A riddle: How can you be slavishly devoted to a Windows-based computer and still be proud that you've rebelled against the millions who use an operating system that has a virtual monopoly in the market?
The answer? Buy a palm-sized organizer with Windows CE.
For two years now, I've organized my life with a "hand-held computer" based on Bill Gates' miniaturized version of Windows. And all the while, most of the people I know have flocked to the other organizer--the Palm.
Used by more than 3 million people, the various flavors of the Palm dominate the growing hand-held market. But for me, it always seemed like nothing more than a glorified calculator. And an expensive one at that.
When WinCE (as it's known) came out, I bought an early model because it promised the power of such desktop applications as Word, Excel and Outlook in the palm of my hand, and with me wherever I went.
That promise went largely unfulfilled. My first WinCE device was bulky and slow, with little memory and a screen that you'd have to squint to read even in a perfectly lighted room. I downloaded my address book into it, but eventually the device spent more time in my briefcase than out of it.
Now things have changed.
In their second-generation form, WinCE devices are about the size of your basic Palm. They fit in your hand, and you use a stylus to tap or write letters. And like the Palm, you can sit them in a cradle next to a desktop computer, so the two can automatically transfer data back and forth.
Like he did with the MS-DOS operating system in the battle against Apple Computer Inc., Gates has licensed the CE operating system to a variety of companies, giving customers like me more of a choice in hardware. (Palms come only from 3Com, though IBM sells a clone machine called the WorkPad.)
The machine I chose has 16 megabytes of memory and a screen you can actually read. I use the thing constantly.
I type notes for a story in Microsoft Word on my office computer so I can drag a copy to my CE device and take them with me for those inevitable calls from editors late at night. The 1,010 people in my computer address book are also on my CE machine. And I keep track of my automobile mileage on a mini-Excel spreadsheet.
A modem lets me check e-mail or connect to the Internet from any phone, and I use a headset from my Walkman and a 10-megabyte flash card--sort of a mini-hard disk--to play music files that I've downloaded from the Net.
Meanwhile, my friend Tim raves about his new, top-of-the-line Palm, called the Palm V. "It's incredibly sleek, and it doesn't have those memory-hogging Windows programs," he says. "Did I mention it's incredibly sleek?"
And my father wonders why I would use such a thing in the first place.
When I told him I'd created a file on my WinCE machine recording where I'd parked at Dulles International Airport recently, he asked why I didn't just write that information on the ticket itself.
He makes a good point.
And though I'm sure I've become more organized (and that's the point, right?) I'm still getting used to relying on a battery-powered machine for managing important information.
Last week, before heading off to cover a political fund-raiser in McLean, I entered the driving directions and contact information into my CE device and put it in my pocket. Then I wondered what would happen if my batteries died. I paused, then scribbled the same driving directions and contact information on a piece of paper and stuffed that into my other pocket.
Just in case.
CAPTION: It looks like a Palm, but it's actually a Windows CE-equipped competitor--which offers versions of Word, Excel and other familiar Microsoft applications.