Oops, we mean “personal productivity device” story. Here’s the latest crop of tiny tech tools that are generating some buzz.
Look over the latest crop of electronic wanna-haves and you might recall the classic Saturday Night Live pseudo-commercial plugging a new all-purpose product called Shimmer: it’s “a floor wax and a dessert topping!” Lately, the hottest gadgets have doubled as something else. It’s a handheld computer and a digital camera! It’s a cell phone and a Web browser! (And it’ll fit in your pocket, too!) Cool? Very. Convenient? Unquestionably. Superior? Well …
In general, do-it-all devices have marginal track records. Take a hyped hybrid from a couple of years back: the combination desktop fax/scanner/printer/copier. Manufacturers billed the multifunction machine as the perfect space saver for small businesses. Instead buyers often got a quick refresher course in Murphy’s Law: If anything can go wrong, it will. Not to mention the combo-device corollary: When one thing goes wrong, so does everything else. So it’s easy to view current Shimmer successors with a healthy skepticism. Still, they’re undeniably sexy, with none more seductive than the proposed Origami.
Unveiled at trade shows last fall, the paperback-book-sized prototype contains a personal digital assistant (PDA), a digital camera, a digital camcorder, an MP3 audio player, an Internet-access device, and E-mail and videoconferencing terminals. The aptly named Origami, which folds and pivots for various functions, weighs a mere 10 ounces. But don’t look for it just yet. Manufacturer National Semiconductor Corp. isn’t saying exactly when (or whether) Origami will hit the shelves or what you’ll pay when it does.
Already available: Handspring’s long-awaited Treo, a device that functions as a PDA, a cell phone, and a wireless-messaging and Web-access unit. Treo’s standard model, which debuted in February, retails for $399. Handspring expects to release a $599 color-screen version later this year. Both run on the Palm operating system; buyers can choose either the standard Graffiti handwriting-recognition system or a tiny thumb keyboard. On all models, the device’s cover flips up to transform it into a phone. Despite its triple capability, the 5.2-ounce Treo feels lighter and slimmer than most single-function handheld gadgets. Of course, you’re still looking at a microscopic gray-scale screen. Treo’s debut models lack analog phone and voice-activated-dialing capability. And it’s unclear if even true technophiles will want to phone home by holding a handheld computer up to their ears.
Continuing the smaller-is-better theme is Fujitsu PC Corp.’s LifeBook P Series notebook computer. Fujitsu, among the computer makers racing to build the lightest laptop, pared its latest contender to 2.8 pounds stripped (3.4 pounds with its optical drive) and just over 1.5 inches thick. Despite its skinny profile, the $1,500 LifeBook P, which debuted in December, comes with a built-in slot for either a CD-RW/DVD drive or an extra battery that will power the machine for up to 14.5 hours. There are, of course, tradeoffs. The LifeBook’s keyboard is about 10% smaller than a full-size keyboard, a serious drawback for the ham-handed. Touch typists will hate the odd shift-key location (above the slash, rather than next to it). Finally, there’s the little 10.6-inch screen, a size and shape widely seen in Japan but probably disconcerting, at least initially, for American users.
Most likely to grab headlines: the Tablet PC. The device, about the size of a legal pad, recognizes handwriting scribbled on its surface and is a fully functional PC with a touch screen. Tablets are flat, sleek (2 inches thick), and lightweight (less than 3 pounds). Several computer makers — including Acer, Compaq, Fujitsu PC, and Toshiba — will build the Microsoft-powered machines.
Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who says he’s already using an electronic slate, predicts that by 2006 it “will be the most popular form of PC sold in America.” Others aren’t so sure. Does the world really need yet another handheld computer? And writing-recognition technology in general still stinks. Ask any handheld user who’s scribbled “Meet with Fred Emerson” and ended up with “Mzte wth fmd-at emermhon.” But stay tuned: Gates expects sales to start late this year.
Anne Stuart is a senior writer at Inc.
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