March 24, 1997

This PC Week
Handhelds still walk the Valley of Darkness
By John Dodge

  In the beginning, there were Apple IIs, CP/M machines and DOS PCs. And in the beginning, there were accountants, sales managers and all manner of professionals whose lives were made easier by Visicalc, 1-2-3, WordStar or AppleWriter.

  And in the beginning, these sinners circumvented MIS to buy and support these machines. In the beginning, there was dahhhhrrrrrkness.

Light shone through when the IT could no longer swim against the torrent of PCs. Gazing skyward and clutching lightning bolts, they loudly proclaimed: "We shall manage these PCs. We shall buy these PCs from official approved lists. We shall put these PCs on networks. And we will upgrade these PCs."

Has IT reached the same biblical juncture with handhelds? Hardly.

Anyone who has viewed and manipulated anything larger than a five-column Excel spreadsheet on one of these monkeys knows the answer. The average spreadsheet is better plied on a 4-pound IBM ThinkPad 560 with a 12-inch screen. (Where's IBM's general-purpose handheld, by the way?)

Handhelds are still not much good for anything beyond basic note taking, reading and composing short E-mail messages, tallying expense reports, calendaring, and maintaining addresses and phone numbers. Windows CE, reportedly, has some strength within industrial applications. If they were, yours truly, who logs about 100,000 flight miles each year, would be using one. My Pilot served me well for a few months until it plain up and died. Thank goodness the addresses and phone numbers are still on my PC.

Handheld manageability might make life easier for your local end-user support manager, but it is one small piece of the puzzle. The bigger question: Are mainstream users ready to embrace them? Dataquest mobile computing analyst Mike McQuire says Windows CE units are a first step toward what he calls the $500-to-$800 "ultra, ultra-portable"--a 2-pounder with a decent-size screen, keys for hammerhead fingertips like mine and a hard drive. But would a 2-pounder fit or feel comfortable in a purse or coat pocket?

Windows on today's crop of handhelds is about as satisfying as watching "Star Wars" on a 13-inch black-and-white TV. Still, the idea of having a computer that small, quick and convenient is too enticing to drop. The floppy and CD-ROM drives hang off the ThinkPad, and it still takes a minute or so to boot up. It's not the kind of box you whip out to get a phone number.

I ventured to Compaq Computer's Web site to find out more about its Windows CE handheld. Maybe it's me, but the Compaq Companion seems vastly underplayed and hard to find on Moreover, the last press release (one of two on the product) was issued on introduction day, Nov. 18. Compaq's silence is telling. If the Companion was jumping off shelves, wouldn't we have heard from Compaq by now? Maybe we'll hear next week.

To throw the whole issue into even greater confusion, the granddaddy of handheld developers, Hewlett-Packard, splashes no fewer than four types of handhelds across its site: Palmtop PCs (Windows CE),Organizers, Communicators and calculators.

I suspect most IT managers are laying awake nights over more pressing issues than how to integrate handhelds into their networks. Handhelds today occupy the same functional niches they always have. Darkness prevails over the handheld. Let there be light!

What's your handheld PC strategy? Do you have one? Write me at

See related story: Handheld PCs cause support conundrum

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