HPLX.NET EDITORIALS 10-12-1998
Despite all the technological advances in palmtop computing (if you consider Windows CE and PalmPilots advancement) in the past couple of years, most 200lx users have welded their palmtops to their fingers because it is still the most powerful for their needs. Unfortunately for us die-hard LX users, we live in a market frighteningly gutted of LX vendors by powerful forces which desperately struggle to suppress the old, open standards with new money-making schemes and proprietary code. The future is abandoned, and we're left to our dreams.
Despite these depressing signs, I have a vision for the 200LX. Not really a dream -- a dream may be too fanciful and unrealistic to ever come to pass. But what I'm thinking of here is more than that -- more than just a wish, it is a plan of action that we palmtop users can take to ensure our survival. It will benefit all palmtop users, young and old, new and experienced, rich and poor. It may not be an easy dream to fulfill -- skeptics say it may not even be possible. On the other hand, if Hewlett-Packard's engineers had listened to those who said "It's not possible," where would we be today?
Let's start with some basic assumptions. First off, we're probably stuck with the hardware we've got. We can't expect miracles; nobody is going to come up with a color display for the 200LX. The Hornet chip is not going to be swapped out for a low-power 486. Double-speed and more memory, that's probably all we're going to get. (This is one instance where I would absolutely love to be proven wrong by a brilliant and independently wealthy engineer.) So how can our palmtop ever hope to match up to a 75MHz RISC-powered handheld?
Software, obviously. The suite of applications that come with our 200LX are unmatched in the palmtop world. In addition, we have a wide variety of older DOS programs at our disposal; our palmtops can run over eighty billion existing programs, according to one recent survey which I just made up (but which gets the point across). All of this gives us a distinct advantage over the newer, "better" palmtops. But when was the last time you heard of a computer gaining greater popularity just by existing? If we just sit back and act self-satisfied, secure in the knowledge that nobody will ever match us for number of programs to run, it won't be long before some group of enterprising PalmPilot users prove us wrong, and a giant consortium of Windows CE programmers teaches us who's boss (right before Microsoft initiates a hostile takeover of them, of course). Therefore, we must keep developing software for our platform -- and not only programs and games and utilities and the like, but more. Much more.
Operating systems and environments are needed for the 200LX. Building System Manager compliant programs is a good thing, of course, but I think we're making faulty assumptions here-- that with the 200LX, System Manager compliance is the ultimate. It's not! Maybe back in the days of single-speed palmtops with 1MB and 2MB of internal memory, the sort of thing I'm about to propose would be impractical. You'd be laughed right out of HPHAND for even bringing it up. But now that we live in an era where 128MB palmtops lurk on the horizon, where society is beginning to accept 64MB and 32MB C: drives as normal, where all decent citizens aspire for at least an 8MB upgrade, and where every guy living in the gutter can scrape up enough money to get a speed upgrade... It becomes practical in such an environment to begin to think about far more radical changes to our basic palmtop culture.
Abolish the System Manager! Such revolutionary words may spark fear in the hearts of many, but I have no doubts about the ability of my readers to instantly grasp what I mean. The System Manager, delightful as it is, is far out of date. The task switching could be better; memory usage could be vastly improved; programming for it is a tedious chore. I propose that it should be possible for a talented palmtop programmers to create a NEW System Manager, one that can exploit todays faster and bigger palmtop to the fullest. With expanded memory, we could open fifty programs at once and switch with a keystroke. We could incorporate Software Carousel-ish performance and let it switch between DOS applications without a hitch. We could create a PAL-like library and make it easy for even beginning programmers to write compliant applications. Heck, it might even be possible to do genuine multitasking -- think of DesqView. It'll do genuine multitasking on the palmtop, but eats up a ton of conventional memory. A second generation of System Manager, with everything we have available to us now, could easily do that and more. We may have a lowly 16-bit 16MHz CPU, but by golly, we're going to squeeze every last drop of performance out of it that we can.
Applications? No problem. With a powerful and easy-to-use programming library, we will attract lots of new software authors. Imagine what fantastic financial applications we might have if any programmer could just noodle around on the palmtop for a few weeks and come up with an application. Rather than having to deal with the quirks and limitations of Pocket Quicken, we could have several competing products to choose from. A little bit of competition will be healthy for the 200LX. The money for this market might not be as a tremendous incentive, but for adding to your ego, it's certainly worthwhile. We palmtop users are more than willing to heap praise on talented programmers. How many times have we listened to complaints about the Application Manager's limits, or the slow speed of Datacomm, or the lack of calculation operators in the Database? If only we had an open standard that anybody could program for! The person who needs a more powerful word processor than Memo would be able to create one. The chemistry student who needs a more graphical editor to take notes could get one. The physician with needs for a large, quick database would have those needs fulfilled.
I see a bright future for the 200LX -- if we work at it. I see a future where we multitask among dozens of applications at once without giving a thought to memory. I see a future where a unified and open programming standard allows a new generation of palmtop programmers to write applications that will unite our palmtops together. I see a future where a person can schedule rent payments in the Appointment Book and, on the appropriate day, have Pocket Quicken (or the equivalent) automatically set up a transaction and, by calling the communication program, dial up your bank and do the transaction for you. I see a future where an integrated web browser will automatically go out, search for updated databases or currency exchange rates, retrieve it, and integrate it into your calculator app or phone book, while you sleep.
It's not that radical a proposition, really. It's already possible to boot a rudimentary version of Minix on the palmtop. One member of the HPLX-L mailing list has begun a project to create an LX-specific Unix clone code-named "LXix." And just look at what's been done with the HP48 -- if it can be done for a calculator, then for heaven's sake we can do it for our palmtop.
That is my vision for the future of the 200LX. If we can do this, and I'm certain that we can, we can build our humble machine into something so powerful that no PalmPilot, no Psion, no Windows CE machine can ever hope to match it. We will triumph and become a world power in palmtopdom!
And then, of course, Microsoft will put us out of business in five minutes by opening a new "200LX support" division. But hey, that's life.
Copyright 1999, David Sargeant.
Last Updated 1-2-1999