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THE CUTTING EDGE / PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY

Embedded Software Puts Power in Your Palm

May 05, 1997|MICHELLE SLATALLA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Saxophonist Keith Felch used to lug around a date book to keep track of his hectic schedule--upcoming gigs, the 50 private students he teaches each week and appointments at his Downey recording studio.

"It got heavier and heavier, until it was like trying to carry around a phone book," Felch said.

Then one day last fall, he bought a hand-held device called the U.S. Robotics Pilot, which promised to organize his life with its electronic date book, address book, to-do list and memo pad.

"Within five days, I was paper-free," Felch said. "Musicians tend to have a lot of strange, different activities to juggle, and so it was really helpful. In fact, I just sold my old Pilot to a guitarist. I upgraded to the new one."

No longer just conversation pieces for gadget freaks, a new generation of specialized digital electronic devices is starting to come of age. These new tools--from "personal digital assistants" such as the Pilot to full-blown computers that allow you to browse the Web to wireless phones that send e-mail--rely on inexpensive 32-bit microprocessors and stripped-down software operating systems, known as embedded software, that control their functions.

Today's hand-held computers are cheaper, more powerful and faster than in the past--and are far more useful than the original Apple Newton, whose high price tag and eccentricities inspired mockery.

The widespread availability of Internet connectivity now makes it possible for the devices to offer e-mail and Web browsing capabilities--and experts predict an explosion of new products over the next couple of years, some of them priced at less than $100. Although U.S. Robotics won't release sales figures, industry analysts estimate that the company has sold more than 1 million Pilots since the product came to market a year ago.

And the new technology isn't limited to hand-held devices. Smart phones, Net-connected TVs and--perhaps within a decade--even Web-enabled kitchen appliances all will rely on the same kinds of powerful but low-cost hardware and embedded software.

Experts say a growing embedded software industry could generate $5.6 billion a year in revenues by the turn of the century.

"These kinds of devices will be great for people like my parents, who I would love to communicate with via e-mail, but they're computer-phobic," said Greg Jones, a spokesman for Texas-based Uniden, which last month started selling a $299 telephone that downloads e-mail. "But if a product looks like a phone, or a TV--and not like a computer--they'll be comfortable using it."

Microsoft's announcement last month that it would buy WebTV, a Silicon Valley start-up that sells a $300 set-top box that connects a television to the Internet, sent a strong signal that software companies see a big future in this area. Microsoft last fall released a scaled-down version of Windows known as Windows CE and is expected eventually to bring some kind of simplified version of Windows to the WebTV box.

Experts caution that many of these new, consumer-oriented electronics devices are still in the experimental stage.

"People are talking about stoves that hook up to the Web so the repairman can diagnose a problem remotely, but I don't really see the GE Tomorrow Land pavilion from the World's Fair becoming reality suddenly," said Josh Bernoff, a senior analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.

The challenge now is to use the same technologies to create easy-to-use consumer products.

For a company like Illinois-based Spyglass, the embedded software market offered a chance to retool its Mosaic Web browser for a lucrative new opportunity. Spyglass' Microserver software can connect almost any kind of machine to the Web and enable it to browse online.

"We realized three years ago that browsing technology shouldn't be a product on its own; it should end up inside other devices," said Doug Colbeth, Spyglass president and CEO. "You can hook up anything to the Web, like gas pumps, touch-screen phones, even office copiers. Think of how much easier it makes it to maintain and monitor the machines."

In the hand-held computer arena, seven manufacturers have adopted Microsoft's Windows CE as their operating system. Casio's Cassiopeia, a hand-held computer that sells for under $600, was the first to ship, beginning in late 1996.

"For consumers, it's a familiar product," says Scott Nelson, who heads sales technical support for Casio's New Jersey-based U.S. unit. "They already know how to run Windows, so it's easy to learn. And while an early hand-held, like the Newton, was a closed system, a lot of developers are writing applications for Windows CE already."

Indeed, analysts say a key to success in this area is to carefully target the product to particular functions, rather than creating something that tries to be many things to many different people.

When designing the Pilot, U.S. Robotics made a conscious effort to redefine the product and distance it from previous incarnations of hand-held computers, said Donna Dubinsky, general manager of the Palm Computing Division of U.S. Robotics. "The radical thing we said was that it was an extension of your PC, not a replacement. You dump to the PC's hard drive at night, you print from the PC, and during the day you carry around the Pilot."

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Freelance writer Michelle Slatalla can be reached via e-mail at mslata@echonyc.com

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