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Computer Counselor - December 1998

Palmtops and Handhelds Can Help Roving Lawyers Get a Grip

Calendars, Rolodex information, and basic documents all fit into these true portables

By Daryl Teshima

Daryl Teshima is the editor-in-chief of Law Office Computing, a bimonthly magazine devoted to legal technology. He can be reached on the Internet at 

Computers are assuming some new and interesting shapes. Palmtop digital assistants (PDAs) are computing devices that do not hide within a bulky metal box that must be connected to a power outlet. They let you take your practice to places where no computers have gone before. PDAs can be about as small as a deck of cards or as large as a thick paperback book. 

PDAs have increased in popularity because-unlike a notebook computer with all of its attendant accessories-they can fit inside a briefcase, purse, or shirt pocket. These units also specialize in common tasks performed on the go, such as viewing contact information, checking to-do lists, and browsing the Web. 

Clearly for many legal road warriors, PDAs are the ideal travel companion. With notebook computers, obtaining a client's phone number or the address of a meeting requires a number of time-consuming steps. First, users must find a work area big enough to allow them to open and operate the notebook. A coach plane seat or phone booth may not be enough. Second, the notebook requires charged batteries or a power outlet to run. Plus, users have to wait several minutes while their notebook computers start. That is a lot of work simply to retrieve one phone number. 

PDAs overcome many of these limitations at a price substantially lower than their notebook counterparts. Since they can fit within the palm of one's hand, they can be used almost anywhere. Unlike notebook computers, many PDAs accept standard, easy-to-find alkaline batteries, which may last for months in the typical unit. Finally, PDAs are ready for use within seconds of being started. 

All these conveniences come with major tradeoffs. It is difficult to input any information into PDAs, for example, because of their diminutive size. Data entry is typically performed with a calculator-size keyboard or a shorthand-style handwriting recognition system. PDAs thus are best suited to composing quick memos and e-mail messages, not lengthy contracts or appellate briefs. These devices also do not have the storage or computing power of their notebook and desktop counterparts, which limits them to running proprietary or streamlined versions of popular applications. Limitations such as these are what prevent PDAs from serving as an attorney's primary computer. PDAs can, however, upload and download. 

Works Well with Others

Many popular PDA devices can now synchronize with widely used personal information managers (PIMs), including Lotus Organizer, Microsoft Outlook, ECCO Pro, GroupWise, Symantec Act!, Sidekick, and GoldMine. Users can readily take advantage of a supported PIM, synchronizing key information with the push of a button. 

Those who use an unsupported PIM or application are likely to find that synchronization can be a frustrating process. Some PIM information, such as calendars and to-do lists, are almost impossible to transfer without a direct link, since there is no standard format for importing and exporting this type of information. Users can, however, synchronize contact information from unsupported applications, provided that data from the unsupported program can be imported and exported using a common database format (for example, comma-delimited, tab delimited, or d-Base). 

Users can simplify this procedure with programs such as Puma Technology's Intellisync (pumatech.com) and Starfish's TrueSync (starfish.com) that can function as translators for many of these unsupported applications. Another good source, particularly for legal case management programs such as Abacus, TimeMatters, and Amicus, is the case management software vendor, who may offer (or customize) a synchronization link for the particular PDA that a customer wishes to use. 

PDAs come in two primary groups-handhelds and palmtops. Clamshell-shaped handheld PCs look like miniature notebooks, complete with shrunken keyboards and screens. Palmtops look more like electronic clipboards. Which one is best depends on how the PDA will be used. 


Many attorneys do not want a handheld computer while away from the office. Instead, they want a small device that contains all their schedule and contact information but can fit inside a jacket or purse. Rather than a portable computer, they need a smart electronic Rolodex. Palmtops are ideal for this purpose. Their best feature is their compact size. Most palmtops weigh less than six ounces and are no larger than a deck of cards. Their price-between $300 and $400-is also agreeably small. 

The most popular palmtop is 3Com's family of PalmPilots (palm.3com.com/home.html). PalmPilots run on their own proprietary operating system, which boasts a built-in calendar, address book, to-do list, and memo pad. Instead of a keyboard, users enter most text and commands with a stylus on the PalmPilot's touch screen display. PalmPilots use a handwriting recognition system called Graffiti. Each character is entered in the Graffiti Writing Area at the bottom portion of the display. Once a word or character is entered properly (it takes a lot of practice), Graffiti translates it into electronic type. Those unable to master Graffiti can type words letter by letter using an on-screen keyboard display. PalmPilots have other limitations besides data entry. Their displays are monochrome, and only the newest models have sufficient backlighting to allows users to view data where no external light is available. 

PalmPilots are also facing stiff competition from Microsoft, which has launched its own palmtop software platform (microsoft.com/windowsce).  Microsoft-based palmtops run Windows CE 2.x, a trimmed version of the Microsoft Windows operating environment. Several new contenders boasting the Windows CE operating system have entered the palmtop market, including Casio's Cassiopeia E-10 (casio-usa.com), Everex's Freestyle Manager A-15 (freestyle.everex.com), and Philips Nino 312 (nino.philips.com). The Microsoft-based palmtops share the basic features found in PalmPilots (including a handwriting recognition system called Jot) and include a voice recorder. The ability to record short notes and reminders helps mitigate a palmtop's data entry shortcomings. Although PalmPilots currently have most of the market share, they will have to match such features as the voice recorder to retain their position. 

PalmPilots, however, have several advantages over their Microsoft counterparts, including speed, simplicity, and a large library of available software. The 3Com device works right out of the box, a rarity in computing. PalmPilots are perfect for retrieving phone numbers or jotting down a quick reminder. Best of all, 3Com has a major jump on the Windows CE devices in developing software and applications for the platform. From financial calculators to global positioning satellite mapping programs, over 5,000 applications have been written for the PalmPilot, including at least 600 freeware programs that can be downloaded at Tucows (pilotzone.com) and Ray's PalmCentral Software Archive (palmcentral.com). 

Handheld PCs

Attorneys who want a lightweight alternative to notebooks yet still need to use Microsoft Office applications such as Word and Excel should consider handheld PCs. Handhelds are like shrunken versions of the desktop computer; they include a keyboard and screen. Although the first generation of handheld PCs were only slightly larger than palmtops, newer models are substantially bigger, weighing close to two pounds and measuring 8" x 4" x 1.5"-too big to fit into most shirt pockets. 

With the added bulk come features found on modern notebook computers. Handheld PCs offer large color displays and reasonably usable keyboards. Like their palmtop counterparts, the displays of handheld PCs are touch-sensitive, permitting use of a stylus to navigate the Windows CE operating system. For example, pressing the onscreen Start button causes program menus to appear, the same as clicking Start with a mouse in Windows 95/98/NT. 

One big difference between handhelds and palmtops is data entry. Rather than using a handwriting recognition system, users of handhelds input text using a miniature keyboard. Many of the keys are the size of the buttons on pocket calculators, making it difficult to compose and edit long documents. Due to this limitation, it is important to test the handheld PC's keyboard thoroughly before purchasing. 

In addition, most handheld PCs possess more memory and storage space than palmtops, allowing them to run a more feature-laden version of the Microsoft Windows CE operating system. Handheld PCs can also run "pocket" versions of the Microsoft Office suite, including Word, Excel, Outlook, and Internet Explorer. Users who already use these Microsoft applications will find that these devices give them a familiar interface, making a new device easier to use. 

The pocket versions of these well-known applications are more limited. To conserve memory and space, for instance, pocket Word cannot read files saved in a native Word 97 format. Microsoft suggests that users save a file in RTF format if they plan on editing it with a handheld. In addition, if there is no pocket version of a particular application (for example, such non-Microsoft products as Corel WordPerfect and Netscape Navigator), then it cannot be used in the Windows CE environment. 

This limitation does not necessarily apply to peripherals. Many handhelds, like Hewlett-Packard's 660LX (hp.com/handheld), also come with a PC card slot similar to those found in most notebooks. Using this slot, users can easily add modems, network cards, and other PC card devices. Other models, such as the Philips Velo 500 (velo.philips.com), include a built-in modem and a voice recorder. To record a memo, users simply close the machine, press a button on the lid, and speak into the microphone on the side of the case. Each megabyte of memory is good for about 16 minutes of recording. 

These features come with a higher price tag. Generally, handheld PCs with a color display are nearly double the price of palmtops and within a few hundred dollars of entry-level notebooks. Making the consumer's choice even more difficult is the 1999 release of Windows CE 3.0, which will support the universal serial bus, larger screens, more powerful processors, and longer-lasting batteries. As is frequently the case in the computer market, the more customers arm themselves with knowledge about what their needs are, which applications they need, and how they will be using a new palmtop or handheld, the more likely they are to be able to find their way through the maze of options. 

The computer market is leaving no niche unfilled. Those whose busy lives require an end to paper clutter can augment their desktop systems with handheld devices that can keep track of names, dates, lists, and other vital information. When portability is paramount, the palmtop is the better choice. Lawyers who prefer to have a computer with a keyboard may wish to consider a handheld device. In either case, lawyers who no longer consider leaving their desks without the electronic schedulers and other applications that keep them organized have options beyond heavy laptops.

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