Handheld Computers Becoming Popular

Thursday, July 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Brett Bendickson, a Web site developer at the University of Arizona, says he couldn't get along without his handheld computer. He reads magazine articles on it, writes down ideas and downloads every piece of interesting new software he can find.

``I've used it while on the road to log in and check e-mail and even to restart production systems,'' he boasts of his Palm IIIe.

With faster, more expandable and more useful handheld computers on the market, more Americans are opting for a pocket-size gadget costing a few hundred dollars rather than lug around a laptop computer that can cost a hefty $2,000.

Finding one to buy may be the hardest part of all.

Palm Inc., the nation's largest manufacturer of handhelds, is exceeding its own rosy sales projections, and is experiencing nationwide supply problems because of the demand.

``Even with our strong performance, demand for Palm products still outstripped supply in an environment of industrywide component shortages,'' Carl Yankowski, Palm's CEO, said in an earnings briefing.

The explosion in popularity of handheld computers has closely tracked the devices' increased functionality.

The earliest generation of Palms were little more than electronic Rolodexes — with an address book, calculator and memo pad for note-taking. They couldn't be used by workers for such routine tasks as accessing the corporate network and reading e-mail.

The latest generation from Palm, Handspring Inc. and vendors using Microsoft Corp.'s Pocket PC operating system have added all sorts of attachments, including telephone and wireless modems that allow their owners to write and receive e-mail and faxes, send and receive pages, download files and even browse the Web. The only limitation is the amount of data that can be viewed at once on the small screen.

Fellow handheld users can beam information back and forth using infrared technology, and some of their devices now come with color screens. They also have the option of add-on gadgets and software that can play music, view and take pictures, allow users to read complete books and even function as a television remote control.

The functionality is so improved that many doctors now use handhelds to keep track of patient records, and workers at some Texas oil fields and the morning hosts at an Indiana radio station use them to input and exchange information.

``For us, it's about providing our customers with choice and easy access, so they can connect wherever and whenever they want,'' said Prudential spokesman Mike Hanretta. Prudential customers and employees can access insurance quotes and stock quotes, and even find real estate listings or find a real estate agent with a wireless Palm VII. ``This way, customers aren't tethered to a PC.''

But the more the handhelds inherit from personal computers, the more they will become vulnerable to one of the perils of Internet connectivity — viruses.

Right now, there are no viruses that directly infect handheld computers or mobile phones, but researchers and security professionals agree it's only a matter of time.

David Chess, an AT&T researcher and antivirus expert, said there are two criteria that a handheld-borne virus would have to meet. First, handheld programs must be able to alter one another, or send themselves to another system. Second, users must regularly share programs or have their handhelds regularly connected to each other to ensure the spread of the virus.

The first requirement has already been met, Chess said, but Americans don't have their handhelds fully hooked up to each other yet. ``A virus that never spread off the system it's written on isn't a big problem for the world,'' Chess said.

Still, Chess said ``it's pretty much inevitable'' that we will soon have handheld devices that satisfy both requirements.

Two antivirus companies, McAfee.com and Symantec, already have developed antivirus software for Palm and Pocket PC operating systems.

McAfee's program resides chiefly on the desktop computer, with a small component on the handheld. Although there aren't any handheld viruses that infect the handheld itself, they can still be carriers.

For example, a Pocket PC user checks his e-mail wirelessly, and unknowingly receives a virus, attached to a message. There's no problem yet, but as soon as the user connects the handheld with a desktop computer to synchronize information, the virus transfers itself into an atmosphere where it can thrive.

``As wireless handhelds proliferate in the marketplace, there's a tremendous rear entry into corporate networks for viruses to be introduced,'' said Srivats Sampath, president and CEO of McAfee.com.