Originally published in the April 1998 issue of The Silicon Alley Reporter
Now that the browser war is coming to a close, the next battle is starting in the world of embedded devices: the telephones, pagers, and TV set-top boxes heralded as the next generation of the Internet.
Soon, if one is to believe the series of announcements made at the beginning of the year, no one will be able to avoid the Internet. Your pager or cellular phone will allow you to send and receive email, while new TV/Internet hybrid content will be pumped into America’s living rooms via souped up cable boxes.
While the usual players are showing up) at the parties (Microsoft is offering Windows CE and Sun Microsystems is pushing Java as the OS of choice for embedded devices), few have taken notice of a third potential power machine in the world of embedded devices: 3Com, the networking company which, after its acquisition of U.S. Robotics late last year, inherited the Palmpilot.
For those readers not familiar with the Palmpilot, it’s a wallet-sized device that can carry such information as phone numbers, appointments, to do lists and a host of other programs developed by third party vendors. In the past couple of years, the PalmPilot seems to have displaced heavy Rolodexes in the wired crowd. Now in its second iteration, the PalmPilot is the single best seller in the PDA category, responsible for more than half of all sales of such devices last year. In fact, it’s hard to walk into any new media organization and not find one of the little buggers lying about.
What makes it attractive to users is its form factor (a really small device with a fairly large screen) and ease of use. While it doesn’t recognize handwriting, a pattern recognition language, called Graffiti, allows users to quickly jot info in it without using a keyboard (it takes about 20 minutes to get the basics of ‘graffiti’ down). The secret of the Pilot stands in PalmOS, a very compact operating system.
In the past few months, 3Com has started to lay out some new borders in the brave new world of embedded computing. While Microsoft and its usual competitors have been battling over set-top box specifications, 3Com has almost stealthily signed deals that will position PalmOS as the ace card in this game, making it an alternative (in some cases) or a complement (in others) to both Windows CE and Embedded Java.
Last November, Motorola, PageMart Wireless, and 3Com announced a strategic alliance that will produce simple pager cards to plug into PalmPilots. Thiss new card, which should be available in stores, this month for $169, will allow 3Com to take paging to the next stage of evolution. For example, the Alphanumeric function compares incoming phone numbers with those stored in the user’s address book. If a match is found, the caller’s name, company name and phone number appears on the screen so the user immediately knows who sent the message. It’s essentially Caller ID paging.
In addition, Motorola will deliver the Pager Card for PalmPilot SDK (Software Development Kit), allowing independent software developers to create wireless applications capable of receiving text, numeric and binary messages from the Pager Card.
This announcement was followed in February 1998 with a new partnership between 3Com and Qualcomm, makers of popular CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) telephones. Future versions of the cellular phones from Quallcom will run the PalmOS for email and Internet-based enhancements. Considering that 3Com already has a partnership with Motorola on pager interfaces, doesn’t the progression show the possibility of PalmOS also appearing on Motorola cellular phones? My Magic-8 hall tells me it’s “highly probable.”
These developments herald the beginning of a larger set of partnerships formed by 3COM over the PalmOS platform. While they’re busy developing a third version of the popular organizer (rumored to include an infrared port to exchange information between pilots and an enhanced graphical interface), the company has been targeting vertical markets. For example, don’t be surprised by the appearance Of PaImPilots with bar code readers attached to them in warehouses around the country. With those, and a built-in wireless interface, employees will be able to scan information and get data back from servers located in another part of the warehouse.
Last but not least is the support of an almost fanatical following. Hundreds of PalmPilot sites have been erected on the Internet, with new ones popping up almost daily, that hawk both hardware and software extensions for the little device. A Global Positioning System (GPS) is now available, which, regardless of your locale, places a large X on the screen and calculates the fact that ‘You are here.’ Even trade shows like Internet World are presenting their directories in a format that can be read by the devices.
While many other companies have spent a lot of time talking about creating light Internet devices, few have done as much as 3Com with what was once only an organizer.
However, new palmtops powered by Mcrosoft’s Windows CE operating system could represent heavy competition for the PalmPilot when they’re introduced. Because they copy the low form factor that’s been responsible for much of the Pilot’s success, and because they’re being pushed by the Juggernaut from Redmond, those devices will probably get ample support from Windows developers. PalmOS’ lower memory footprint and elegant OS will help it retain most of its edge. Only the future will tell whether 3COM can retain the lead it’s acquired.