British explorer George Leigh Mallory once offered a simple, famous explanation of his assaults on Mt. Everest: "Because it's there."
The same might be said for newcomers attempting to enter the PDA market. Palm and Handspring, which share a common operating system, hold about 85% of the marketplace, according to NPD Intelect. Microsoft Corp.'s Pocket PC platform--which had sales of 1 million units, the company recently announced--can claim about 11.5% of the market. The rest is claimed by less-expensive, less-capable devices.
Like Everest, however, the summit of the U.S. market beckons. American Electronics Entertainment, the Dublin, Calif.-based subsidiary of a Taiwanese firm, CMC Magnetics Corp., has brought the $349 CyberBoy to market, with 8 megabytes of RAM, 8 MB of flash memory for programs and an optional flash memory slot. The unit, which boasts a monochrome liquid crystal display, has a built-in digital camera, MP3 player and FM receiver.
However, CyberBoy has a ways to go before it becomes a man.
The unit runs on a lithium-ion battery pack, which is rechargeable. It connects to a PC running Microsoft Windows--sorry, no Macs--via the Universal Serial Bus port. There's also a serial port connection, but the rather thin user's manual offers no support information.
But CyberBoy is soulless. For example, Palms and Compaq iPaqs automatically power on and open, say, the contact database when users press the appropriate key. Press almost any key on the CyberBoy that is not the power key and you get nothing. Pressing the shutter button for the built-in camera turns the unit on but doesn't result in an instant picture.
Although the unit boasts handwriting recognition, the on-screen area is poorly divided, so capital letters are very difficult to enter. It took five or six tries to get CyberBoy to recognize the letter N. An on-screen keyboard, similar to those on the Palm and Pocket PC, is available, but pressing the Shift key to type a capital letter locks the shift, something that doesn't happen with the market leaders. The on-screen keyboard would not work with the address book.
The unit is supposed to synchronize its address book and data book with Microsoft Outlook, but it failed to do so, possibly having crashed during an attempt to synchronize its e-mail with desktop PC e-mail files.
The camera is at once promising and disappointing. Its fixed focal lens seems best suited to close-range photography. Picture quality was acceptable but not on a par with other attachable digital cameras. The unit supposedly functions as a PC camera, but this, also, didn't work.
One bright spot: The FM receiver functioned quite nicely, delivering decent--if slightly staticky--reception of stations in stereo. Tuning is via the touch-screen display, and as many as 10 presets can be programmed.
Overall, the biggest gripe with CyberBoy is that it lacks the elegance found in the Palm and Pocket PC platforms. This is a good first effort to come up with a competing device, but much heavy lifting still needs to be done.
Finding information about the product might be difficult. The Web address listed on the package, http://www.aeeus.com, brings up a page under construction. Users instead have to seek out http://www.cmcia.com and then work their way through to find any data on CyberBoy. Wait for the next revision of CyberBoy before even considering a purchase.
Mark A. Kellner is editor at large for Government Computer News and hosts "Mark Kellner on Computers" at http://www.adrenalineradio.com from 5 to 6 p.m. Thursdays.