Desktop to go Featured

10:05am EDT July 22, 2002

When it comes to remembering appointments, project schedules and phone numbers, most business owners still rely on their DayTimer, their personal secretary, or (shudder) their memories. But if sales of PIMs are any indication, increasing numbers of CEOs are letting their styluses do the walking.

PIMs are electronic personal information managers. With megabits of memory, backlighted touch-screens, plastic styluses for data entry, and synchronization of computerized information, PIMs are easy to spot in the hands of tech-oriented execs at meetings, restaurants and airports. 3Com Corp. has sold more than 1 million of its PalmPilot units, while a baker's dozen of competitors are gaining market share with Windows-compatible products. "They're here to stay," says Bary Sherman, CEO at the Institute for Business Technology-West in San Diego. "And I think the prices are going to drop dramatically over the next 18 to 24 months."

The first PIMs debuted more than a decade ago with tiny screens and keyboards and memories capable of storing dozens of addresses. Today's PIMs store thousands of phone numbers and addresses, hundreds of appointments with alarms, and transfer data between desktop computers and the handheld device. Some offer e-mail and Web access. But the true success of the new-generation PIMs can be measured by the number of suits-and-ties flipping them open for quick access to data. "I can't hardly go out for a pizza in Brooklyn without seeing someone pull one out of his pocket," says Robert S. Anthony, senior writer for PC Magazine, who compared PIMs for that publication in March.

After the earlier withdrawal this year of Apple Computer's star-crossed Newton PIM, the market offers two basic types. First, 3Com's Palm products were first out of the gate, with a 6-ounce, shirt-pocket size organizer and a starting price around $300. Reviewers gave it high marks for ease of use, though its proprietary operating system made it a difficult fit with Microsoft's then-emerging Outlook PIM software. The Palm III, the latest 3Com offering, has developed the largest following of independent software products (more than 3,000 at last count), many of them available as freeware or shareware over the Internet.

Second, Microsoft roared into the race last year with its Windows CE operating system, the platform of choice for PIM hardware vendors from Philips to Compaq to Sharp. CE's primary advantage appears to be the resemblance of its user interface to that of the Windows 95 operating system: check pull-down menus, pop-up queries and icons. CE products may come with a miniature keyboard or touch-screen or both. Reviewers generally rate Palm products easier to use, but favor Windows as the eventual winner for market share simply because of Microsoft's 80 percent-plus market share.

Choosing which is right for you can be difficult because, Anthony says, "No matter what you buy, something better is being sold tomorrow." The key, he and Sherman agree, is to figure out exactly what you need a PIM for. If being alerted to appointments, having your Rolodex handy, or editing e-mail while waiting in line is important, a PIM could help. If you need a keyboard, or extensive note-taking capacity, or video-presentation capability, stick with your notebook computer.

Using a PIM in a real-world setting is the best way to choose. Unfortunately, the sales desk at your local retailer can't simulate the effect on the PIM's screen of your office's fluorescent lights or direct sunlight, or the rush to your next sales call. Find a retailer with a good return policy, Sherman suggests; two weeks to 30 days is best. Avoid those with restocking fees. Buy a PIM and try it in your business environment. If you return it in like-new condition with all packaging and documentation intact, you should be able to trade it for a more suitable model if necessary.