About three months after I ordered it, my Compaq iPaq 3650 finally arrived. The 3650 is the latest evolution of the personal digital assistant from Compaq. It runs the most recent generation of Windows CE, which is now called Windows for the Pocket PC. In addition to storing appointments and notes and synchronizing my calendar and eMail, this new device runs scaled-down versions of familiar Windows programs such as Word, Excel, Access, and Internet Explorer.

Unlike other PDAs, the Pocket PC operating system supports file attachments in eMail messages and features several multimedia capabilities, such as full-color graphics, a built-in MP3 player, and a “quick record” button that allows you to annotate notes, appointments, or Word documents with a short audio recording. With the release of this new OS, Microsoft has launched an earnest attempt to grab some market share from the overwhelmingly popular Palm OS.

The iPaq weighs only 6.3 ounces, but despite its slim design, it features a wealth of expansion capabilities. Using special attachment sleeves called “expansion packs,” users can connect the iPaq to PC Cards or Compact Flash cards to add network cards, modems, or memory expansion cards. It retails for about $500, but the price through Compaq’s Education sales division was $477.

I was told the shipment delay was because Compaq wasn’t able to produce enough units to meet the demand. Product statements on Compaq’s web site refer to the “unprecedented demand” for this product and allow users to sign up for eMail notification when more units become available. Compaq doesn’t anticipate being able to meet this demand fully until December.

This high demand is, I think, indicative of a segment of the technology market that is being underserved by current technology. This segment of users wants more functionality and Windows integration than a Palm Pilot can provide, but greater mobility and faster access to specific data than is available in their laptops and at a more affordable price. Students make up a significant portion of this market.

The highly mobile and fast-paced day of most students demands a technology solution that is easy to carry and instantly accessible. For a number of years, schools have explored laptop computers as an answer to this need. Toshiba and Microsoft have done more work in this area than anyone else with their Anytime Anywhere Learning (AAL) program. This program attempts to remove the classroom walls as boundaries to the learning process by providing every student with a laptop computer. Program designers think that with 24-hour access to computers and the internet, students are likely to spend more time learning outside the classroom.

While some schools have ventured bravely ahead with “Anytime Anywhere Learning” by giving laptop computers to all their students, the vast majority of schools have been content to wait on the sidelines. Most schools have found finances to be the biggest obstacle to providing $2,000 machines to several thousand students. Other schools have been skeptical about the impact of such a massive investment on student performance.

I think the core goals of laptop learning are sound. I’m just not sure the technology is there to support it. In addition to financial issues, there are ergonomic and logistic issues to consider—such as a 15-pound pack that students invariably get tired of lugging around, or waiting three minutes for the machine to boot up so they can jot down a note. After using the Pocket PC for a couple of weeks, though, I think this device, which sells for a quarter of the cost of a laptop, could be a step in the right direction.

Unlike laptops, which very few people actually use on their laps, the Pocket PC lives up to its name. I carry mine in my pocket all day. Its slimmed-down operating system and use of random access memory and read-only memory to store all programs and files allow it to turn on and boot up instantaneously. This gives me access to my data within seconds. It also makes it easier to keep track of all those little bits of information I used to jot down on scraps of paper and then promptly lose—like telephone numbers, error codes, and tech support case numbers.

In the hands of a student, this instant and highly portable access is what AAL ought to be. Sharing history notes or looking something up on the internet can be done in a matter of seconds. Book bags don’t have to be placed on the floor and space need not be cleared to open up a laptop. Students don’t have to search for a network jack or power outlet. A few taps of the stylus on the Pocket PC’s screen, and these tasks—which would be rather tedious on a laptop—can be done quickly and efficiently.

In addition to scheduling and note-sharing, Microsoft hopes to provide its users with plenty of reading material. All Pocket PCs come standard with Microsoft Reader, software that allows you to download, read, and annotate electronic books. As the publishing industry and educational community begin to realize the value of electronic publishing, this 5-inch by 3-inch device could replace a student’s entire book bag.

While Pocket PCs are clearly a giant leap toward true AAL, I don’t think these devices are ready for prime time yet. There are still a number of drawbacks that would make me leery of recommending a wholesale adoption of Pocket PCs for students at any given school.

They really are designed as personal organizers rather than communication or information-sharing devices. They seem more adept at synchronizing with a desktop computer than interacting with a network operating system. While they support wireless networking, network cards or modems must be purchased separately and can increase the total cost of the device by almost 75 percent. Even when it is achieved, this network access seems more suited for internet and eMail access than accessing networked data, such as files and printers.

Data input is another serious shortcoming. While these devices are great for storing small clips of information, inputting anything longer than a short note or an appointment becomes tedious using either the soft keyboard or the handwriting recognition system. While the high-contrast screen makes reading text a little easier on the eyes than the average computer screen, it still doesn’t come close to paper.

As is the case with most technologies, smaller size means the sacrifice of features. Just as laptop users have to be willing to sacrifice features available to the desktop user, PDA users need to be willing to trade some functionality for such a small footprint. It will be some time, though, before PDA technology gets to the point where its available features make it a must-have for all students. Given the fact that the average laptop is vastly more functional than computers that took up entire rooms 25 years ago, I’m sure these features eventually will trickle down to handheld devices. There are a few things the Pocket PC really ought to have, however, before it can be of much use in the classroom.

Some of these features include:

• Faster, easier input, such as voice recognition technology or a much-improved handwriting recognition system;

• A screen that is easier on the eyes;

• Longer battery life;

• More built-in memory;

• Built-in, high-speed wireless internet access;

• Access to shared files on networks;

• Improved client-side scripting in Internet Explorer;

• Native support of networked printers; and

• The ability to connect to a liquid-crystal display projector.

In the short term, I see these devices as excellent tools for administrators who need mobile access to data they can get through a web browser or eMail. I’m sure the ability to call up a student’s attendance record or grades from the school’s intranet instantly would be a valuable asset. Some teachers might even be interested in keeping their textbooks in the Microsoft Reader library, which provides quick access to all annotations, highlights, and bookmarks. I’ve talked to a number of people, though, who are pretty resistant to the idea of reading an entire book on that little screen.

I think asking my students to compose their term papers on one, however, would amount to cruel and unusual punishment. They just aren’t suited to doing the types of tasks that students would require them to do, like composing large documents or taking notes quickly in a lecture. However, they will help organize, connect, and inform those students and teachers who are willing to put up with their shortcomings.

It seems clear that, eventually, all students will have some type of personal computing device. This device likely will be somewhere in the middle of today’s Pocket PC and the laptop computer. It also seems clear that this revolution won’t take place overnight. Since Pocket PCs don’t really change what you do, just how you do it, they probably will coexist in classrooms with paper and pen for a number of years.

Schools may choose to accommodate this revolution by making some changes now, such as installing wireless networks, selling Pocket PCs to students who want them, and providing electronic versions of textbooks on their web sites for students to download. Before these devices become commonplace in schools, however, manufacturers and software developers need to recognize this segment of the market and begin to develop devices that serve its unique set of needs.