For Mehul Khakhkhar, a high school sophomore who lives near Chicago, the Palm Pilot handheld computer is much more than a personal organizer; it’s a portable scientific instrument that can record pH, temperature and the oxygen content of the pond in his school’s courtyard. Using a special adapter that snaps onto the bottom of the Pilot and a program that simulates an electronic notebook, Khakhkhar can take a series of measurements over several days and graph the changes. “It’s actually more convenient than writing all the data down in a notebook with a pencil,” says the honors biology student. “It’s more fun.”And more useful. Using the built-in infrared interface, Khakhkhar can beam his data to his classmates. And he can upload his results to his family’s desktop computer when it comes time to write his report. He also uses the handheld computer to take notes and keep track of assignments.
Other students in Khakhkhar’s high school district are using Palm computers to track their food consumption and physical exercise, creating a comprehensive fitness profile. Erin Singleterry, 15, downloaded a Spanish/English dictionary to help her with her study of espaol. The electronic dictionary is a lot easier than a paper one, she says, “because you can write in the word and [the computer] finds it.”
“We have over 400 teachers across our three schools in this program,” says Darrell Walery, director of technology for high school district 230. Teachers use Palm computers with two of their classes, where each student either purchases or leases their own handheld device for the year. “This is a chance to give the students a really powerful handheld computer that they can use throughout the day,” says Walery.
The original Palm handheld organizers weren’t designed with these sorts of uses in mind. No, the Palm was created to be a simple way for people to carry around their calendar, address book and to-do lists. And it’s been so successful that more than 8.7 million Palm organizers have been sold. But over the past year, computers running the PalmOS operating system have stepped over some kind of threshold. Instead of being simple organizers, the PalmOS is now widely regarded as the world’s next major computing platform-a platform that’s specially optimized for ubiquitous mobile computing.
This transformation has been driven by Palm’s third-party developers. In fact, Palm and 3Com have spent much of the past few years trying to sell the organizers for enterprise computing-that is, vertical applications used by large organizations-rather than trying to broaden the Palm’s appeal throughout our society.
On the software front, some of the most exciting programs for the Palm are those that take advantage of its “always with you” characteristic. The great power of the Internet is the wealth of information that’s available at your fingertips. The great problem with the Internet is that it ties you to your desktop. These new programs and services aimed at Palm users solve this problem by packaging up the Internet and other data services and making them available offline.
One little program that brought this all home to me is an electronic bus-and-train application called Commute. I discovered Commute one day when I was sitting in a coffee shop with a friend in New York City. I asked him if he could stay for dessert; he took out his Palm, clicked a single button, and told me that his train left in 25 minutes. The program consults the PalmOS clock and then displays only the scheduled trains and buses that have not already left.