A report from inside the consumer-electronics pipeline
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Even if one ultimate device is built, the design is not likely to please everybody. "There are people who don't like styluses, some don't like keyboards," says Joe McGuire with Go America, a wireless Internet service provider. "We'll have multiple devices to suit &#8230; people who look for different functions."Skip to next paragraph
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All of these separate devices will cloud the mobile-electronics picture for consumers in the short term. But manufacturers have a strategy in mind. A consortium of companies is developing a service called Bluetooth, designed to send information between different devices without using cables. The short-range radio communication would do much to shrink the hand-held universe.
So what should consumers do as all this convergence shakes out? The following is a summary of the main gadgets available to tide over the would-be user of untethered tech:
Personal digital assistants The Palm operating system, featured on the Palm Pilot, Handspring's Visor, and other PDAs, is the hottest tool in consumer electronics for one key reason: It's simple to use. An accessible organizer, it's also a provider of basic information like driving directions, news headlines, and weather reports.
The Palm's other top asset is its partnership with hundreds of companies that have yielded free downloadable applications not included in its original software. Owners also have the option of adding scores of attachments - like an 8-ounce collapsible keyboard.
Microsoft is Palm's main competitor in powering PDAs. Its Pocket PC operating system - available on PDAs made by Compaq, among others - offers more of a PC experience, with trimmed down versions of Microsoft software. But it doesn't have as many additional programs and add-ons. The new Palm VIIx costs about $400. Visors generally run a little less, and Pocket PCs a little more.
Wireless phones Compared with Europe and Japan, wireless-phone systems in the US are a mess. No carrier has total coverage of the country, and billing is arcane. Nevertheless, their service has become indispensable.
The best phones are lightweight and offer fairly comprehensive services at low rates. Quality models include Nokia's 8200 and 8800 series, priced between $200 and $450.
But e-mail and Web surfing are problematic, as most cellphones just aren't suited for text-based communication and Internet navigation.
Instant messaging might be the best users can hope to do given the limitations of tiny number pads.
MP3 players Their market will grow from 1.3 million units in the US now to 6.7 million by 2003, predicts International Data Corp. Intel's latest contribution to the field is one indication why: The chipmaker's Pocket Concert stores four hours of downloaded music - twice the amount offered by its competitors. It comes out next month at $300, about $150 more than the standard MP3 player.
This and other players will probably add e-mail. Time will tell if that's going a step too far.
Pagers They've received less attention than the jazzier-looking PDAs and cellphones, but if you're just looking for remote e-mail quick and easy, keep them in mind. You can send and receive e-mail with two-way pagers, which usually cost about $350, and $30 in monthly fees.
Pagers have better battery life than cellphones and PDAs, but also lack total service coverage.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society