"Did you get a Palm VII, you [expletive]?" That's the first e-mail I received on the new Palm VII, from a jealous friend. It's not quite "Mr. Watson--come here--I want to see you!" but this gadget is the future, or the next step of it, anyway. Wireless info-appliances like this Palm Computing product hold the promise--if not quite the reality--of turning information into something less like books and more like air.
The Palm VII (Win 95-98-NT, Mac, $499) bears the same relatively sharp screen as 3Com's Palm IIIx and V, 2 megabytes of memory and the same address-book, calendar, note-taking and to-do-list software that comes on other Palm handhelds. But this model--now on sale nationwide after a New York area debut this summer--sports a flip-up antenna, tucked into the right side of the screen, that connects this handheld computer to a BellSouth wireless network.
To clear up the first misconception: That antenna doesn't let you surf the Web. Instead, you're limited to sending out queries to Web sites that offer "Web clipping" applications. These programs, when installed on your Palm VII, bring back only the data you asked for, stripping out graphics, ads and other info-poor content. Using this technology, users can do a lot of the things they already do on the Web. MapQuest's application gives directions, Yahoo's looks up phone numbers, and Amazon.com's will sell you a book. If you're craving caffeine, there's even an application that will tell you where the nearest Starbucks is.
For e-mail, the Palm VII's iMessenger program lets you fetch and send messages using a Palm.net account. If you'd rather not add yet another address to your business card, third-party applications such as ThinAirMail can access your home account (but not AOL mail). Like the Web clipping applications, these programs work reliably, but a little slowly. Palm users aren't used to having to wait for things to happen, but Internet time is slower than Palm time--even with a strong connection, it typically took about 10 or 15 seconds for data to finish loading.
I never had a problem getting connected, though, except in the Metro. Palm has coverage maps online at http://www.palm.net, the same place you can download additional Web clipping applications.
As this info flows in, money flows out, in the form of monthly service charges. The $9.99-a-month Basic Plan gets you 50 kilobytes, which 3Com estimates at about 80 Web transactions; the $24.95 Expanded Plan gets 150 kilobytes (240 transactions); and the $39.99 Volume Plan gets 300 kilobytes (480 transactions). Exceed your plan's quota and you'll pay 20 cents per kilobyte.
There are other hassles: The transmitter in the Palm VII charges itself off the AA batteries that power the rest of the device; once or twice this recharging process kept me from checking up on headlines. The Palm VII also seemed to get only about half the battery life of other Palm Pilots; once the batteries ran down to much less than a third of their full charge, the VII sometimes refused to transmit at all. These occasional nuisances suggest something less than the cast-iron dependability of previous Palm models.
All this is impressive to use, and even more impressive to show off. But if I were to invest in the VII, my usage patterns so far--222 kilobytes in a month--show that I'd probably want to sign up for the Volume Plan. But for $40 a month, I could get a cell phone that would connect me to a lot more people. The Palm VII may be the future, but for the time being, I can only afford the present.
CAPTION: The Palm VII's antenna fetches "Web clippings" out of the air.