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Personal Digital Assistants

These electronic organizers can be the small-business owner's little helper.
November 1, 1996
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/13492

Alexander Graham Bell had his Watson, Johnny Carson had Ed McMahon, and now even a fledgling entrepreneur can afford an assistant--named Newton or OmniGo. For less than $1,200, a new generation of lightweight, portable devices, commonly known as personal digital assistants (PDAs), are making life a lot less complicated for the technologically savvy businessperson.

PDAs allow you to take the office wherever you go, squashing down many of the organizational, practical and communications functions of a laptop computer into a package that can usually fit in one hand. Although most PDAs may look like a child's toy or a portable video game, they are very serious, powerful tools.

In the Beginning

PDAs first came on the market in 1993, when Apple's Newton was introduced. The dazzling little device never quite lived up to all the claims its manufacturer made, however, especially regarding the handwriting-recognition function, which was supposed to learn to quickly recognize an owner's jottings and convert handwriting into text. Although the first-generation Newton didn't live up to its lofty promises, it did open the door for a variety of developmental improvements which have placed a number of remarkable units on the market.

This year's Newton goes well beyond the promises originally made by Apple, as do units from Sony, Hewlett Packard, Motorola and others. Many of today's units really will recognize your handwriting, and reviews by consumer publications indicate that some units today actually do learn to pick up on the quirks of individual penmanship and convert them into printed text.

Beyond being an electronic notepad, these units are virtually complete computers in themselves--so portable and flexible that you can connect to the Internet via a cellular phone to check your latest e-mail messages while vacationing in Maui, or send an important fax to a client while stuck in traffic. You can even work on your company's balance sheet, sketch out an idea, or book a flight back from your vacation in Maui.

Good Things Come in Small Packages

"The units are very small and handy, and you can take them with you anywhere--out to dinner, on a business trip, and on a day trip," says Naoya Suzuki, product marketing manager for Sony's Magic Link.

Suzuki says that PDAs can best be used by businesspeople who need to travel and yet keep in touch with their customers while they're on the road. Suzuki draws a difference between what he calls high-end PDAs, like Sony's Magic Link or Apple's Newton, and products without advanced computing and communications capabilities.

"If you just want to have a little device that keeps track of names and contacts, you can find those kind of products for less than $300," Suzuki says. "That's one category, with no communications functions, no applications--just a handheld organizer. There is another set of the products available which includes the more high-powered, high-function products with built-in communications and more connectivity options, such as e-mail and Internet capabilities."

While the PDA won't replace a desktop or notebook computer in a businessperson's technological arsenal, the PDA can serve to complement the other devices by providing a portable, light (less than two pounds) alternative that is more powerful than a digital organizer, while offering quite a few popular options found in portable computers.

Basic Features

The units all have basic calendar, appointment, phone book and clock features, and most offer a spreadsheet program as well, allowing users to plug in a formula for such tasks as delivering a job estimate on the spot or entering vital accounting data. PDAs are more than simple organizers, as a serial cable can connect each unit to a stationary or laptop computer to allow information to be easily downloaded and uploaded between the two machines. Powering a PDA can be as easy as going to any store and picking up some regular alkaline batteries, although some units work only on rechargeable batteries.

The units with communications functions offer faxing, Internet and e-mail capabilities, with some providing speakerphone functions when connected to a cellular phone. While handwriting-recognition technology is included with most units, an on-screen keyboard is usually also featured, allowing the PDAs to show off two different uses of their touch-screen technology.

One unit that has received a lot of positive press lately is the U.S. Robotics Pilot 5000. Relatively low-priced (in the $370 neighborhood), the Pilot was touted as a hot new technological item by Playboy magazine and received an enthusiastic review from PC magazine.

The unit offers a lot of the basic features which are making these tiny electronic assistants quite popular. The Pilot, for instance, transfers a day's worth of information to a computer in about 15 seconds, according to the PC magazine article. Playboy states that the unit "stays juiced for several months on two AAA batteries," but PC magazine cautions, "when your batteries run out, you have only three minutes to replace them, or you will lose all the data on your Pilot. Of course, you don't lose all the data on your desktop PC, so the moral of the story is to be sure that you back up your files frequently."

User-Friendly

"A PDA cannot completely replace a notebook computer completely, but it does a lot of things," Suzuki says. He adds that PDAs come with one big advantage over laptops--they're easy to learn to use.

"Based on our experience with customers, if you give a unit to somebody and ask them to do something--send a fax to a friend, for instance--they can easily figure out how to do it without any directions or a manual. The Magic Link screen is like that of a desktop--you tap items on the screen, using either your finger or a pen. The units are very user-friendly. For a user to get used to Windows or Mac, they need instructions and some hand-holding."

According to Suzuki, software usually comes bundled with the various units, and additional software and upgrades are available on floppy disks. The Magic Link, for example, comes with an airline guide, an Internet browser, and Internet-connectivity software. Other programs are transferred via serial cable to the PDA by using a floppy drive on a laptop or desktop computer. Suzuki adds that Sony has its own Magic Link software catalog available, with the software coming from many third-party suppliers.

But the biggest consideration in choosing a PDA, according to Suzuki, is compatibility with other computers used by the potential buyer. "For people who use these high-end PDAs, the compatibility with their desktop PC should be a high priority," he says.

Communications-hardware manufacturer Motorola seems to be stepping in the next obvious direction with its pricey PDAs, integrating beeper technology right into its unit to allow the sending and retrieving of messages. It's easy to see that these handy little units are going beyond the promise of a paperless office by making nearly your entire business universe portable as well.

Personal Digital Assistants

Apple Newton MessagePad 130

Manufacturer's Suggested Price: $799

Phone Number: (800) 776-2333

Features: The MessagePad 130 begins with basic organizers, such as a built-in note pad, to-do list, date book, telephone log and address file. The unit comes with Pocket Quicken, a version of Intuit's popular expense-tracking/spreadsheet program. Information can be entered either by hand, by using an on-screen keyboard, or through an optional external keyboard. Handwriting-recognition software allows your handwriting to be converted into typed text. The Message-Pad 130 can exchange information with both Mac- and Windows-based personal computers. It can be plugged directly into a wall outlet, or it can run off a rechargeable battery or four AA batteries.

Sony Magic Link PIC-2000

Manufacturer's Suggested Price: $899

Phone Number: (800) 556-2442

Features: This latest version of the Magic Link has been expanded to 2 MB RAM, effectively doubling the memory of the last-generation Magic Link. The Magic Link's operating system, Magic Cap, integrates a wide variety of communications, data collection, database access, finance, and special industry applications. The unit allows users to connect and perform a pair of separate applications at once--such as downloading information from a PC while connecting to a cellular telephone to send an e-mail message. The built-in modem is 14.4 kbps, an industry standard for speedy transmission and reception.

The unit also has auto-dialing capabilities and a built-in speakerphone, which can be used with a cellular phone for use in a roundtable conference call.

Hewlett Packard OmniGo 100 Organizer Plus

Manufacturer's Suggested Price: $349

Phone Number: (800) 443-1254

Features: The OmniGo, a handheld organizer, looks like a palmtop computer and has all the functions of a PDA. Unlike other units, the OmniGo allows the user the option of entering data via the attached keypad or using the pen to use on-screen features. The OmniGo enables users to track appointments and expenses, take notes, maintain a phone list, and compute financial information. The Omni-Go's jotter function is modeled after the concept of Post-It notes, and the unit employs a handwriting-recognition system to allow for easy conversion to typed text. Pocket Quicken, a connectivity package allowing users to connect to a Windows-based PC to download or upload data, is also available with the unit.

Casio Z-7000

Manufacturer's Suggested Price: $599

Phone Number: (201) 361-5400

Features: The Z-7000 employs a touch-sensitive screen and allows users to incorporate both text and sketches onto one page--allowing, for example, a user to have his handwriting converted for a telephone book entry and include a hand-drawn map of directions on the same page. The Z-7000 provides all basic organizing functions and also includes handwriting-recognition and Pocket Quicken software. In addition to spell-checker and thesaurus functions, the unit includes a translation dictionary providing equivalents for 1,000 words in 26 languages. By using an optional modem, a user can connect to America Online via pre-installed software. Another optional link package allows users to connect with a PC to share information. The Z-7000 is powered by an AC adapter or by three AA batteries, which will provide up to 100 hours of use.