PDAs Boast More Advanced Features - InformationWeek

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1/13/2006
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PDAs Boast More Advanced Features

Speech recognition, text-to-voice, and handwriting-recognition technologies let people get more out of their PDAs.

The ability to access E-mail and the Web from almost anywhere has made PDAs popular among business professionals and is expected to drive their growth into all types of worker categories in the coming years. Yet there's no getting around the productivity challenge that comes from the small size of these devices.

It's not easy to scroll down a Web page or sort through 50 E-mails on a screen not much bigger than a Post-it note. One solution is software that uses speech-recognition technology to let mobile users ask their PDAs for the information they need, such as IBM's WebSphere Everyplace Multimodal Environment. A person can request that the PDA display all the E-mail received from Joe Smith or to search the Web for the address of a hotel in New York. Using text-to-speech technology, the software allows PDAs to literally tell users the requested information, an advantage for PDA-toting drivers trying to keep their eyes on the road.

"People aren't used to interacting with information services on their phones, so they're shocked to find out how easy it is," says Igor Jablokov, director of multimodal and voice portals at IBM's software group. WebSphere Everyplace is based on Web services, so the requested data is fed instantly over standard Web protocols, using XHTML and the Voice Multimodal Markup Language.

TPhatWare's CalliGrapher software turns handwritten scrawl into typed text.

TPhatWare's CalliGrapher software turns handwritten scrawl into typed text.
IT departments can use the software to make voice-recognition and text-to-speech capabilities available on PDAs and smart phones for employees, and equipment manufacturers can offer it as an option. IBM wouldn't disclose which equipment makers will offer it. The WebSphere Multimodal Toolkit, which can be used to develop voice-enabled Web applications, is available as a free download, but using it requires a Rational Application Developer for WebSphere license. Any network that supports Web browsing can handle the voice features, Jablokov says. The software is as easy to install on a PDA as adding an alternate Web browser to a laptop computer, he says.

Although IBM claims WebSphere Everyplace doesn't require speaker training, speech recognition continues to be limited in vocabulary and may not work well when there's a lot of background noise. But as the technology improves, it will eventually result in "PC grade" speech recognition on mobile devices and replace the keyboard for certain data-entry tasks, research firm Gartner predicts.

Those aren't the only voice and audio capabilities emerging for PDAs. Kirkland & Ellis LLP, a global law firm that supports about 1,500 BlackBerry users, recently started a unified-messag-ing test that stores voicE-mail messages as sound files and sends them over the network. They look like E-mails and can be forwarded to colleagues as attachment files. Once the system is fully implemented, attorneys will be able to view and listen to the messages on a laptop or a PDA.

"I see the next generation of [mobile] devices being more voice-based as E-mail systems are upgraded to support unified messaging," says Steve Novak, the law firm's CIO. The firm upgraded its voicE-mail system and integrated it with Lotus Notes, which will serve as the company's universal in-box.

PDAs As Notepads
Yet another PDA annoyance is the difficulty of typing on tiny keys. PhatWare Corp.'s CalliGrapher transforms mobile-device screens into notepads, translating handwritten notes to text. "Using a keyboard on a small device isn't really practical, especially for typing long messages or recording a lot of information," says Stan Miasnikov, PhatWare's president. Competing products are available from FranklinCovey, Paragon Software, and Zi.

The latest version of CalliGrapher supports Windows Mobile 5.0 and is compatible with Palm Inc.'s new Treo 700w smart phone, the first Palm device to use a Windows operating system.

Still, the software sometimes has trouble deciphering penmanship. If PhatWare's product doesn't recognize a word, it returns several suggestions that a user has to sort through. Additionally, using a stylus to write on a small PDA screen takes some practice.

Yet handwriting recognition on mobile devices can make a big difference for some businesses. In the legal industry, transcriptions are a large part of the business, Novak says. Kirkland & Ellis is testing tablet PCs, which are considerably larger than PDAs, with handwriting-recognition capabilities. During trials, lawyers can write notes on their tablets, convert them to text, and immediately E-mail them to colleagues. "It helps automate some of the manual processes that exist in the legal industry, and any industry, for that matter," Novak says. Migrating to PDAs would be the next step because they're more mobile than tablet PCs, he says.

None of these options for PDAs works perfectly. In some cases, the technology needs to mature a bit; in others, there always may be a little room for improvement. But they all succeed at moving beyond some of the limitations of PDAs and will help fuel their growing popularity.

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