The Problem with Pocket PCs - 14 Jun 2001

If you're like most IT professionals, you've had contact with at least one variety of today's Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). I recently upgraded from an older device running Microsoft Windows CE 2.0 to a Pocket PC with Windows CE 3.0. Although Pocket versions of Microsoft Office applications make my Pocket PC a useful tool, this handheld computer's ability to stay mobile—while maintaining fast communication for synchronization, file transfers, and Internet usage—falls short of the mark.

Most Pocket PCs' built-in communication offerings aren't fast enough to effectively transfer large amounts of data. The typical Pocket PC comes with a cradle that attaches to your desktop computer through a serial or USB cable so that you can synchronize content on the device and your desktop. If you have a laptop with an infrared port, you can use the Pocket PC's infrared transmitter/receiver to establish a link for synchronizing data with that machine. However, for serial and infrared connections, the maximum throughput is 115KBps—fast enough to synchronize appointments, but not much use for transferring multimegabytes. In addition, your Pocket PC obviously needs to be near the computer with which you want to synchronize data.

Most Pocket PCs contain one CompactFlash (CF) Type II slot. Most users allocate that slot for storage (through a CF memory card), but savvy vendors are leveraging the CF standard to extend Pocket PC connectivity. However, none of these solutions cover all the bases for staying connected wherever you go. For example, you can use a wireless Ethernet card to connect to your company's network when you're in the office, but you need a different mechanism to connect when you're on the road. And because these connectivity solutions use the device's CF slot, they present a catch-22: If you own a CF memory card, you probably want to transfer and store relatively large amounts of data on your Pocket PC, so the built-in ports' transfer rates are inadequate. But if you choose to use a CF-slot device (e.g., an Ethernet card) to increase transfer speed, you must displace the CF memory card, thus removing the storage device to which you want to transfer the data.

Even if your device has plenty of built-in memory and you use a CF Ethernet card to transfer data, you're left struggling with the paradox of a mobile device that needs a wired connection: Currently, no CF-slot devices support wireless Ethernet. Some higher-end Pocket PCs support an extension kit that lets you use a PC Card. If you spend the money for an upgraded Pocket PC, an extension kit, and a wireless Ethernet PC Card, you can have the necessary connectivity to truly leverage mobile computing technology—until you leave the boundaries of your company's wireless Ethernet access points, that is.

If you want to continue using a wireless approach to communicate with your handheld device when you're on the road, you'll need additional hardware. With a properly equipped digital phone, you can establish an infrared link between the phone and your Pocket PC, then dial an ISP or utilize the phone's Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) abilities. However, if your phone doesn't have an infrared port, you're again relegated to installing another CF card. Different card-and-cable combinations are available to link Pocket PCs to a variety of phones. Although the cards purportedly will communicate at rates up to 1Mbps, wireless networks limit rates to no more than 14.4Kbps. You might think, I bought a new Pocket PC, a digital phone, a CF digital-phone card, and a connecting cable—and all you can give me is 14.4?

To be honest, I don't want a better link between my cell phone and my Pocket PC; I want my cell phone and my Pocket PC to be one device. I also don't want more CF slots on my Pocket PC; I want wireless Ethernet integrated into the device's system board. And while I'm freeing up real estate on my belt, let's include pager functionality. Until PDAs include truly effective communication options, though, I suppose I'll need to upgrade my belt instead—to make room for yet another device.

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