RealTime IT News

Where There's a Palm, There's a Way

It turns out Palm OS 4.0 products do have an option for Wi-Fi.

Yesterday we reported that future drivers for the SanDisk Secure Digital (SD) Wi-Fi card would only support palmOne devices running the Palm OS 5.x. The SanDisk card already supports most Pocket PCs with SDIO slots. That seemed to leave hardware running Palm OS 4.x stranded without an 802.11 solution.

After that story was published, we got a note from Enfora of Plano, Texas, which specializes in taking all sorts of products wireless. For the last four months or so, they've been shipping the Wireless LAN Portfolio (model WP802b). This is a case with a black denim cover (they also plan to offer leather) that holds your Palm handheld on one side and connects it via the universal connector port on the unit's base to an 802.11b card and antenna on the other.

Enfora is mainly in the cellular side of wireless, having helped develop the first CDPD standard, says Michael Long, senior director of strategic development. The company now focuses on GSM/GPRS connections for product portfolios (similar to the WP802b), and has an alliance with chipmaker Texas Instruments.

The $169 WP802b ($149 for educational markets) works with almost all products with the palmOne universal serial connector on the bottom. That port is usually used to synchronize the handheld with a computer. Devices supported include most of the inexpensive Zires, and some of the new Tungstens. Even Garmin's Palm-based device with built-in global positioning system can use the Portfolio. Long says a slightly different production run was used to create their first set of products for the M-series of Palms, using a different connector. Those units are still available.

The portfolio does not support Sony Clié devices, but Long says the company is considering a version that would connect to those PDAs. He says the next version will likely use a mini-USB connector like that found on the new Tungsten devices.

The Wi-Fi module and antenna have their own battery (when it charges, it also charges the PDA). "We'll compete any time with SD or CF (Compact Flash) because of the power [they use]," says Long. "Using an SD card on iPaq will drain it fast."

That extra power is also a key to getting what Long calls "unbelievable range" with the Portfolio. In internal testing at their headquarters, he says, the product can get 110 percent more distance than the Tungsten C with its embedded Wi-Fi. Their testing also shows the Portfolio to have a range 80 percent greater than an HP iPaq Pocket PC using a CF Wi-Fi card.

"The screen [on the PDA] causes noise that interferes with the embedded device ... not being on the internal side gives us better range," he says.

One of SanDisk claims when they announced they wouldn't support 802.11 on the Palm OS 4.x hardware was that the performance would not be up to snuff. Long admits that could be an issue even with the Portfolio, as the universal connector port is a bottleneck. It prevents the devices from getting more than 115 kilobits per second (Kbps) in throughput -- a long way from the 4 to 6 megabits per second of Wi-Fi.

However, he says palmOne's Tungsten C with integrated Wi-Fi only does between 300 to 400 Kbps anyway. "There's a noticeable difference, but we're not talking ten seconds here."

Also, he agrees with SanDisk that some of the Palm OS 4.x units out there do need software upgrades for full networking support. He points to the Garmin unit as an example. But, he argues, "there're a lot of people who want this functionality" no matter what the roadblocks.

Ultimately, he says, the goal is to take the millions of devices out there and try to extend their life and usefulness by adding Wi-Fi.

Right now, the Wireless Portfolio is available direct from Enfora and at MobilePlanet, though the product is currently on backorder. The company expects the Portfolio to be available at a couple of major national retailers in early 2004, and it will soon be sold at the online Palm Store.

The Portfolio product is currently in testing for Wi-Fi Certification from the Wi-Fi Alliance.