Home > Internet Columns > Feb. 16, 2003

Turn that PDA into a news-gathering digital assistant

Feb. 16, 2003


Anyone who has seen an episode of the various "Star Trek" series is familiar with some of the neat technology that Gene Roddenbery's view of the future holds.

The sci-fi tech stuff -- dubbed "treknology" by Star Trek fans -- includes spacecraft that can travel faster than light, voice-commanded computers and other gadgets.

In nearly every episode you'll notice that the space explorers of the future no longer use pen and paper. They use neat little electronic devices called Personal Access Display Devices, or PADDs.

We already have a version of the PADD in widespread use here on 21st-Century Earth -- in the form of the Personal Digital Assistant, or PDA.

Today's PDAs use one of three operating systems: Palm, Windows CE or Pocket PC. There are many different brands of PDAs manufactured, but they all share similar features. The latest ones include higher resolution color LCD displays, wireless capability and GPS (global positioning) functions.

In a recent conversation with my brother (a fellow PDA user), we agreed that PDA owners don't always take advantage of the power these little handheld computers offers.

One of the latest applications I've adopted on my PDA is AvantGo, a service that offers Web-based content that is downloaded to your PDA or Internet-enabled cellular phone.

The beauty of AvantGo is that you don't need to have the latest high-tech wireless PDA to use it. AvantGo downloads the latest news, stock market data, and weather -- or whatever you data wish -- from the Web to your PDA every time you sync it. For readers who don't own a PDA, syncing is what you do to transfer data from your home PC to your PDA and vice versa.

The service is incredibly simple to use. I drop my Palm PDA into its cradle and press the "Sync" button a few minutes before I leave the house. By the time I get coat and shoes on, the update (or "sync") is done. AvantGo downloads the content from the Web (your computer must be online) quickly and without a hitch.

"What possibly is worth downloading to read on a PDA?" you ask? There's plenty of stuff available to suit a wide range of interests.

For starters, you can get the latest news, weather, sports and business information via Reuters, CNN, The New York Times, USA Today and much more. In addition to these, I also subscribe to tech updates from CNet, PCWorld, and Yahoo.

There's plenty of other information available too, depending on your interests. Additional categories include entertainment, health news, shopping, sports, and travel, with content provided by GM, Golf Digest magazine, Sports Illustrated and more.

For a news junkie like me, I suddenly have the latest national news from several sources right at my fingertips. When I'm taking a breather from my exercise workout, I can pop out my PDA and read news that's as up-to-date as broadcast news with much greater depth and detail.

Another feature I enjoy are the weather forecasts, which include current conditions, weather radar images, satellite photos and five-day forecast.

The MapQuest.com Web site offers maps and travel directions that can be downloaded to your PDA using the AvantGo service. Having traveled with maps and Web site map printouts in the past, the PDA version will be easier to use and less trouble to fold.

AvantGo's basic service is free. That's right, free. Users have complete access to the AvantGo's 960-plus information channels. Free users are limited by the total amount of information they can download during each update. Free users have a 2-megabyte download limit. This doesn't sound like much, but the truth is this is much more information than you think.

AvantGo's pay service simply bumps the download limit to a hefty 8 megabytes. If you don't need to subscribe to more than 2 megabytes of information with each update, you won't need to pay the subscription fee -- which is a bargain anyway at just $19.95 per year.

A PDA can be a useful resource to any professional's business toolbox. Better yet, you don't need to wait for the 24th-century before you can put one to good use.

AvantGo is compatible with PDAs and Web-enabled devices that use the Palm, Windows CE or Pocket PC operating systems. For more information, visit www.avantgo.com.

AS THE WORM TURNS. Symantec, the company that sells the popular Norton Anti-Virus software program, is being criticized for keeping silent about a recent virus infection that attacked thousands of computers around the world.

Symantec was apparently the first security firm to identify the Slammer worm, the self-replicating virus that hit the Internet the last weekend of January. The Slammer worm spread rapidly and created so much Internet traffic that it slowed the Internet and actually overwhelmed thousands of servers, particularly in Asia.

Slammer took advantage of a previously identified weakness in Microsoft SQL (pronounced "see-quill") server software. Slammer crashed telecommunications systems in Asia and parts of Europe. In North America, some ATM machines were reportedly unable to dispense cash because of Slammer, and a number of airlines' reservation systems were knocked out of commission.

Symantec spotted Slammer and sent warnings to customers who subscribed to its DeepSight Threat Management System, a service that offers early warnings about cybersecurity threats. DeepSight subscribers had two hours warning before Slammer began its race around the globe.

Critics say Symantec should have issued a public alert at the time. Had it done so, system administrators around the world could have had a chance to protect their computer systems and head-off the worm's damage.

Symantec did issue an advisory about Slammer a few hours later, though critics say it was too late to help stop the rapidly advancing bug. In its own press release, Symantec points out its early warning of Slammer and other threats as a reason to become part of its early-warning network. Despite the company's critics, this issue boils down to one simple business issue: Should a company give away its competitive advantage in its marketplace? In this case, I don't believe Symantec should be faulted for what it did, though those who were affected by the Slammer worm will likely disagree.

PATCH PROBLEMS. Readers who downloaded Microsoft's recently released critical update for the Internet Explorer Web browser may have downloaded a flawed version of the update.

Microsoft said that some users who downloaded and installed the update are having trouble accessing Web sites requiring authentication after installing the update.

The recent update was termed "critical" because it fixed some security holes in Internet Explorer 5.01, 5.5 and 6.0. The update indeed fixed the security problems, but Microsoft found that some users who used subscription-based Web sites -- and even MSN e-mail -- had trouble getting logged into these sites.

The just-released "hot fix" is necessary only if you installed the earlier update and have had problems with logging in to password-protected sites. Not all users who installed the first critical update have had problems, a Microsoft press release stated.

For more information, visit Microsoft's Web site at www.microsoft.com and search for security bulletin MS03-004.

Comments and questions about this column may be sent to jbrooks@myoldkentuckyhome.com, or visit www.myoldkentuckyhome.com on the World Wide Web.

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