A PDA payday?

National | Microsoft struggles in a big new fight, a small town takes a high-tech name, and other technology news

Issue: "The Sudan crisis," June 10, 2000

Mammoth battle over pocket-sized computers
Even facing a breakup at its door, Microsoft is still battling to increase its computer market share. The new battlefield is in the world of personal digital assistants, or PDAs, where four out of five devices sold come from a Microsoft competitor, Palm Inc. These handheld gizmos combine the notepad, organizer, calendar, and personal phone book within a pocket-sized computer. They have no keyboard; the user "writes" on the screen with a stylus that feels like a pen. Microsoft wants a bigger piece of this growing market. As with Windows, the company makes software and lets others make the actual hardware. So far, the road has been rough. A previous PDA operating system, Windows CE, was an underachiever; a product called Pocket PC replaced it. But Palm still outsells Pocket PC by a 10-1 ratio, according to market researcher PC Data. One of the more promising Microsoft products is a $499 PDA from Hewlett-Packard called the Jornada. It has most of the usual calendar and date book features. In addition, users can move files from their desktop PCs to these PDAs and read them later in color. They can also make digital recordings with a built-in microphone, store music files in the MP3 format, and listen to them on headphones. In a few years these devices-regardless of operating system-will simply be incredible. People will use these things for many of the tasks for which they currently use a desktop computer (including Internet use). PDAs likely will absorb the function of the cell phone, steno pads, and portable music player. The computing trend is toward portability and ubiquity-and this is a battle Microsoft can't afford to lose. Dot-comville
Remember when sticking "dot-com" on any name was a way to make it sound cool? Even though it seemed like an unnecessary appendix outside the Web browser, it will go down in history as the fad term of the '90s. Does the dot-com tag change anything? Not really, if you ask the people of Halfway, Ore. An e-commerce company convinced the tiny, isolated Pacific Northwest town to unofficially change its name to Half.com in January. A website (sponsored by the company, which owns the name) bills the tiny town (population 345) as "a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts." In exchange for renaming itself for a year, Halfway gets $75,000 from the real half.com. Like the residents of Truth or Consequences, N.M., Halfway's residents hoped for an influx of curious tourists. Instead, the name change was just another little-noticed high-tech publicity stunt based on pure hype. Life in Halfway today is about the same as when the East Coast marketing team showed up. There's plenty of backpacking, llama excursions, and snowmobiling, but there still aren't many computers or websites. "The only people that are going to come here in hordes are the ones who love the things that we do-the isolation," said Diana Glynn, who works for the city council. "There may not be too many of those." Halfway's name change may be the silliest thing thought up by desperate dot-com companies. Before the market dropped, online startups tried everything from Las Vegas extravaganzas to Super Bowl ads to get attention. Much of it was wasted. Everyone, it seems, tried to "think out of the box" at once. dot-com U.
Everybody talks about the future of education online, but who actually takes such classes? We may see some people try with Barnes & Noble University, which will offer free classes in hopes students will buy books over the Net. Starting this summer, classes like "Introduction to Jazz," "Online Investing," and "Walking Through Shakespeare" will be available for the curious. A company with the curious name NotHarvard.com, in which Barnesandnoble.com has an equity stake, runs the site and hopes to attract authors who will teach classes based on their books. Classes can last from one day to 12 weeks, and students usually don't have to show up at a particular time. These non-credit classes are taught in chat rooms and by e-mail instead of in a classroom. This is a step toward real distance learning, an industry that could give State U. a run for its money in a few years. Many schools are offering degree programs online. This may not empty the campuses, but it may give those with limited resources or geographic limitations a shot at an education. It may even challenge the monoculture that exists in today's academia.

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