Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:
When comparisons were initially made between the Apple Newton and the original Palm Pilot, two of the most striking differences were size and input. The new PDA was much smaller than the MessagePads that preceded it. And instead of relying on handwriting recognition that resulted in egg freckles all over the face of Newton, used the Graffiti system that forced a small learning curve on the user in the name of increased accuracy. The Palm Pilot started life as an appliance, but Palm OS would grow to a platform in order to drive new functionality.
However, while its hardware kept improving, the main constraints of its size did not. PDAs remained effective tools for retrieving bits of data on the run as long as they had been synced and poor tools for taking notes for an extended period of time. Taken together, though, several hardware enhancements for Longhorn that Microsoft demonstrated at WinHEC – namely the auxiliary display and the one-pound, 7-inch "ultra-mobile" – may represent a tandem challenge to the besieged handheld even in the tethered domain that they have taken for granted.
The auxiliary screen notion combines a small LCD with some basic navigation controls for tasks such as looking up contacts, appointments, e-mail or starting a music jukebox. It seems to have been inspired by the LID (Low-Power Interactive Display) on the promising but still unshipped miniature Vulcan FlipStart PC. When integrated into the covers of larger 14-inch or 15-inch model, the second screen loses much of its spontaneous appeal since these heavier systems aren�t typically carried around all day like a PDA. However, Microsoft notes that such screens need not be physically attached to laptops, and a technology such as Wi-Fi or Wireless USB might be used to make a �local PDA� that could be used around the office for information retrieval as long as one didn�t stray too far from the computer.
Such remote data viewers, ranging from early efforts such as Casio�s Pocket Viewers to Microsoft�s Smart Display tablets, have largely failed in the marketplace, but at least such a device would always be in sync and would essentially be free with the PC. After all, they stay true to the spirit of keeping a little piece of your PC with you. They could of course also double as remote controls for PowerPoint presentations and DVDs, which has been a somewhat more successful proposition.
Then there�s the ultra-mobile, which probably won�t appear until at least 2007, according to Microsoft. Its 7-inch display makes it too large to slip into a pocket like today�s handhelds, but its form factor might finally hold the key to offering conference room note-taking prowess without the impersonal shields that today�s clamshell notebooks create.
At a cost of between $500 and $1,000, the ultra-mobile won�t be the solution for someone who simply needs to look up an occasional business contact, but, at least for the wireless office worker, the input and output capabilities of handhelds may be more effective if handled by separate devices than the compromised PDA.