San Mateo County Times

Palm computer is not just for nerds, goes everywhere
Saturday, August 8, 1999

By Liz Garone

The makers of the PalmPilot say it can go anywhere -- the store, the train, the beach. But the honeymoon?

When Michael Bergen and his bride, Beth, traveled to Britain, they were accompanied by his personal digital assistant.

With it, he was able to download a map of London's subway system, directions to the different inns where the couple planned to stay and ferry schedules to Ireland and Wales. He also used it to keep notes on what they did each day.

Beth said she had no qualms about sharing time with her husband's digital helper. "It's not as though Mike took a computer to play games with," said Beth, a junior high school teacher in Oakland. "It was just very convenient and very useful."

A lot of people are finding that personal digital assistants, once the play thing mostly of Silicon Valley techno-geeks, are increasingly useful for the average person.

Santa Clara-based 3Com has the lion's share of the market, having sold more than four million PalmPilots since they debuted in 1996. Palms are about 3 by 5 inches -- roughly the size of a man's shirt pocket (where they can easily be stored). Most of the space is taken up by a screen, similar to a laptop computer.

Like their cell phone counterparts, Palm users take their handhelds out just about anywhere -- even on pulpits.

Gaylon Thompson, a 39-year-old postal worker in Alamo, Tenn., has taken to downloading scriptures posted on the Web to his Palm III.

When it's his turn to read, he no longer needs to lug his 4-inch-thick Bible up with him to the front of the church; he just pulls his 6-ounce Palm III from his back pocket. "Yeah, I get a few weird looks, said Thompson. But, my biggest fear is that my batteries will die while I'm up there. Then what?"

As Thompson and others can attest, Palms are no longer the sole domain of techno-nerds. "For a long time, it was seen really as just a geek toy or an executive toy," said Los Altos high school junior and Palm user Mikey LeBeau. "But, now, you've started to see everyday people with them everywhere. And for everyday uses."

Jonathan Hopwood, a Stanford University librarian, uses his Palm like a glorified shopping list. Anything he needs to do or buy gets programmed into a giant "To Do" list he keeps on the Palm.

For Ralph Helm, a San Jose social worker, the Palm is a convenient way to keep track of clients' phone numbers, addresses and his appointment times.

But there is also a cult following of Palm devotees, people who use the Palms for much more than shopping and addresses. These are the guys who write their own programs specifically for the handhelds and devote countless hours to building unofficial but elaborate Palm Web sites.

Michigan resident Terry Conklin has set up a separate section on his business Web site where Palm users can tell tales -- photos included -- of taking their Palms to the earth's far reaches.

There's a Palm sitting solo on Hawaii's active Kilaeua volcano with lava streaming by and another Palm 16,500 feet above Wharton, Texas, attached to the hip pocket of a skydiver.

Palm groupies also meet in person. User groups can be found all over the country, and the Bay Area has a number of them. Stanford has its own, which meets once a month to discuss new uses -- and to show off the latest tricks and accessories -- for Palms.

On a recent Tuesday evening, some 15 Palm users crowded into Printer's Ink Cafe on California Avenue in downtown Palo Alto.

One by one, Palms, in every hue and model, emerged from hip pockets, shirt pockets, belt loops, briefcases and a single purse.

New members and old alike -- almost all male and 30-somethings -- sat transfixed as Thierry Locard, a computer sales rep from San Francisco, surfed the Web on his Palm IIIx attached to a wireless modem.

Between bites of falafel and slurps of espresso, people crowded around and queried Locard. "What do you pay for something like that?" asked one man. "How fast is it?" questioned another.

But, Locard's time in the spotlight proved short-lived.

All eyes immediately turned to the group's president, Flash Sheridan, as he pulled 3Com's latest model, a Palm VII, from his front pocket. The Palm VII, the first model with a built-in antenna for wireless Web clipping (a less intensive version of Web surfing), is for sending e-mail.

Palm VIIs are only available to the general public in the New York-New Jersey area. (Sheridan got the model ahead of everyone else because he works for 3Com)

Bay Area stores won't start selling them until the fall, according to a Palm spokeswoman.

But that didn't stop 15-year-old LeBeau, who had to have the latest Palm as soon as it hit store shelves -- anywhere.

"I just couldn't wait," said LeBeau. "I called all over the place, and Comp USA in Queens (New York) said that they would ship me one."

A couple of days and $650 later, he was the proud owner of the Palm VII.

For now, he's using it to organize his summer schedule and phone numbers. He'll write a few of his own programs for it. But, soon, he'll return to school.

A boring government class? No problem, said LeBeau.

He can surreptitiously hit the Web with the Palm in his hand.

The Stanford Palm Users Group meets the first Tuesday of every month at 7 p.m. at Printer's Ink Cafe in Palo Alto. For more information you can check out the SPUG Web site at: San Francisco also has a Palm users' group. SFPUG meets on the third Thursday of the month at Club-I. The group's Web site is:

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