The one portable device I carry that still needs wires is the smallest, a Palm Vx. Until recently, any mention of a Palm OS device and wireless technology involved getting a Palm VII, with its built-in wireless modem, or using a cellular modem. But what I needed was a way to connect a Palm device to the 802.11b wireless network that I use every day at work and the AirPort base station in my home.
The wireless network at work (a college campus with a few hundred Cisco Aironet access points) began as a bonus for laptop users, but now that smaller portable devices like the Compaq iPaq are gaining popularity, I was eager to add a Palm OS device to the mix. Earlier this year Xircom (now owned by Intel) announced that it would be releasing wireless LAN modules for the Handspring Visor and Palm m500 handhelds. The SpringPort Wireless Ethernet Module (SWE) was released in June and the Palm Wireless Ethernet Module (PWE) followed in August. Both cost $300 from Xircom.
The one notable difference between the two Xircom modules, aside from their appearances, is the bundled software. The SWE comes with a copy of MultiMail SE and the Handspring Blazer Web browser. The PWE does not include either product, though Palm m500s and m505s come with MultiMail SE and Palm's Web clipping applications.
I volunteered to trade in my Palm Vx and start testing the wireless module with a Palm m500 as soon as it was available. My boss carries a Compaq iPaq, but with its expansion case and wireless card attached, it becomes bulky and unbalanced. In comparison, the module for the Palm m500 clips onto the back of the handheld, adding thickness, but still enabling you to fit it into a shirt pocket. Without the module attached, the m500 is much smaller and lighter than the iPaq - an advantage for evenings and weekends.
The module comes with only a small instruction booklet, which was fine for my needs, but might be too brief for someone who is not already familiar with 802.11b networking. Clipping the module to the m500 automatically copies the XircomPWE setup software to the handheld's memory. After charging the battery (with the same AC adapter that came with the Palm m500), I entered the college's network settings - I had the device configured after only a few minutes. If you connect to multiple networks (such as work and home), you'll need to set up separate profiles for each. In my case, I've set up my network at home with the same name as the college, with both supplying IP numbers using DHCP, so I can use one profile for both.
Field Test -- Once the module is configured you can ignore the XircomPWE program forever, but the application also includes a status screen that lets you see the wireless access point you're using, the signal strength, the battery charge of the module, and all your IP address information.
The reception of the wireless module is good, comparable to a laptop with a wireless PC card at extreme range. It selects the nearest/strongest access point consistently, though reception tends to drop off quickly the further you move away from the access point; I'm guessing this is due to the module's lower power requirements. However, active roaming between access points is not reliable, so moving a distance while something is downloading may interrupt the transaction.
The battery holds up well over the course of a busy work day, and if you plug the module into the AC adapter with the Palm attached, both batteries are recharged. Using the module doesn't seem to drain the battery in the Palm faster than normal use.
Putting It to Work -- The Xircom setup instructions say nothing about using applications with the module except for a section on using Network HotSync, which gives you the capability to synchronize a Palm device to a single computer from any other computer on the network. Being able to HotSync anywhere on campus would be a boon, but unfortunately, Network HotSync is not supported in Palm Desktop 2.6.3 for Macintosh. Instead, I tested this feature with an IBM ThinkPad laptop running Windows 98 SE, Outlook 2000, and Palm Desktop 4.0. It works great; I just wish it could do the same with my Macintosh. Palm's continued lack of support for Network HotSync on a Macintosh is a disappointment and reduces the value of this fairly expensive accessory for Mac users.
Even without Network HotSync, however, the module had an immediate impact on how I use a Palm device. I still carry it all the time but it gets a lot more use, and my AirPort-equipped PowerBook probably feels a little neglected.
Having a wireless network can make it too easy to bring a laptop into a meeting where the computer can be disruptive. Grabbing a PowerBook every time you step away from a desk is also not practical. I only carry a laptop around with me now if I know for certain that I will need it.
In terms of applications, what makes the most difference? The answer, of course, is email, the original killer app. A well-configured copy of MultiMail SE and an IMAP mail server allow me to keep tabs on my incoming email with a subtlety not possible with a laptop. This alone has doubled or tripled my use of the Palm device. In particular, I've found this increased connectivity critical in the immediate wake of last week's World Trade Center attack, since I grew up in Manhattan and there are many Dartmouth alumni in the World Trade Center area.
Since the Xircom module works with the Palm like a modem, any application that can use a modem will work with the module. For example, I can use AvantGo's Modem Sync feature to update my AvantGo channels at home over the weekend while my cradle is back at the office. I can also access the Web using EudoraWeb, a text-only browser that I use to check on my Web servers (or read the TidBITS Handheld Edition). EudoraWeb is part of the Eudora Internet Suite, which also includes a Eudora email application for the Palm OS and a Windows-only email conduit. EudoraWeb is great because it can handle cookies and SSL, and needs no proxy server like Handspring's Blazer browser. It's a bare-bones Web implementation, but I prefer this approach for the types of information I need when I'm on the go.
Looking Forward -- Many conferences and trade shows now have wireless networks available for attendees to use, and I have taken advantage of them with my PowerBook in the past. In the future I'll bring along the PWE with my Palm m500 so I can update Vindigo and AvantGo more easily on the road.
Back at the office, we have seen enough to know that the module is easy to use and adds value to the Palm. Even without Network HotSync, the PWE makes the Palm an independent network device with more useful applications for an entirely different type of user. Applications like MultiMail that previously benefited traveling executives are now an asset for technical support staff, on-site managers, and other users moving about a corporate or academic campus.
We're already discussing a handheld-friendly version of the Web-based call tracking system used by our technical support staff. Other ideas are being tossed around, but some of them will need to wait until the module drops in price. If you have the wireless infrastructure and the budget, you'll enjoy making your Palm and Handspring handhelds into full-fledged network citizens.
[Geoff Bronner is webmaster for the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, buys too many DVDs, and is an avid Lego collector.]