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Mike Foster’s Palm Vx could cost him money today-lots of it. The professional speaker, whose specialty is telling businesses how to exploit new technology, has a chance to make $240,000. But he must respond promptly to an international organization that has requested a speaker for 24 of its chapters. At $10,000 a pop, it’s an opportunity Foster can’t pass up. But critical information he needs to close the deal is locked in an e-mail attachment that is slow to open. The e-mail itself is next to impossible to view on his PDA’s low-resolution screen. Someone else might reach the meeting planner first and get the job-and the payday.

“It’s a big game, and the quicker you get your information, the better you can respond,” says Foster, who might not be able to connect his laptop to the Internet until he arrives in Chicago at 10:30 at night. To make matters worse, the airline lost some of his baggage, including a keyboard accessory that would let him type an intelligible reply, and responding with the Palm’s handwriting recognition software isn’t generally as fast as typing.

Make no mistake-this isn’t a knock on the Palm Vx specifically. As people become dependent on digital organizers, cell phones, pagers and other portable devices to connect to the Internet, many are frustrated as the flood of information online narrows to a trickle. The interfaces, including screens that display data, as well as keyboards and voice recognition systems that deliver it, are too small, too slow and too awkward to process information effectively. Web sites become unusable, e-mails constrained, and graphics are eliminated. As a result of these clunky interfaces, a bottleneck problem that previously existed between Internet service providers and their subscribers-a link known as the last mile-also occurs between a handheld’s processor and its owner.

That critical distance, known to insiders as the “last three feet,” could put at risk the billions of dollars invested in wireless connectivity. Even if vendors solve the challenges of the last mobile mile, it could all be for naught if they cannot cover the distance between the hand and the face. The dilemma has engineers, programmers and designers going back to the drawing board for new ways to twist open the information valve. Microdisplays, foldable keyboards and better voice recognition systems are just some of the solutions. But will people use them? And are handheld devices equipped to operate them? Let’s take a look.

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