Mobile communications: Dual action

A great idea to combine a personal digital assistant with a mobile phone but, asks <i>Charles Arthur</i>, how do they measure up in practice?
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The Independent Online

If you want to send and receive e-mail and surf the web on a mobile device (aka personal digital assistant, or PDA), don't wait for the fabled "3G" services – you can do it right now. And I have, trying out the RIM Blackberry, a handheld aimed specifically at big-spending corporate users, and the Handspring Treo, which is much more of a PDA for the rest of us.

If you want to send and receive e-mail and surf the web on a mobile device (aka personal digital assistant, or PDA), don't wait for the fabled "3G" services – you can do it right now. And I have, trying out the RIM Blackberry, a handheld aimed specifically at big-spending corporate users, and the Handspring Treo, which is much more of a PDA for the rest of us.

The Blackberry is in vogue among big American corporations – nearly 40,000 businesses have provided them for their staff, and since it started trials in the UK in autumn 2000, it has attracted a prestigious clientele, which mm02 (formerly BT Cellnet) says includes more than half of all law firms located within the City of London and a large number of blue-chip banks, finance houses and IT firms.

However, nobody would ever call it cheap. The handhelds retail at between £359 and £399, depending on how many you buy, and you also need server software to send the messages to them: that's the BlackBerry Enterprise Server software, costing £2,500 (including the first 20 licences, each of which is one-off). The high-speed GPRS airtime with mm02 then costs between £29- £39 per month per user. Oh, and add on VAT.

Ranged against that is the Handspring Treo, which rather neatly integrates the function of a phone into something the shape of a PDA. However, it's rather cheaper than its rival – £299 if you buy it with a new tariff with mm02 (again), or £499 if you already have a mobile tariff, in which case you just slide in your SIM card and carry on. It uses plain old GSM, though GPRS is coming later this year.

Put side by side, the two devices are very similar. Though the Treo does offer an optional drawing version, most people will surely prefer the Qwerty keyboard model, which like that on Blackberry, seems at first to be designed for ants, but can be easily typed on, using your thumbs. Practice will yield a reasonable speed, but put off those plans for a novel.

Do they work on the move? Sure. The Blackberry is very efficient, as GPRS seems to get everywhere, a sort of electromagnetic Japanese knotweed. GSM, by contrast, is not too reliable for data.

In terms of usability, it's a close race – but for me the Treo edges ahead because of its voice capability (though that's coming later this summer to the Blackberry) plus the fact that you can use all the software available for Palm PDAs – including programs to read documents of all flavours, including PDFs, (small) spreadsheets and the myriad of free programs that enhance it. (I recommend Metro, a journey planner that knows the train and tube systems of cities around the world, and Vindigo, a restaurant guide for 23 US cities – and, crucially, London.)

Personally, though, I wouldn't pay for either just yet. The Treo has serious flaws – which stem from its Palm operating system. When Jeff Hawkins designed the Palm OS, he didn't think about security. You can password-protect a Palm – but not by default. You can password-protect a group of contacts – but they won't get searched. And when you upload your files to your PC they're open to anyone who gets on to your machine: there's no way to password-protect those files. It makes one very wary of putting valuable details on board. But what else is a good PDA for?

Those glaring errors are the reason that the BBC recently announced that employees would be banned from using Palm OS machines. Palm has had plenty of time to improve this, but ignored it, and now it's paying the price. At least you can lock the Treo's phone function using the SIM card's PIN system – but neither Palm nor Handspring can exactly claim that's their handiwork.

By contrast the Blackberry has good security; you can set a password default, and the e-mail that comes out of your server to be beamed wirelessly over the network is heavily encrypted. But it lacks the open architecture for programs of the Palm; frankly, it comes over as valuable but dull.

Am I having it both ways? Not exactly. I still hanker after my defunct Psion 3. It had a reasonable-sized keyboard, default passwords, optional passwords on files, a spreadsheet, word processor, database and calendar, and it fitted in your jacket. Too bad that Psion always put connectivity (to PCs and the net) at the back of the queue. Had it grasped its value first, it could have ruled the PDA world. Instead it's dust. And we're still using second-best solutions.

network@independent.co.uk

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