Some new applications combine the Palm’s ubiquitous presence with the power of Internet access. Two examples are AvantGo and Vindigo. Both programs suck down data from the Internet every time you synchronize your PalmOS device with a desktop computer. AvantGo is great for news junkies: I use it to download the front page of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and half a dozen other news-oriented Web sites every morning, giving me several hundred pages of reading material for my morning bus ride. Since I’ve started using AvantGo, I’ve pretty much stopped taking printed newspapers or magazines on the bus: it’s far easier for me, and less intrusive to my seat mates, to read from the tiny screen than to try to unfold the newspaper. (The big disadvantage is the quality of the black-and-white screen: unless you are in a brightly lit room, it’s pretty muddy.)Vindigo does the same thing for movies and restaurants, automatically downloading schedules and reviews. You can search by movie and get a list of theaters and times. Alternatively, you can click on the name of your favorite revival theater, and get a list of what it is playing that night. Vindigo also has a built-in map: you simply tell the program the nearest pair of cross streets, and it gives you walking directions to your destination.
The second part of the Palm’s transformation has been driven by a number of hardware vendors, most notably Handspring-the company formed by a pair of Palm’s founders who left shortly after Palm’s acquisition by 3Com (see “That’s Not How My Brain Works…,” TR July/August 1999). Handspring’s PalmOS device, called the Visor, comes in an array of different colors, as any good piece of consumer electronics should. But what’s really innovative is the matchbook-sized expansion slot (called the “springboard”) on the back-a feature that invites tinkering and customization by third-party developers.
It’s been less than a year since the Visor started shipping, and already companies have delivered Visor modules that turn this PalmOS-based computer into a digital camera, a two-way pager and a universal remote control. But the most exciting module comes from Handspring itself: the VisorPhone. This clever add-on is a complete cellular telephone that drops into the backside of the Visor. To place the call, just look up somebody’s phone number in the PalmOS address book and click the “dial” button. Or you can just tap the number on the Visor’s screen.
There’s a simple motivation behind the VisorPhone, says Chris Cadwell, Handspring’s director of marketing for communication products. Cell phones are arguably one of the most successful consumer products of all time. One reason is ease of use. “Everybody thinks that the cell phone is easy,” says Cadwell. That’s deceptive, though; the illusion of ease of use arises from the fact that most people use their cell phones in only the most rudimentary fashion, by punching buttons on a keypad to place a call. But in fact, he says, cell phones are extraordinarily complicated devices to master. Few people use the advanced capabilities of most cell phones-features like phone books that can store a hundred names, three-way calling, and text messaging-because most people can’t figure out how to use the typical cell phone’s user interface.
The VisorPhone does away with most of these problems by eliminating the cell phone’s traditional user interface and instead simply integrating the phone’s telephony features in with the other PalmOS functions. The result is a cell phone as easy to use as a Palm-based computer. That’s a huge benefit for people who rely heavily on cell phones but who are not gadget geniuses-in other words, the majority of the cell phone-using population.
To be sure, this isn’t the first time that a company has tried to fuse a PalmOS-based computer with a cellular telephone. Qualcomm tried that trick last year, when the company introduced the pdQ smartphone-a device that belly-flopped in the market. “The difference between us and Qualcomm,” says Cadwell, “is that they are a phone company that added a Palm to a phone. We integrated a voice communications device into the Visor.” And Handspring has blended the two devices seamlessly. Another big difference is price: A Visor and VisorPhone can be purchased together for less than $450, about half the price of the Qualcomm phone.
Unfortunately, all of these devices have an Achilles’ heel: an utter lack of security. The PalmOS has no memory protection and no safeguards against viruses or hostile code. That represents a serious problem. After all, a Palm VII, with its wireless link, can initiate stock trades. A VisorPhone can make calls to 900 numbers. Palm says that it intends to address this issue, but any workable solution seems years in the future.
Nevertheless, if the VisorPhone is successful, it could be the start of an important new trend: the morphing of PalmOS from an operating system that’s used by handheld organizers into an operating system that’s used by a wide class of digital devices. After all, there’s a learning curve associated with any user interface-so why should cell phones, microwave ovens and VCRs all have different ones, each requiring separate mastery? We live in a digital Babel; the PalmOS user interface could soon become the lingua franca for many of these devices.