Palm handhelds is looking up - two stories up, to be precise. At Macworld Expo 2001 in San Francisco, Palm's booth featured not only a contingent of Palm OS developers and Palm's lineup of devices, but also a two-tiered presentation stage with balconies that inspired at least one attendee to exclaim, "But, soft! what backlight through yonder window breaks?"
Not to be outdone, Palm OS licensee Handspring dazzled attendees with a large main screen and video displays set behind huge mock Visor handhelds. In addition, there was a color Visor which - if it were functional - could have been dubbed the organizer that fits in the back of your pickup truck.
Why so much size for products that fit into your hand? We've seen large booths before - for example, Power Computing's 1996 massive military outpost was a study in brilliant last-minute exterior decorating (after Apple bought NeXT instead of Be, the choice Power Computing had anticipated) as well as being a promotional tool - but this year the spaces occupied by Palm and Handspring were clearly built to accommodate the crush of curious attendees. Standing room only during presentations was the norm, with Handspring's crowds completely blocking a side aisle at times.
Seeing Palm devices in use is now commonplace at Macworld; I was privy to a few spontaneous "pick-up beams," or small knots of people swapping their favorite games and utilities (one new treasure is PicChat, a collaborative drawing program for multiple IR-enabled devices). Of course, folks were also beaming their business cards back and forth; I even created a Zoos Software E-Card with some general information and tips from my Palm Organizers Visual QuickStart Guide.
The large booths held more than eager attendees: both companies featured pods where a number of developers could showcase their Palm-related products.
Talk to the Hand(spring) -- Probably the most notable trend on Handspring's side of the floor was the fact that Springboard modules - expansion devices that snap into a slot on the Visor - are actually shipping. A year ago, modules were just a promise. The showcase module was Handspring's VisorPhone, an attachment that turns your Visor into a GSM-compatible cellular phone. Folks who typically carry multiple electronic devices finally have the chance to merge the handheld and phone.
The VisorPhone does everything a cellular phone does, but with a usable interface. Say goodbye to using a numeric keypad to choose letters: just add new phone numbers by writing them in Graffiti. Having an actual interface also means some tasks are much easier. At a Handspring user group breakfast, Handspring CEO Donna Dubinksy demonstrated how to set up a three-way call: call one person, tap his name to put him on hold, call the other person, then tap the 3-Way Call button. All the contacts in your Address Book are available for dialing, and when you receive a call the Caller ID feature searches your records to display the caller's name and number. And of course, you can use your Visor normally while talking to someone when you plug in a hands-free microphone or earphone.
The VisorPhone is also capable of transferring email and accessing the Web, though Handspring isn't emphasizing these features given the data speeds of cellular networks. Handspring did promote SMS text messaging, a quick way to send short text messages to other GSM-enabled phones that becomes a lot easier when you can write messages in Graffiti. Also, since GSM is far more widespread outside the United States (where GSM coverage is unfortunately spotty), Handspring will soon be pushing VisorPhone use around the world. The device costs $300 when you sign up for a calling plan, or $500 without a plan (if you're migrating your existing GSM service).
You Are (Always) Here -- Another Palm trend picks up on the ever-shrinking technology of GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers (see "Feeling Lost? An Overview of Global Positioning Systems" in TidBITS-388). The most promising (though largest) device was GeoDiscovery's $290 Geode Springboard module. It includes two "MultiMedia Card" slots for adding memory to the unit, allowing you to store more map data than will fit in the Visor's memory. As the cost of expansion memory comes down, you could keep chips containing your favorite locations and swap the appropriate one in when you arrive at your destination. A future update to the software will also let you use the cards as regular memory for other Palm data.
Nexian demonstrated its less expensive HandyGPS device, which at $150 provides basic GPS service in a smaller Springboard profile. Magellan was also showing off its forthcoming GPS Companion for Visor.
Wireless Internet Access -- Of course, no self-respecting handheld developer in 2001 would fail to have some type of wireless Internet access on display. OmniSky showed off the Springboard version of its wireless device, which feels less bulky than the Palm V modem that's been available for the last year. The OmniSky modem so far seems to be the best wireless method of getting onto the Internet from a Palm, offering decent speed and a slew of Palm applications for accessing email and the Web. (The Palm VII, conversely, only offers features mediated through the Palm.net service.)
Taking a slightly different approach, Palm was demoing its Palm Mobile Internet Kit, a software package that enables any current Palm device to get onto the Internet by connecting through a cellular phone. Be sure to check out Palm's list of supported phones, however, since some phones can set up an infrared connection to the Palm, while others require a separate cable to work. Also on the software front, Palm showcased its recently acquired MultiMail email client.
Talk Back to Me -- One surprising trend was the presence of multiple digital voice recorders for Palm devices. LandWare has previously offered the $65 goVox, a recorder whose only connection to the Palm is the fact that it doubles as a screen cover. Targus was showing Digital 5's $100 Total Recall recorder, a Springboard module for Visor that uses the Palm interface to organize and play back your flashes of brilliance. The nice thing about the Total Recall is that you can use it as a recorder when you don't have your Visor handy or are using another Springboard module. Shinei International also showed its My-Vox recorder, which plugs into the Visor's Springboard slot.
Keep Those Pod Bay Doors Open, HAL -- Palm is clearly enjoying success in the market, but it's good to see that Palm recognizes where much of that success comes from: outside developers. Palm's presentation pods offered space to established companies like AvantGo and DataViz (showing the professional edition of Documents to Go), but also smaller niche developers. For example, Sunburst has developed Learner Profile to Go, a Palm program that enables teachers to evaluate student progress over time, then generate reports on the desktop based on data collected on the handheld. ImagiWorks had more of their intriguing data acquisition devices on display, such as temperature and water probes that replace traditionally bulkier equipment. These are the types of products that give the Palm world variety and depth, much as the education pavilion and developer areas of the Expo remind us that there's more to the Mac market than image editors and word processors.