Palm and PocketPC devices have been fading in the last couple of years. Sony dropped out of the market, Palm has had financial struggles, and there’s been no buzz for new features because almost no one uses the devices for anything except address book and calendar functions. There’s been increasing demand for devices that also display e-mail on the road; many PDAs began to incorporate 802.11 wireless networking, but that means the device is only updated when an open network is nearby. The Blackberry has been very successful for mobile e-mail access but it typically doesn’t include phone or PDA functions.

The market has been poised for cell phone manufacturers to build PDA & e-mail functions into a cell phone. There have been lots of attempts, but many of them have been clumsy and unappealing. Most of the devices based on Microsoft PocketPC technology are too large to be comfortable when pressed against the ear for a phone call. Some of the others have screens that are too small to be usable for e-mail. There’s no good answer for data input on that small a device; Blackberry users get skilled using their thumbs on a miniature keyboard, but few people really enjoy writing with a stylus on a Palm or tapping at a miniature onscreen PocketPC keyboard.

Enter the Treo 650, the first device that truly seems to get everything right. It’s currently available on the Cingular/AT&T and Sprint networks, and Verizon will begin offering it soon.

The Treo is based on the Palm operating system and connects to a computer with familiar HotSync software. I’ve wrestled with HotSync for years but new devices sync more reliably and the Palm software seems to have worked out its love-hate relationship with Outlook. Calendar and contacts sync seamlessly with Outlook.

There’s a lot of things to like. The size is right; it’s a little bigger and heavier than a cell phone but comfortable to hold, and the screen – bigger than a typical cell phone – is crisp and readable at 320×320 resolution. The keyboard is surprisingly usable. There’s a 640×480 camera and a slot for an SD card to hold photos, music, or programs.

The cell phone carriers are working out the details of Internet access. The Treo can go online to sites that are optimized for mobile surfing, but only by paying an additional monthly fee. The phone cannot be used as a modem supplying an Internet connection to a computer, though – the technology is there but the cell phone carriers have disabled it, presumably because they have no idea how to price it.

The Treo does, however, demonstrate the first interesting use of Bluetooth that I’ve seen. Bluetooth-enabled headsets (I bought the Jabra Freespeak BT250) truly allow the phone to stay in a pocket, with no dangling wires. And more and more people have Bluetooth-enabled cars that recognize phones and automatically activate a built-in speakerphone when you enter the car.

And my clients using Microsoft Small Business Server 2003 are in a special position that makes the Treo compelling: the Treo can sync with your Outlook e-mail and calendar from anywhere. Exchange Server 2003 offers “Outlook Mobile Access” and the Treo supports Microsoft ActiveSync to the extent needed to send and receive e-mail over the cell phone network, with no extra cost and only a small bit of setup.

It’s an exciting little bit of equipment – a little pricey, but if everything works it will be worth it. Only one thing hasn’t changed: Cingular’s service also doesn’t work in my home office west of Sebastopol. Verizon didn’t work in the house either, and neither did AT&T before it. Sigh.

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