PDA Pundit: Palm Trade Show Offers Glimpses of Newest Gear, Software

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I do know the way to San Jose, so I headed there this week (more precisely, I hitched a ride with a colleague) to check out the annual PalmSource Developers Conference.

PalmSource is where the folks who write Palm applications keep current with their craft. The big news this year--announcements and previews of the next-generation Palm operating systems dubbed Cobalt and Garnet--was starting to get old by the time we hit the small exhibits area at the Fairmont Hotel.

New Sony PDAs

Most of the booths were manned by the usual suspects. On the hardware side, Sony showed off three brand-new Clies, which just keep getting slimmer, trimmer, and cheaper. (I wish the company would work on those boring alphanumeric model names.)

Sony PEG-TH55

The top-of-the-line PEG-TH55 packs integrated Wi-Fi, a VGA camera (640 by 480), and a roomy 320-by-480 screen into a $400 package. It weighs only about 6.5 ounces. That's just a smidge heavier than my PalmOne Treo 600, which doesn't have nearly as nice a screen and cost a lot more. Sony also packs in a generous amount of proprietary software, including audio and video players, and enhanced calendar, contacts, and other personal information management applications.

Sony PEG-TJ37

New Clie number two, the PEG-TJ37, also has a VGA camera and built-in Wi-Fi, but it lacks its sibling's big screen and PIM software. Instead, you have to make do with a 320-by-320 screen and the standard Palm 5 software. The PEG-TJ37 also has less memory (32MB RAM/16MB ROM compared to 32MB/32MB for the pricier PEG-TH55), less capable multimedia software, and a less powerful processor. But the good news is that it weighs a featherweight 4.7 ounces and costs $300.

For budget-minded customers who don't require Wi-Fi or music capabilities, there's also the $200 PEG-TJ27, which otherwise is a lot like the PEG-TJ37.

Scanning Sheep

With any luck, I'll soon get some hands-on time with Sony's newcomers. But meanwhile, around the corner from Sony's booth, I saw a strange sight: a woman kneeling on the floor, bent over something that looked a lot like a sheep but was covered with clear plastic sheeting dotted with strange markings.

Moving closer, I saw that it was a close-to-life-size sheep doll, and that the markings on the plastic were bar codes. The woman was scanning the bar codes on the sheep with a scanner attached to a blue ruggedized Palm that in turn hooked up with a computer running software that turned the bar-code scanning into sheep shearing: As the woman successfully scanned a bar code, a display showed a sheep (okay, an image of a sheep) being sheared in the corresponding location.

The whole spectacle was a contest promoting the ruggedized Palm-based Meazura device and waterproof barcode-scanning module from a New Zealand company called Aceeca. I don't have much use for a ruggedized Palm myself, but I had to give the folks from Aceeca credit for one of the most imaginative trade-show attractions I've seen in quite a while.

A PDA Proposal?

One of my favorite stops at PalmSource is the booth run by Astraware, a company located in the industrial heartland of Great Britain that happens to be one of the top game developers for handhelds. I recently acquired its Palm port of Rocket Mania, a PopCap/Nuclide.com puzzler that is my current time sink of choice--but in its desktop form. The handheld version is just too tiny.

But I digress: Astraware had some news regarding its most popular game, Bejeweled. (You know the game--you have to line up three jewels in a row by swapping out adjacent jewels. You can play a free Web-based version on MSN.) I knew Bejeweled was popular, but I was still surprised to learn that Astraware sells some 10,000 copies of the Palm version every month: At $15 a pop for the downloadable version, that's a pretty nice business.

The news is that Astraware has launched a special Valentine's Day limited edition of Bejeweled that features small hearts in place of standard red gems, plus--get this--a secret command that players can activate before getting their loved one to play for a few moments. When the command is activated, once the unsuspecting player successfully gets a few lines of matched gems, the game vanishes and a big heart with the words "Will you marry me?" appears on screen. There's even a place for the person on the receiving end of the big question to tap an acceptance, which produces a large image of a ring.

Does that sound too geeky for words? It did to me, until I heard that Astraware will send a bottle of champagne to every couple who gets engaged in this manner. (I have no idea how Astraware intends to verify submitted claims.) The people who get the champagne will also be entered in a drawing for a free honeymoon cruise. So it could be worthwhile to pop the question via PDA. The limited Valentine's Day edition of Bejeweled will be around for only about a month, so act quickly.

The Smallest Smartphone?

Group Sense PDA XPlore G18

I thought the new Sony Clies were small until I noticed a booth touting what has to be the teensy-weensiest Palm-based cell phone I've ever seen, Group Sense PDA's XPlore G18, formerly code-named Zircon.

This GSM/GPRS phone weighs a mere 3.7 ounces. It's actually not that skinny--it's 0.8 inch thick, which is on the chunky side for mobile phones and handhelds these days--but it has an impressively small footprint of about 1.8 by 3.9 inches, even though it has a built-in VGA camera. Of course, there are compromises. The 176-by-240-pixel screen is much smaller than a conventional Palm screen, and I can't imagine what some apps would look like on it. This is another product I'd like to get back to later.

The guy at the booth said the phone is out in Hong Kong now and will be available in the U.S. later this year--but the cell phone service that will offer it hasn't been announced.

PDA Training Falls Short

Finally, every trade show has its duds; this one was no exception. A rep for PalmGear, one of the big online handheld stores, gave me a copy of Power By Hand's video training disc that's designed for people who've never used a Palm. I stuck it in my PC's DVD drive and was astonished by how little instruction and how much feel-good babble and blatant promotion of PalmGear the teacher managed to convey in the first 10 minutes.

I'm sure there are still people out there who haven't ever used a Palm or any other type of PDA, and that some of those people would rather learn how from another person rather than a manual. But I have to think that most of those folks can find a friend or colleague who already has a Palm and can help them out. I wouldn't spend 20 cents for this CD, let alone the $20 it goes for.

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