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The zappers that wait in the wings

This article was started on a train somewhere between Watford and Birmingham en route to the Education Show at the National Exhibition Centre. That's how useful a palmtop computer can be.

I was using a Psion Series 3c the latest version of a machine that, in its Xemplar Pocket Book guise, has been an outstand IT success story for education. For the price of a desktop computer, schools can get a Primary Class Pack of five machines (Pounds 975, or 10 for Pounds 1,950) to extend IT capability even beyond the classroom.

Now Psion has a new range of machines, the Series 3c (from Pounds 339. 95), with slicker software facilities and an infra-red link that can zap files to similar models, the new, smaller and cheaper Siena models (from Pounds 169.95 - and they really do fit a shirt pocket), or to printers equipped with infra-red.

So should schools be joining a queue for these new machines? Well, as far as the classroom is concerned, not yet as there are compatibility issues that have to be resolved.

The success of the Pocket Book was assured because Acorn (now Xemplar) gave it what marketing people call "added value" - useful links and software for class use. And once schools started buying them, other developers had the confidence to create curriculum tools such as data-loggers.

Right now, Xemplar is still working out how to exploit the advantages of the new machines. It is unlikely to adopt the Siena for schools, and will continue, for the time being, to promote the Pocket Book II (Psion 3a) as the ideal machine for the classroom.

There are dark clouds on the horizon, however - the new palmtop Windows CE machines about to reach the UK from a range of leading manufacturers including Casio, Hewlett Packard and Philips. Even though Psion and Xemplar are confident that they are ahead of this new competition, it would be dangerous to underestimate the reassuring appeal of the ubiquitous Word and Excel icons on a palmtop screen to the legions of people who already use these programs at school, work and at home. Psion and Xemplar have to remember that quality and technical sophistication are not always winners in the marketplace.

Meanwhile the 3c and Siena are useful machines for confident teachers undaunted by compatibility issues. The ease of zapping information between machines is something to behold. One can imagine teachers zapping out work files to students' machines - unless, of course, Microsoft's Bill Gates gets there first.

* Psion Tel: 0171 262 5580 * Xemplar Tel: 01223 724724

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