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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story
Color Me Complicated
Multi-hued screens set new palmtops apart

By CHRIS OLIVER



Wei-Leng Tay for Asiaweek

The television industry was reborn when color replaced black-and-white picture tubes some 40 years ago. Handheld computers are getting the same treatment today. Recently reaching Asian markets are the first palmtop PCs to offer high-quality color display screens: the Jornada 420 from Hewlett-Packard and Compaq's Aero 2100. Alas, while the devices may appeal to those with an irrepressible love of gadgetry, they are unlikely to herald a revolution.

Both machines were designed for mobile professionals and are powered by lithium-ion batteries that last at least six hours between recharges. They pack more punch than the average desktop computer of a few years ago. The Jornada has a serious eight megabytes of memory, belying its toylike purple housing and flimsy plastic screen cover. The sleeker, silver Aero is available with 16 megabytes of RAM.

Not merely digital organizers, both devices are capable of handling a variety of tasks, from recording audio memos to checking stock quotes downloaded from the Internet. (Despite the color screen, Web pages do not translate directly to the handhelds. Pages are displayed mainly as text, without images.) Each device includes scheduling, appointment and finance software, all of it designed to work seamlessly with Windows-based desktop applications. Each comes with a cradle for recharging and linking with PCs. Aero owners can even download free "talking books" and music from the Internet (www.audible.com/compaq) for playback on the run.

But in a market where ease-of-use is a crucial consumer consideration - witness the success of 3Com's simplistic Palm handheld - the color machines seem likely to meet resistance. Both use Microsoft's Windows CE operating system, which is supposed to make palmtop devices simpler by mimicking the familiar desktop Windows interface. In reality, CE users have complained that CE-based handhelds can be confusing to run. Applications take long seconds to load, and saving files is needlessly complicated. There is no particularly intuitive way to access data or move between applications.

Then there's the portability factor. The paperback-sized Aero and Jornada are a little too big to carry inside a jacket pocket. The color screens and extra features translate into a couple of porky palmtops. They each weigh less than a pound, but their heft is not inconsiderable when you are trying to travel light.

Microsoft's software engineers have reportedly started work on a simpler version of CE, although it's not clear when it might be released. The move could help turn the tables in the handheld market, where CE-based devices have a 15% share compared with 77% for the 3Com Palm. In Asia, manufacturers in the Microsoft camp are doing better. Machines running CE accounted for roughly one-third of shipments outside Japan last year, according to International Data Corp. That's about the same proportion as the Palm platform.

Both 3Com and Microsoft offer Chinese-language versions, and handheld computer sales are expected to surge over the next five years, says IDC. Still unclear is whether Asian buyers prefer their digital assistants plain or fancy. If the Jornada and Aero are yardsticks, color equals complexity.

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