WHEN Chuck Berman rides into the communications frontier, he packs the tools of a modern road warrior. There is his pager, of course. And a 2.2-pound computer tablet made by his company, Eo Inc., in Mountain View, Calif. Occasionally, he takes along a hand-held cellular telephone too.
The future was not supposed to be this way. Merging computer and telecommunications technology was supposed to produce a single mobile device, Dick Tracy-style. But it has not. No one is quite sure what tomorrow's mobile workers really want.
George Fisher, chairman of Motorola, is like many others in telecommunications and computers: He is optimistic something will turn up. "If you put the superhighway out there, you will have 100-mile-per-hour cars you never imagined."
The personal digital assistants (PDAs) or personal communicators now trickling onto the market are the best indication of the industry's position right now. On June 7, Hewlett-Packard introduced the 2.9-pound OmniBook 300. The company calls it a "superportable." Other analysts classify it as a personal communicator.
Apple Computer, the company which popularized the idea and coined the term PDA, was tantalizing consumers last year with the prospect of a hand-held computer-communicator called Newton. Today, it is rerouting and taking a lower profile, selling to business people instead of consumers. The first Newton will not even include a built-in modem. "They're having trouble making the transition" from computers to hand-held devices, says Michael French, a consultant with LINK Resources Corporation, New York.
Apple and other PDA vendors made the mistake of aiming for the consumer market instead of business customers, says John Pemberton, president of Pemberton & Associates, a consulting firm specializing in operations technology. But manufacturers could not keep the prices low enough for consumers. The OmniBook will retail for about $1,800; the Newton, an estimated $900. So the manufacturers have refocused on the business market.
THAT is good, Mr. Pemberton says, but "it's a mismatch" for the moment. The Newton, for example, is too underpowered and does not make wireless communications seamless enough for general business use. It will take up to 18 months to solve the problem, he says.
Where personal communicators are making inroads is in highly specialized niches, such as a police force that can enter parking tickets instantaneously or a highly paid professional staff that needs hand-held computing power. General business will come later, analysts add, and they will want different kinds of hand-held gadgets.
When LINK Resources earlier this year surveyed potential users of the devices, it found a definite split. Many users simply wanted a computer they could hold in one hand, which would do some specific functions, Mr. French says. Others wanted a communicating device.
The miniature computers - palmtops - hit the market several years ago. LINK estimates they will outpace personal communication devices' 1.9 million units by 100,000 units this year. But by 1998, communication devices will account for nearly two-thirds of the 10.5 million PDAs that will be sold, according to LINK.
"We're exactly where we were 12 years ago with office automation," Pemberton says. Users have to figure out how to use the new devices.
The industry's biggest obstacle may not be making the devices themselves, but hooking them up to communications services. There are no standards to build a device, and no agreement on what communications technology to use. Companies are rushing to dominate the market so they can become the de facto standard.
Ameritech announced June 3 it would form an alliance with Apple to give Newton users access to its voice messaging and fax services. Eo, which is now 51 percent owned by telecommunications giant AT&T, has also chosen the cellular track. But French says the carrier of choice will be something other than cellular.
"Common sense says you don't want to carry a whole lot of different things," says Ray Desjardins, vice president, RAM Mobile Data in New York.
Mr. Berman, product manager of Eo, expects to be carrying only one device before the turn of the century.