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The expanding Palm universe

There’s lots of practical and diverting software out there for the PDA’s dominant OS.

Microsoft, that 600-pound gorilla of the PC marketplace, is so far just a lightweight in the hot personal digital assistant (PDA) market. In fact, Palm Inc. www.palm.com of Santa Clara, Calif., is effectively the Microsoft of handhelds. Devices running the Palm OS controlled 86 percent of the PDA market last fall, according to market-research firm NPD Intelect. In contrast, handhelds using the Microsoft Windows CE and PocketPC operating systems garnered just 7.3 percent of the market. Those figures represent an almost exact inversion of the market breakdown for Window-based and Mac desktops–an irony that might be more delicious for Mac aficionados if a lot of Palm OS applications didn’t collaborate better with PCs than they do with Macs. The PDA platform wars rage on, and one should never count Microsoft out, but most users are still voting with their wallets for simpler, relatively inexpensive and power-thrifty PDAs.

Predictably, the community of developers producing peripherals, accessories, and software for Palm OS devices is much larger than that for any other PDA platform. Just as with Windows in the desktop arena, developers get the most bang for their buck producing stuff for the dominant platform. In the last year–particularly since the introduction of the Handspring Visor, with its expansion Springboard modules–Palm OS-based devices and peripherals have been popping up like weeds.

Also, literally scores of Palm OS programs are available from thousands of sources, including abundant freeware, shareware, and commercial shrink-wrapped applications. A couple of months ago I took a look at a few of the available Palm OS gadgets; this month I’ll sample the smorgasbord of software out there, ranging from heavy-duty business applications to leisure trifles, most of which are available in demo versions.

Word processing

Not so long ago, attempting true word processing on a PDA was an exercise in futility because of the limitations of its user interface. However, this handicap has been overcome with the advent of compact keyboards. While you can sling text with the Palm’s built-in Memo module, there are several full-featured word processors out there that allow you to exchange documents with desktop word processors such as Microsoft Word. One of the best is WordSmith, from Blue Nomad www.bluenomad.com. WordSmith offers an impressive array of features for $40, including full keyboard support, text formatting, seamless integration with MS Word (Windows only, unfortunately), and the ability to exchange rich-text format (RTF) files with other word processors. Mac support is more unwieldy, requiring use of a provided document converter, but Blue Nomad is working on an integrated Mac package.

Cutting Edge Software www.cesinc.com recently introduced QuickWord, available either by itself ($20) or in the QuickOffice suite ($40) with QuickSheet spreadsheet and QuickChart charting programs. Quickword, which evolved from a popular document reader called SmartDoc, has fewer editing and formatting tools than WordSmith, but also provides very tight integration with Microsoft Word for Windows 97 and 2000, adding menu-bar access to these programs. Like WordSmith, QuickWord offers some handy tools, including an auto-scrolling feature (to use with presentations, for example) and a bookmarking utility for easy navigation through a long document. The QuickOffice suite is presently fully functional only on Windows PCs, with a QuickOffice Desktop to let you easily organize files, move between applications on the PC, and exchange data with the PDA.

Spreadsheet

If you’re a confirmed spreadsheet jockey (or, like me, you tend to use a spreadsheet for everything from a quick calculation to extensive databases), the above-mentioned Quicksheet ($30) is sure to appeal. The most feature-rich of several Palm OS spreadsheets, QuickSheet also integrates very nicely with Microsoft Excel for both Windows and Mac–though the latter currently lags by a version. Integration allows you to create and modify spreadsheets on either platform and keep them synchronized. QuickSheet can nominally handle spreadsheets up to 996 rows by 254 columns, and includes more than 60 built-in functions and a lot of formatting options similar to those of its big brothers. Of course, the Palm screen is a pretty small knothole through which to look at your spreadsheet, and your PDA’s processor (not to mention available RAM) will get winded with big files. If you don’t necessarily have to cart the entire contents of a database along with you on a business trip, QuickSheet fills the bill very nicely here.

Database

If you’re looking for a capable database program that can be created and used right on your PDA, you need look no further than HanDbase, a $25 package from DDH Software www.ddhsoftware.com. HanDbase can display database contents in either list or individual-record views, taking a page from the interface of Palm’s built-in Address Book. You enter and edit data mainly in the latter, and a single database can contain up to 30 fields. A wide variety of field types is available, including integer and floating-point values, drawings, pop-up selection lists, links to fields in other databases, and even simple calculations. With the help of companion shareware, HanDbase can exchange data with the likes of Microsoft Access and FileMaker Pro.

FileMaker Inc. www.filemaker.com recently released FileMaker Mobile, a Palm OS companion program to its very popular FileMaker Pro database manager. Once installed, this $50 application seamlessly integrates with both Mac and PC versions of FileMaker Pro 5, with menu-bar access in the desktop application. A FileMaker Mobile database can appear in either list or individual-record view, but data is entered and edited only in the latter. Unlike HanDbase, FileMaker Mobile isn’t intended as a standalone database; it presumes that all database design and most data manipulation and reporting (other than simple filtering and sorting) will be done on the desktop in FileMaker Pro. In keeping with this philosophy, FM Mobile provides a maximum of 20 fields per database (which can be a subset of a larger desktop database) and accepts only text, number, date, and time-field types. However, FM Mobile could be just the ticket if you’re already a FileMaker Pro user.

Another database program worthy of consideration, particularly by FileMaker Pro users, is JFile ($25) www.land-j.com, which was the first real database program for the Palm. Like HanDbase (but with fewer features), JFile is designed for use exclusively on the Palm. But with the help of a couple of shareware applications, it can exchange data with Access and FileMaker Pro. The conduit for the latter is a $38 program called FMSync www.fmsync.com. FMSync is particularly noteworthy in that it provides two-way synchronization and some capabilities that are more robust than those of the current version of FileMaker Mobile. There’s a comparison on the FMSync Web site.

Web browsing

If you suffer Web withdrawal every time you leave your desktop computer, AvantGo www.avantgo.com may offer the antidote. After registering on the AvantGo site and downloading and installing the free PDA software, you can select from a large and growing array of Web sites (called “channels” by AvantGo) from which to capture content. These can be restricted to text to save space and download time, or include images (more successfully on color models than on grayscale models). Every time you HotSync while online, the content for your chosen sites is updated. There are hundreds of channels available, organized topically, and if your favorite site isn’t represented you can create a custom channel for it with a bit of tweaking. While surfing, you’ll also find sites that have an AvantGo link to let you download and HotSync specific content appropriate for a PDA. Your options are limited only by the memory aboard your PDA (you can limit the amount of RAM allocated to each site) and your tolerance for long HotSyncs.

Audio/video

For the dedicated couch potato, OmniRemote www.pacificneotek.com lets you turn your PDA into a very inexpensive touchscreen remote that uses an infrared beaming LED. Many of the $20 OmniRemote’s features are similar to those found on $400 remotes like the Philips Pronto, including the ability to design screen and button layouts, program functions onto the “hard” buttons, and create macros and timers. All programming can be done on your PDA, but for PC users there’s a shareware program called ORDesktop www.ordesktop.com, which lets you create, edit, and HotSync OmniRemote setups to your PDA. This program and Web site also give you the ability to download setups contributed by other users (and submit your own). One problem with using a Palm or Visor as a remote is that, with a few exceptions, their LEDs are pretty anemic, and their ranges with some equipment may be less than adequate. Pacific Neotek has an answer to that problem: powerful IR modules that plug into the Palm serial port or Visor Springboard bay.

Reading

If you prefer more cerebral pursuits than vegetating in front of the tube, or want a distraction on a boring commute (not while you’re driving, I hope), there are thousands of e-books, magazines, and newspapers online, most in .doc format. Many of these are free, particularly classic books for which copyrights have long since expired. Others may be purchased individually or by subscription; unfortunately, prices for e-books and e-zines and their print counterparts are often comparable–a bit excessive, given the low distribution costs for online content.

Several Doc readers are available, ranging from very basic freeware such as AportisDoc Reader www.aportis.com to shareware such as AportisDoc Mobile ($30) and QuickWord. To look for titles, or to tap in to the e-book community, visit the sites of the reader providers or turn a search engine loose on e-book. One very complete site is MemoWare www.memoware.com. Another, Peanut Press www.peanutpress.com, has an abundance of current titles, albeit at the upper end of the e-book price range and requiring the firm’s free, proprietary reader.

Travel and entertainment

If you live in or visit one of 19 major cities in the United States and have a sufficiently capacious PDA, a free Vindigo www.vindigo.com city guide could be a worthwhile download. After registering on the site you can follow a simple download-and-installation process to acquire the Vindigo software and data for one or more cities. Once aboard your PDA, Vindigo provides a concise guide to the city’s restaurants, shopping, and entertainment, each of which you can access by category and sort by such criteria as distance or price. Like AvantGo, Vindigo scoops up the latest data on your city whenever you HotSync your PDA online. Enter your current location by cross-street, and Vindigo provides driving directions. The software also works with the Rand-McNally StreetFinder GPS unit, a feature I didn’t try. As I write, I’m preparing to head off to the Consumer Electronics Show, and I’m all set with Vindigo’s guide to Las Vegas loaded on my Palm.

Utilities

Like every computer platform, the Palm OS is a work in progress, and there are thousands of programs available to overcome its shortcomings. For instance, if you’re graffiti-challenged, you might want to try Jot, from Communication Intelligence Corp. www.cic.com. This $39 program lets you print naturally (rather than use Graffiti characters), use the whole screen for writing, see visible “ink” as you write, and use different sections of the screen for entering letters and numbers, saving stylus strokes.

There are many useful and stable little system patches that use a $5 utility called HackMaster, from DaggerWare www.daggerware.com. If you have a PDA with a Palm OS below v3.5, try MenuHack (free from DaggerWare), which lets you tap on the top menus to pull them down rather than using the Menu button at the bottom of the screen. If you’re a southpaw like me, you’ll love LeftHack ($10) from Quartus www.quartus.net, which moves most scroll bars to the left side of the screen.

Well, I’m out of space, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. Plus, I’ve left out huge categories entirely, such as games. However, a little Web surfing among the many Palm sites will yield a treasure trove of useful and diverting software for the world’s most popular PDA. Have fun.

Contributing Editor Ken Henningsen is a principal partner in Interface Services, a Minneapolis provider of online services.

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