Gadets galore: Technology allows business community to communicate faster

Thursday, April 20, 2006
(Photo illustration by Diane L. Wilson)

Sandy Helwege's workplace has wheels. It's her car.

"I have a mobile office," said the Cape Girardeau real-estate agent. "I have all of it."

And Helwege -- who works at Coldwell Banker -- has all the high-tech gadgets she needs to do almost any facet of her job, from making phone calls to finding an address.

She has a personal digital assistant -- think BlackBerry -- that allows her to access her e-mail, keep a calendar and maintain an electronic Rolodex with all of her contact phone numbers.

Her PDA even has a built-in electronic key that allows her to get into the houses she's showing.

She has a cell phone. A lap-top computer. A navigation system.

"I can do anything from my car," she said. "I can even print stuff out. It's worth the money. I have to have all that available."

And all of her gadgets are adaptable for car-charging.

"That way I don't have to deal with 18 different batteries," she said. "But being in constant communications is just critical in this business. That's the name of the game."

Technological advances and slowly falling prices are combining to change such gadgets from an expensive luxury into business tools for a growing number of the working world.

"People want to stay in touch," said Don Hinkebein, operations manager at JCS/Tel-Link in Cape Girardeau. "That's why this stuff is becoming so popular."

Almost 195 million Americans -- 65 percent of the population -- own a cell phone. There are more cell phones in the United States than land lines, and the market for them continues to expand.

PDAs are also growing in popularity. According to a Gartner market study, the overall market for PDAs grew by 20.7 percent in the third quarter of 2005, compared to the same quarter in 2004.

PDAs, for the uninitiated, are handheld devices that were originally designed as personal organizers, but became much more versatile over the years. A basic PDA usually includes date book, address book, task list, memo pad, clock and calculator software.

Newer PDAs also have both color screens and audio capabilities, enabling them to be used as mobile phones, web browsers or media players. Many PDAs can access the Internet, intranets or extranets via Wi-Fi, or Wireless Wide-Area Networks (WWANs).

Many original PDAs, such as the Palm Pilot, featured touch screens for user interaction, having only a few buttons usually reserved for shortcuts to often used programs. Touch screen PDAs, including Windows Pocket PC devices, usually have a detachable stylus that can be used on the touch screen. Interaction is then done by tapping the screen to activate buttons or menu choices, and dragging the stylus to for example highlight text.

PDAs for business use, including the BlackBerry and Treo, have a full keyboard and scroll wheel or thumb wheel to facilitate data entry and navigation.

The term "personal digital assistant" was coined on Jan. 7, 1992 by then Apple Computer CEO John Sculley at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nev., referring to the Apple Newton.

Earlier devices like the Psion and Sharp Wizard already had the functionality to be considered PDAs, however. In fact, PDAs by other names were available as early as the mid-1970s -- first as very advanced calculators, then as electronic organizers, and later as palmtops. The major PDA operating systems are Palm OS, Windows Mobile and RIM for the BlackBerry.

Hinkebein said other technologies are improving all the time. New wireless Internet cards allow customers to surf the Internet and check e-mail on their lap-tops without a land-line connection.

"You put it into a lap-top," he said, "so that you can access the Internet without having to plug in."

PDAs are almost a standard tool for many in the business world and Hinkebein said they are becoming very affordable. Features like Mobile Web also allows people to access their e-mail with their regular cell phones.

"It's pretty popular," he said. "It's affordable and easy. It's not cumbersome."

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