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Personal computers are finally taking a hit – at least for domestic Internet access. From April through July of this year, there was a 12 percent increase in U.S. households owning non-PC digital devices that can connect with the Internet.

These numbers, from the research firm Media Metrix, mean an increasing number of people are capable of accessing the Net with handheld digital devices such PDAs, cellphones and inexpensive Internet appliances.

As of July, the firm says 7.4 million American households owned such devices, up 12 percent from 6.6 million households in April 2000. These statistics represent a whopping 48 percent annual growth.

This trend is coming at the expense of traditional personal computers. "Almost 1.4 million, or about 20 percent of the households who own these devices, do not own a PC," Media Metrix analyst Bruce Ryon told Reuters.

"Moreover, between April and June 2000, ownership of these non-PC devices grew twice as fast among households without PCs than households with PCs," Ryon said.


Perhaps one of the reasons for this explosive growth of non-PC equipment is the significant improvement in the performance of portable computing devices, both in hardware and software. There is no better recent example of these advances than Hewlett-Packard's new Jornada 720, a 1-pound, $999 handheld computer with a performance that would have been science fiction only a few years ago.

Using Microsoft's new Windows for Handheld PC 2000 operating system and application suite (the next generation of what used to be called Windows CE), this new Jornada accomplishes most basic computing tasks without the complexity, instability and technical challenges of a full-blown PC. It packs this computing power in a package so small that it can travel anywhere without being a burden.

Among the features that make these new non-PC devices attractive is "instant on" – no boot-up – that lets you resume work just where you were when you switched the device off. Nine hours of battery life means all-day use without being near an electrical outlet.

Because the essential operating system and applications are embedded in ROM, a fatal crash does not mean having to reload software components from a CD. If you've backed up your data to a compact flash card, it's as simple as taking a few minutes to restore all files to the device. This brings real peace of mind when on a road trip.


Another bonus with the new technology is processor speed. The Jornada 720 has a 206 MHz StrongARM processor, 51 MHz memory data bus, 2D graphics acceleration and it uses synchronous MROM for faster access to data. In other words, it screams.

Among the profound improvements over earlier devices is the Jornada’s handling of Web pages. It features a new browser – Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.01 for Handheld PC – which provides embedded support for HTML 4.0, Jscript, animated GIF images and Java applets using HP’s application, ChaiVM 4.1.2. Unlike previous Windows CE devices, most Web pages are displayed quickly and accurately.

Even though the 6.5-inch, VGA color display is small, it’s capable of handling up to 65,536 colors. Images are sharp, clear and very readable. It’s the same issue with the two-thirds full-size keyboard. The keys are small, but excellent tactile feedback (1.5mm keystroke) makes the keyboard very usable for touch-typing.


The software behind the Jornada 720 and other new models soon to come include pocket versions of Microsoft’s standard business applications such as Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint. In addition, Microsoft Windows Media Player and a stereo audio jack are included for listening to electronic music files in stereo. The audio quality is quite good.

Adding to the convenience of the Web-browsing experience and e-mail access while on the go, the Jornada 720 comes with a built-in 56 kbps v.90 modem and HP’s Dialup Version 2.0 application, which – from a built-in database – provides a quick-and-easy modem connection from almost any location. I was able to check my e-mail from a phone in a train station in less than a minute.

Though portable Internet technology is improving across the board, not all devices are easily usable for all applications. Ever tried answering e-mail on a cellphone? Those keys were never designed to create text. Same with the Palm devices if you haven’t mastered the handwriting recognition software.

The Jornada 720, which I liked, has a real keyboard – a concept I’m used to when creating words. It runs all day, doesn’t crash and is simple to operate. That’s my idea of real progress.

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.