Just about the time you get used to your trusty notebook computer, new devices are making their way into the meeting planning arena. They come in a wide range of types and shapes (Palms, PocketPCs, Blackberry pagers, Internet-enabled cellphones and others), but the common theme is they bring increased portability to your meeting tasks.

This article covers the range of ultra-portable computing and communication tools (personal digital assistants, or PDAs for short), specifically focusing on the meetings industry.

The Palm

The Palm (offered by 3com, IBM and Handspring) is a comparatively low-tech device, typically with low processing speed, low memory, and low, monochromatic resolution.

Even with these limitations there are numerous products developing in the meeting planning area. EventCentric (www.eventcentric.com) and TeamTech (www.teamtech.com) can replace many paper-based products and procedures at meetings: registration forms, programs, exhibit product directories, message centers, exhibit floor plans, daily show news, lead retrieval, and local area information. This information can be beamed (passed from another Palm device via infrared light rather than using cables) at meetings or from a Web site.

The PocketPC

The PocketPC offered by Compaq, HP, and Casio and others represents a significant step up from the Palm in functionality. Typically, they are faster and have more memory and more resolution, usually in color. While the Palm has been described as a way to eliminate the daily planner and other paper, the PocketPC is trying to eliminate the need to carry a laptop computer. For this capability, there are tradeoffs. PocketPCs are thicker, heavier, have a shorter battery life (daily charging as opposed to more than three weeks on normal use for a Palm). They are twice as expensive as many Palm devices.

The WAP-enabled phone

The challenge with Palms and PocketPCs is that not many people are carrying them (less than 25 percent in many business settings). As a result, the ability to network and communicate to a large group is limited. This is not the case with cellphones. WAP-enabled phones (wireless application protocol) and phones with other emerging standards allow e-mail, data, and an increasing rich communication stream.

What cellphones lack in a small, low-resolution screen and very limited inputting capability (a numeric keypad that makes words laborious to send) they make up for in ubiquity. These phones are becoming increasingly capable of data transmission, text messaging, and instant messaging capability.

The Future

The near future will see the merging of cellphones and PDA. Sprint is offering a phone made by Kyocera on which the keypad folds down to reveal an integrated, scaled-down Palm device, incorporating the best features of both. Motorola offers the Accompli 009 that is the convergence of the cellphone, a Blackberry-like pager with built-in alpha keypad, and a color PDA. As these products continue to develop, greater capabilities will be afforded to meeting planners looking for on-site technology help.

In three to four years, wireless products will make the products mentioned above seem obsolete. This “cellphone on steroids” will have high-bandwidth Internet access at several times the rate of our current telephone modems. Two-way video conference calls will become as easy to make and as cheap as a telephone calls are today. And that is just a start.

In the meantime, the Palms, PocketPCs, and cellphones will offer assistance to meeting planners, attendees, exhibitors, and hoteliers in increasing the communication flow and digitizing information.

Corbin Ball, CMP, is a speaker, consultant, and writer focusing on events and meetings technology. With 20 years' experience running international citywide technology meetings, he now helps clients worldwide use technology to save time and improve productivity. He can be contacted at www.corbinball.com.