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The Web World In Your Hands

01/26/01 11:22:21 AM PST
by David Penn

Bigger than a Palm but smaller than a laptop, web pads and tablets combine portability with multifunctionality to offer computer users the best of both worlds.

If Palm PCs too closely resemble the old Texas Instruments pocket calculators you used to misplace regularly, and you're tired of letting big personal computers take up half of your desktop, then maybe -- just maybe -- the web pad is for you. But before you leap from the relatively safe havens of pocket and desktop PCs into the cutting-edge world of web pads and tablets, you might give some thought to just what niche your web pad should fill.

For all the differences between pocket, notebook, and desktop PCs and the world of web tablets, there's also a world of difference between the web tablets themselves. And deciding which web tablet might be best for you can mean choosing between remote access, modular design, or your own preassembled little Internet community.

WHERE DID LITTLE WEB PADS COME FROM?

Web pads (or web tablets; the two terms are used almost interchangeably) fit literally in the space between desktop PCs and small palm-sized units such as the Palm and Compaq's iPaq Pocket PC. With dimensions the rough equivalent of a magazine (such as this very copy of Working Money), a thickness of about an inch, and weighing from 2.5 to 3.5 pounds, web pads tend to look much like an Etch-a-Sketch toy. But that's where the similarity between web pads ends. Some web pads, such as the Clio, sport a modular design that allows a nearly full-sized keyboard to fold out. Others, such as the ePodsOne, have connec-ions for keyboards, and a few, including the Qubit Web Tablet, come equipped with a wireless keyboard that is effective up to 200 feet away from the screen.

As their name suggests, web pads are most useful for surfing the Internet. Most web pads are not, for example, equipped with a hard drive for loading and storing applications. Qubit, for one, takes great pains to encourage those interested in its Web Tablet to use Internet application service providers (ASPS) for heavy-duty word-processing or spreadsheet-building.

Most web pads do come with some familiar PC software, usually a simplified word-processor not unlike Apple Macintosh's SimpleText or Windows' WordPad that can be used to produce e-mails, as well as write letters and term papers. In addition, many web pad companies insist that web pads not be seen as a replacement for a desktop PC. The web pads profiled here all feature processing power between 130 and 170 MHz (roughly the equivalent of an Apple PowerBook 1400) -- not very much by today's 600 MHz standard, but plenty for most of the basic computing and web surfing applications.

Portability is probably the most salient feature of this "next wave" in personal computing. In fact, web pad companies already have ads suggesting that their users use the units in kitchens, backyard hammocks, and front porches, cradling the Etch-a-Sketch-sized computers while writing information directly on the touch-sensitive screen with a stylus, or entering web browsing commands on an on-screen keyboard. The size and weight of most web pads make them more ideal for travel than their laptop cousins, whose six or seven pounds in many cases may have worn through more than one carry-bag strap. And for those travelers who have felt as though half of their laptops' battery life was wasted simply waiting for their laptops to boot up, web pads typically start up almost instantly with little more than a tap of the stylus or the touch of a finger.

PRESENTING EPODS

As far as ePods, Inc. (epods.com), is concerned, there are three things a web pad needs to join the portable PC club: portability, practicality, and simplicity. In these three, the ePodsOne, the company's first web pad product, succeeds like no other web pad yet developed. For portability, the ePodsOne is among the lightest web pads, tipping the scales at a mere 2.2 pounds. With 16 MB of RAM, the ePodsOne is equipped to handle basic tasks such as web surfing and writing and sending e-mails, as well as notes, reports, and letters. EPodsOne users can purchase a keyboard that plugs into the web pad unit, or simply master the onscreen keyboard, which responds swiftly to touch commands. The ePodsOne is on the less expensive end of the web pad price spectrum at only $199 -- though there is an additional $24.99 per month for 36 months in order to take advantage of ePodsOne's full Internet capabilities.

EPODSONE. The ePodsOne is among the lightest web pads, tipping the scales at a mere 2.2 pounds. The ePodsOne is equipped to handle basic tasks such as web surfing and writing and sending e-mails, as well as notes, reports, and letters.


The screen on the ePodsOne is smaller than that of the average laptop computer (measuring approximately 8.2 inches), but it is nonetheless a high-quality, color Dtsn screen with 640x480 resolution capable of displaying 256 colors. The ePodsOne, like most web pads currently available, runs on Windows CE and includes Windows Pocket Word among its chief software features.

As for both practicality and simplicity, the ePodsOne comes with a 56K modem card, as well as a pair of universal serial bus (USB) ports to allow for speedy data transfer from printers, Palm units, or other ePods. The eight-hour battery, which recharges in only three hours, adds a few ounces to the overall weight of the unit. But the ability of the ePodsOne to last the duration of an entire transcontinental flight while half of the laptops in first class have long since spun down their drives more than makes up for the slight additional heft of the unit.
 
One of the unique strategies that ePods, Inc., has developed for building a customer base is by providing an Internet web community just for ePods users. In much the same way that AOL has established itself as more than just an Internet service provider (ISP) and Apple Computer has set itself up as more than just a computer manufacturer, ePods, Inc., is trying to make sure that the hundreds of people whose first Internet experience will come through an ePodsOne will develop a relationship with both the unit and the "Internet digest" provided by ePods, Inc. This digest consists of news, shopping sites, and consumer and travel tips -- all culled from the vast resources of the Internet and edited into brief, readable summaries. It is little surprise that ePods, Inc., is targeting those who are both unfamiliar with personal computers and the Internet for the first generation of ePods.

TOO COOL CLIO

While the Clio, whose newest model, the C-1050, sits on the opposite end of the price spectrum compared to the ePodsOne (the Clio retails for $995, compared with the ePodsOne's $199), Main Street Networks has added enough features and functionality to make the Clio's price worth it as a highly mobile desktop partner. Most notably, the Clio features a modular design that allows the unit to be used as a laptop computer, a web pad, or even a desktop presentation easel. In addition, the Clio comes with built-in handwriting recognition software for use when the Clio is in web pad mode, and a 10-hour rechargeable battery for taking your Clio on the road.

CLIO. The Clio features a modular design that allows the unit to be used as a laptop computer, a web pad, or even a desktop presentation easel.


Sizewise, the Clio is similar to the ePodsOne. The Clio weighs slightly more at 3.2 pounds than many web pads, largely because of its modular swing design. The Clio's screen is also a bit larger, offering 9.4 inches of viewable area, though still smaller than the average laptop screen.

Where the Clio really does set itself apart from some of the other web pads on the market, however, is in its computing power. The Clio comes with a processor capable of speeds up to 168 MHz and features 32 MB of Ram and 24 MB of Rom. This extra memory is what enables the Clio to pack Windows Pocket Office Professional into its small 8.75-inch by 11.25-inch by less than 1.0-inch thick frame. Windows Pocket Office Professional is a smaller version of the popular Windows Office suite of productivity tools and includes Pocket versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and Internet Explorer -- all customized for use with portable handheld com-puters such as Compaq's iPaq Pocket PC and web pads such as the Clio.

The Clio also comes with an installed 56K modem and ParaGraph CalliGrapher 5.3, natural handwriting-recognition software that means that two-fingered typists may finally have found a computer interface that works for them. And for those who find even handwriting to be too much of an effort on occasion, the Clio's touch screen provides instant one-finger interactivity for accessing files, manipulating presentations, and surfing the Internet.

Bargain-conscious web pad shoppers will be pleased to know that Main Street Networks has even begun offering cut-rate, reconditioned Clio units for about $750. The reconditioned Clios have all the features of the new models and even come with a warranty. Ram upgrade kits, as well as car kits, rechargeable battery packs, and keyboard covers, are available separately at the clio.com website.

THE QUIBIT COMETH

Qubit's Web Tablet falls between the ePodsOne and the Clio in terms of price, functionality, and ease of use. Unfortunately, average computer users will have to wait for the Web Tablet, insofar as the makers of the unit anticipate that early demand for the unit will outpace supply for the first few months. The longer-term view for Qubit's Web Tablet includes sales through such e-commerce vendors as Amazon.com, as well as retail, bricks-and-mortar electronics stores. Mass production of the Web Tablet was scheduled for third-quarter 2000, with the first units shipping at the end of the year.

QUBIT WEB TABLET. One of this web pad's most anticipated features is the ability to use the unit up to as far as 200 feet from its base transmitter, a feature few laptop manufacturers offer as yet. The Web Tablet ships with a wireless keyboard for those more comfortable with the old-fashioned sound and feel than typing with the onscreen keyboard, also provided.


So is Qubit's Web Tablet worth the wait? The unit is slated to weigh as little as the ePodsOne, only 2.5 pounds, and will feature a touch-sensitive, active matrix screen with 781 x 600 resolution. One of the Web Tablet's most greatly anticipated features is the ability to use the unit up to as far as 200 feet from its base transmitter, a feature even laptop manufacturers have been slow to adopt (the Apple iBook being the most notable exception). The Qubit Web Tablet ships with a wireless keyboard for those more comfortable with the old-fashioned sound and feel than typing with the onscreen keyboard that is also provided.

The Web Tablet works with analog (dial-up) modems, as well as with Dsl router/modems and cable modems so users can take advantage of the best Internet connectivity options available. The unit also comes with a simplified word-processor to facilitate e-mail and brief projects such as letters and schoolwork. Like other web pads, the Qubit Web Tablet comes with an infrared port in order to attach printers and other peripherals.

The anticipated price range for Qubit's Web Tablet is anywhere from "less than $50 to a top price of $500" according to a company Faq, which is quite a range. Assuming the wireless Web Tablets are not going to sell for $75, the units are still well-priced between the cheap-with-a-catch ePodsOne and the costlier Clio. But as more and more companies develop web pads -- both Honeywell and Acer have web pads of their own that will be on the market in 2001 -- the biggest challenge to Qubit might be in getting its Web Tablets on the shelves before there's no more shelf space left.

CONCLUSION

In many parts of the world, locals tell newcomers that if they don't like the weather, just stick around because it will change soon. The same idea increasingly applies to technological handicrafts like web pads. While each of the three web pads profiled here have as much functionality as anyone could want in a portable computer device, the future of these machines is such that many people would rather wait and see what the technology brings tomorrow rather than commit themselves to the technology of today.

What are they waiting for? For starters, most companies making computing devices are working toward increasing wireless capabilities, and web pad makers are no exception. The Qubit Web Tablet is among those out in front of the pack when it comes to applying wireless technology to web pads and, if they are successful, other web pad manufacturers are sure to follow suit. In addition, to make web pads even more user-friendly and less PC-like, better speech/voice recognition software is being developed by companies such as Lernout and Hauspie, Ibm, and SpeechWorks International, among many others. Much of this software is likely to be incorporated into future generations of portable computing devices -- including future web pads.

But if your web pad future is now, there are plenty of devices available at a variety of price points. And there are more on the way. Sony has developed a product called the "Airboard," which is little more than a 10.5-inch monitor that operates very much like the web pads featured here -- even if its price, about $1,100, puts it on the most expensive end of the web pad spectrum. Perhaps the mother of all web pads, though, is a unit called the QBE. The QBE costs about as much as a top-of-the-line laptop computer at just under $3,000. But for that price, the QBE provides a 400 MHz processor, 13.3-inch display, and full version of the Windows 98 operating system. Add to this both handwriting and speech recognition software, and a built-in digital video camera. While a couple of thousand dollars may be more than you want to spend on a device that is a companion to your PC, increasing demand for web pad devices -- and their greater interactivity compared to PCs -- could bring the price of even a web pad like the QBE down to Earth. And then all those longing for the middle ground between laptops and pocket PCs just might find that even the big-ticket web pads fit just right.



David Penn

Technical Writer for Technical Analysis of STOCKS & COMMODITIES magazine, Working-Money.com, and Traders.com Advantage.

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