— March 2003
By Ben Ellison
|Part 2: PDAs attract and challenge exceptionally talented developers.|
On the other hand, and back to the reverie, there are benefits to being a little computer, almost a mass consumer electronics item. In the photo on page 48 you'll see more of the accessories I've acquired from among the hundreds available. The nicely made waterproof case (see www.aquapac.net) is good enough for kayaking, let alone cruising or hiking. The folding keyboard lets me use PocketPC's stripped-down Office even though I've never had the patience to master its handwriting recognition capability.
What you can't see are all the other nifty applications I've found and loaded. For instance, a program called Pocket Stars (www.nomadelectronics.com) gives me a terrific map of the heavens, lets me check moon phases and other ephemeral data, and would even calculate sextant readings if I dusted the old thing off. Navman's SmartST street mapping software is particularly noteworthy, making use of the GPS with a level of automated plotting that's well beyond what even geeky boaters are used to. Pick a destination from its highly detailed maps or huge database of street addresses, and it will whip up a route and guide you along with nicely phrased, and amazingly accurate, instructions. The display screens and controls are well-designed to work even as you negotiate congested traffic.
Experiencing high-quality programs like these led me to the notion that PDAs attract and challenge exceptionally talented developers. Meeting the author of Maptech's Outdoor Navigator, its newest PDA software, confirmed the theory. Jeffrey Siegel started writing code in his early teens and in his 20s founded the company that first allowed doctors to work with CAT scans and MRI images on their PCs. That was the early 1980's, and there have been more FDA-approved products, more companies, and even brief retirements since. Siegel's latest FDA-approved creation is the ActiveECG, a Walkman-size cardiac monitor that outputs to a Palm PDA and drastically reduces the equipment's normal size and cost, of particular value to rural ambulance volunteers (like Siegel).
He's also an avid cruiser and had to see what he could do with the increasingly faster, and now color, Palm OS hardware. The machines still aren't as quick as their PocketPC competitors, but Siegel came up with a sophisticated compression technology that presents Outdoor Navigator's charts almost as nicely as Pocket Navigator's. He also developed an interface that most any boater or busy doctor will understand quickly. In fact, both of Maptech's PDA programs are outstanding, and it's probably more than coincidental that Pocket Navigator's developer also worked first in medical imaging.
Now the challenge for Maptech is to help consumers differentiate between the two products. The obvious distinction in OSs will go away when Siegel finishes Outdoor Navigator for PocketPC. The real difference is beyond the PDA. Instead of relying on digital charts you already own, Outdoor Navigator will include a year's unlimited access to Maptech's 65,000 charts and maps on the Web for an initial $100. Once downloaded, they are yours forever, and if you want added or updated ones, a renewal subscription will be $30 a year. This cartographic cornucopia is a dream for PDA navigators who travel widely in North America, but I'd still miss how neatly PocketNavigator relates to its PC module. Maptech tells me that in the fullness of time the two programs will likely become one, offering both modes of chart downloading.
Meanwhile, the PDA industry, and our little marine segment of it, is getting increasingly lively. Check out the new products in this section, and know that formidable companies like Nobeltec and C-Map are also working on PDA products. Both Palms and PocketPCs are being married with Web-capable cellphones into single devices, and we're seeing the first wireless GPS receivers using Bluetooth short-range wireless technology that's becoming common in high-end PDAs. Siegel's eyes light up imagining a cell/PDA simultaneously getting position from a little stand-alone GPS antenna on his cabin (or car) top while downloading the latest map. And Microsoft just launched a major push toward tablet computers that seem to combine an easy PDA-style interface with ten- or 12-inch displays quite suitable to a boat bridge.
PDA navigation is intriguing and ripe with possibilities, but bear in mind that none of the hardware noted here is designed for life at sea. There is an alternate world of handheld GPSs, some now offering color screens and detailed charts, all tougher than any PDA yet built, but none as multitalented. And, lest you forget the frustrations I've mentioned, I'll close with words of one PDA chatboard wag: "Being on the cutting edge sometimes hurts."
Maptech Phone: (978) 792-1000. www.maptech.com.
This article originally appeared in the March 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.