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With Palm organizers, Microsoft Pocket PCs, RIM Blackberries, smart cellular phones and other devices offering seemingly similar features, it’s more difficult than ever to make sense of the mumbo-jumbo and make the right choice about going wireless. There are several ways of transmitting voice and data through the air — CDPD, CDMA, TDMA and GSM among them. And there are various networks such as Metricom’s Ricochet and Cingular Interactive’s Mobitex and Motient to carry the traffic. (There are many other acronyms for methods of communicating over short distances.) It’s a mess out there. Devices built to different standards don’t communicate directly with one another. Devices may not work at all if, as is often the case, the wireless network is not fully constructed in all areas. Wireless technology is still teething. So how does one go wireless? The question answers itself with a series of tradeoffs. Do you want a cell phone to try to be a handheld, or a handheld to try to be a cell phone? Do you need simple e-mail and organizer functions, or do you need more advanced features, such as word processing and spreadsheets on the go? Below is a guide for the perplexed and depressed. First, make a list of necessities and rank them by importance: Do you need e-mail? Do you need to read documents attached to e-mail? How important are calendars, lists of contacts, Web access and so on. Next, look at your firm’s groupware system. If it’s Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes, you’ll have several solutions. But if it’s Novell GroupWise, you won’t. Now comes the, um, fun: matching up wireless features and network coverage with the right device. Palm OS devices still control the vast majority of the handheld market. But among corporations and lawyers, they are not all that popular as wireless devices. Unlike, say, Research in Motion Ltd.’s Blackberry, Palm users generally need a separate e-mail address ([email protected]). Palm just cut the price of its wireless Palm VIIx to $199, with limited wireless service for $24.99 per month, and unlimited service for $44.99 per month. At these prices, wireless e-mail and Web access are at least affordable, if not as convenient as they might be. Likewise, Handspring just chopped $50 off of the Visorphone, an expansion module that turns the Visor unit into a GSM-based cell phone. The Visorphone includes Handspring’s new Blazer browser, which allows full Web surfing. “The future of handheld computing is directly linked to fast and affordable wireless access,” says Handspring’s top sales executive, Ed Corrigan. Later this year, Palm is planning to release a new wireless model. Unlike the VII, which requires users to fetch their e-mail manually, the new model will automatically update e-mail. There will also be an expansion slot. There’s also a good chance Palm will offer an add-on thumb keyboard for typing, a la the Blackberry. RIM isn’t standing still either. It plans to add GSM cell phone voice capabilities to its Blackberry units overseas, after their initial release in Europe this year. RIM has succeeded with the Blackberry in the corporate world with automatically updated e-mail that borrows the same e-mail address as the office account. In other words, a message deleted from the handheld is easily deleted from the office desktop, too. Many road junkies are bringing it instead of a laptop. Another choice is the Kyocera QCP 6035 Smartphone, a smartly designed cell phone with an integrated Palm Organizer. While it’s wider than many cell phones, the Smartphone eliminates the need to carry around an additional handheld computer. It features wireless e-mail and Web access. The display is smaller than those on Palm devices but still larger than those on most cell phones. Unfortunately, there is not an unlimited wireless access plan at this time. You pay by the minute. While some people may balk at the Smartphone’s $500 price tag, it’s the same price as the Visor Platinum outfitted with the Visorphone, after current rebates. No one said handheld wireless technology was cheap. There are no sure bets in the wireless data industry: Earlier this year, Palm warned it might burn through half of its cash reserves. Palm recently announced that it won’t be acquiring Extended Systems Inc. Extended Systems makes enterprise synchronization servers for mobile devices, and was meant to be Palm’s ticket into the corporate and enterprise market. Palm is looking to change its business model dramatically. It’s anyone’s guess whether it will leave the hardware or the wireless business, or do something entirely different. For all of the hype, wireless hasn’t been a revolution but an evolution. In evolutionary terms, the market is now figuring out who is strongest and who will survive.

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