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Compaq's iPAQ, aTime Multiplier

Arizona State University has recently adopted handheld computers in its High Technology MBA, a program offering a customized curriculum for managers in technology-intensive businesses. Starting last fall, all incoming students, faculty, and staff were equipped with Compaq Computer Corp.’s 3670 iPAQ handheld computers. Already, the devices are boosting productivity.

IPAQs run on the Microsoft Windows CE platform. For a user, this means the ability to carry an extension of your desktop PC around with you—in a 7-ounce device that fits in a coat pocket. Just over a half-inch thick, the iPAQ runs on a 206 MHz Intel chip, has a touch screen color display, and has lots of memory—typically 64M of RAM and 32M of ROM.

Although there are limitations to any small device, iPAQs are relatively easy to use. The latest model, the iPAQ 3870, has a 64,000-bit color display and a sensor that automatically adjusts screen brightness. This means that the screen display is viewable even in direct sunlight. Navigation is done mainly with a stylus, and there are shortcut buttons for commonly used tools such as the calendar and task list.

Although iPAQs accommodate data entry via a virtual keyboard on the touch screen or via stylus-based handwriting recognition, neither is intended for extensive use. For example, although I’m writing this article on my iPAQ, I’m using the optional Targus collapsible keyboard.

Future units will sport a BlackBerrylike keypad, with each key about the size of a button on a cell phone. The device also has a built-in microphone, a sort of tinny speaker, and a headphone jack. Finally, you can use a cradle to communicate with the desktop and an infrared port to speak with other nearby devices. You can also buy expansion cards for more memory or for tasks as diverse as GPS navigation, wireless communication, and connecting to an overhead projector.

The software design ech'es a Windows PC environment: There’s a Start menu that lists available programs, Find and Help functions, and the equivalent of a Control Panel. Most of the key Microsoft Office products are available, with slimmed-down versions of Word and Excel, Outlook compatibility, and Internet Explorer. The omission of PowerPoint is glaring, but thirdparty equivalents are available.

Why adopt iPAQs instead of notebook computers? Our students have demanding jobs, which means 20 hours a week for grad school on top of a 50 hour-plus workweek. And, the majority of our MBA students already have access to a notebook computer.

The ease of carrying around the iPAQ, combined with its versatility and "instant on" features, gives it very different utility from a notebook PC. To get the most from the iPAQ, you need to use Microsoft Outlook on your desktop. Your calendar, contacts, tasks, key files, and incoming e-mail are automatically downloaded each time you connect. Any changes are then integrated back to the desktop. You can also synchronize across multiple desktops, which will ensure that the Rolodex and appointment book at your home and office actually match.

The majority of my students report that the iPAQ buys them at least 45 minutes of extra productivity each week. Over the course of a year, this translates to the equivalent of a 40-hour workweek. In other terms, during a two-year graduate program, I can generate two full weeks of productivity—at a cost of less than $8 an hour.

One goal of our MBA program is to help students focus on learning.Although we don’t find the iPAQ particularly useful as an instructional tool, it can still facilitate the classroom experience. For instance, when students received their devices, they found a class schedule already loaded in the calendar, major projects listed in tasks, course syllabi, and their first assignments. They also had an electronic copy of the student handbook and contact information for every one of their classmates, faculty, and staff.

There are a variety of ways to update this information during the year. If your institution uses Blackboard, there is a new package called Blackboard To Go that automatically downloads all new Blackboard content directly to iPAQs.

Also, our students do much of their work in teams, and the iPAQ simplifies some mundane aspects of working in a group. The infrared port, for example, allows students to beam virtually anything from one device to another. Instead of firing up several PCs and swapping floppies, students can share a 100-page business plan in just a few keystrokes.

Although the handheld computer market is still in the early stages, the capability of these devices will continue to evolve rapidly, as will the availability of new hardware and software add-ons. These changes will offer new opportunities to create classroom applications for iPAQs and related devices.

One final thought: There is a generational change under way affecting perceptions of small screens, or ease of interface. Indeed, a 45-year-old executive MBA student might be more apprehensive about using a Pocket PC than a 12-yearold who was weaned on Nintendo. An early sign of this trend are elementary schools that are using iPAQs as a testing tool—students take a device, complete the exam, and beam it to the instructor.

Because of such generational differences, innovations in the educational use of pocket computers such as the iPAQ will likely come from the bottom-up instead of the top-down.

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