Back | Next

A Handheld Primer

How many of us, the last one or two Christmases, have shared that sinking sensation on being grabbed by a junior member of the family who looks up with a piercing gaze:

"Can I have a handle for Christmas? Can I? Glenn Thomas has got one."

A "handle," of course, is a "handheld," known also as a "magic box," "thinkbox," "pocket brain," or "PERM" (Pocketable Electronic Reference Module). This is one of those things that was impossible five years ago, scientifically unthinkable ten years ago, and twenty years ago it was science fiction. The possibility of it has been so well debunked by now that it is a little unnerving to run into it in fourteen different models at one end of the camera counter.

It was the thought that others must have found themselves equally unprepared that led to this article, which should give, at least, a better picture of the handheld.

First, the essentials.

The price ranges from the collapsed levels of remaindered products of the industry's latest bankrupts into the realms of fantasy. In short, you can buy them from $4.95 up. The highest price for a standard job—an all-purpose multiprogrammable financial, real-estate, and stock-and-bond-market model with built-in expandable reference library of data and programs—is $45,000.00. But then there are custom-built models, with no price limit in sight.

The best bet seems to be to stay under twenty bucks for the first one, particularly if it is a present for someone not yet nearly old enough to vote, and most particularly if the someone happens to be a small boy. There is something about an expensive handheld that can translate the merely obnoxious to levels truly intolerable.

Next—where to buy it?

If you want a reliable one, stay away from discounters, particularly those with a truck parked near the front door, decorated with an overgrown bedsheet reading:




The truckload lot will almost certainly be from some outfit in bankruptcy, and while the merchandise may be all right when you get it home, what do you do if it isn't?

If you want a good model, try a camera shop, a book store, or, better yet, a camera shop or book store on a large college campus. There you can expect to find a merchant with a discriminating—even spoiled—clientele, that will not hesitate to speak up or even boycott him if he doesn't back the product.

This brings us to the heart of the subject.

Which one to buy?

It is here that the worst mistakes can be made—mistakes even worse than paying fifty bucks for an OG-53 Experimental that will give wrong answers if you so much as bump it, and if you send it back to be fixed, they will return it unfixed by barge line. To avoid such things, look over what's available before buying.

Most handhelds fall into some special-purpose category, such as:

1) The descendents of the calculators of the mid-seventies. These are too well known to need description.

2) Historical Daters—Relatively simple and inexpensive—and said to have served as a training ground for making the more complex types. You punch the buttons and the screen lights up with the outstanding events of that date. Hit 1-4-9-2, and across the screen from right to left goes: "Christopher Columbus discovered America." A cheap dater may do nothing further. The better models have a wide button lettered "MORE." Tap it repeatedly, and you get: "Columbus sailed the Atlantic seeking a westward route to Asia . . . He had, in his first expedition, three ships: Santa Maria (100 tons), Pinta (50 tons), Niña (40 tons) . . . He was backed by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain . . ." The more expensive models go into incredible detail.

—If you buy one of these, watch out for the "bear-trapped" jobs, whose manufacturers smilingly put sixty percent of the machine's capacity into a few standard dates—knowing that those few dates are the ones most of us will try before buying.

There are scientific daters, military daters, religious daters, and so on. The latest is the "PHD" or "Personal History Dater." With this, you feed in the interesting events of the day before you go to sleep. Then later on, you can review your life by date—and so, of course, can anyone else who gets hold of this electronic diary. It's worth the extra money to get the kind that takes a look at your retinal patterns before it will talk.

3) "Pocket Prof" of "2SR" (Special Subject Reference). In a way, these are the most amazing of the handhelds. Take, for instance, the "GenChem I" put out by the most reliable and expensive U. S. maker. This is said to contain the equivalent of all the facts and data in the usual college course in general chemistry. Its main advantage over a textbook consists in its indexing. Though you can look up references by getting its index on the screen, there is another way. Tap the "CC" (Chemical Compound) button, then hit, say, H-2-O, and facts about water will be flashed on the screen as long as you care to persist, until every reference, direct and indirect, has been sought out and shown. Tap the "El" (Element) button, then tap C-A, and the same thing will be done for calcium. To find references to reactions or other relationships between calcium and water, tap these two sets of buttons, and also tap "Cnc" (for "connection"). References that concern both water and calcium will be flashed on the screen. Few books have an index even remotely as complete, and with the handheld you have only to glance at the screen to see if the reference shown is the one desired. This is an improvement over hunting up, one at a time, a long list of page numbers.

The GenChem I model, incidentally, uses the broad screen with adjustable flash-time, and a hold button, instead of the reel-type screen, across which letters flow from right to left.

These handhelds have made a considerable dent in textbook sales, though as hard-core book-lovers like to point out, very few textbooks have ever been known to fade away at two a. m. the night before the exam, just when someone has unauthorizedly borrowed your recharger.

But, as the handheld enthusiasts ask, how many books can be programmed to give a vocabulary and grammar review in a foreign language, with practically unlimited numbers of questions in randomly varied order, and in whatever form you care to try? There's even one that will speak the words aloud—while research continues on another to independently check the user's pronunciation.

4) Novelty handhelds—These are the recreation and entertainment models, such as chess and checker players, go, bridge, pinochle, and "pocket casino" models. There are "scenic view" and "guided tour" models. And the "Favorite TV" and "Favorite Movie" series. And, of course, the notorious "Pocket Burlesque Theater."

The latest versions of all these use the N-V viewer, unlike the bulky early models with large built-in screens. In the N-V system (the letters stand for "Natural-View"), a separate image is flashed into each eye, each view being separately adjusted to fit the user's vision.

The Scenic View II uses highly sensitive color apparatus, and an enormous repertoire of scenes—making, in effect, a modern compact replacement for the stereoscope.

The Guided Tour models put related scenes together, along with an earphone for the voice that gives the description. An interesting feature is the "branching" of the tours. Suppose a tour of Paris incidentally shows a famous restaurant. Press the appropriate button, and a new guide appears to express appreciation for your interest, and show you through the restaurant in detail. When now and then he asks, "Do you see?" it isn't a rhetorical question, but the sign of another "branch-point", where if you want you can get still more details.

Similar to this in principle, is the new "careers" model, meant to show what a person in any given line of work actually does. The first versions, to judge by the groans of the people really doing the kinds of work shown, fall considerably short of realism.

5) The so-called "trade" handheld—such as the Plumber's Helper, the Auto Mechanic, the Carpenter, the Contractor, and so on. These vary widely.

There is, for instance, a shiny model we can call the WidgetMasTer. Suppose you want to learn from this model how to bend a widget, and so tap out B-E-N-D. If you hit two of the jampacked keys at once, a red light flashes and an alarm goes off. This is, as the instructions explain, "for your protection."

After you tap out B-E-N-D, across the screen glides: "REFER TO ITEM REQUIRED."

Anyone used to book indexes will suppose this means to name the noun first—that is, "Widget, bend." But, if you tap out W-I-D-G-E-T, the screen replies, "STATE REFERENCE DESIRED."

Apparently, this must be the place to hit B-E-N-D. But then WidgetMasTer unreels: "REFER TO ITEM REQUIRED."

If you move fast enough, you can hit W-I-D-G-E-T-B- but then the red light flashes and the alarm hammers. There is no such thing as a "widgetb," and WidgetMasTer knows it.

The only way out of this impasse is to throw WidgetMasTer in the trash can (the preferred solution), or else fight your way through the instruction pamphlet. Eventually you will locate reference to a "GN" key (for "Generic Name") and an "Op" key (for Operation") and an "Sp" key (for "Species") and a "Q" key (for "Query"). It develops that all you have to do is to just press the Q key, and release it, then press the GN key and tap out W-I-D-G-E-T, then press the Sp key and tap our A-L-L, then press the Op key and tap out B-E-N-D, and then press the Q key again, and then, after a brief little two-minute pause while the red light blinks on and off to show how busy WidgetMasTer is, then there slides across the screen: "MAINTAINING PROPER CORRECT ALIGNING GRIP USING SPECIAL TOOL 2WB STEADILY AND FIRMLY APPLY ALTERNATING PRESSURE USING SPECIAL TOOL A1WB. USE RED HEAT TO AVOID DOWLING CORKING AND CHIEFFERING. DO NOT FORCE THE BEND. CAUTION! NEVER HEAT TREATED WIDGETS!!"

Since the first part of this answer is gone from the screen well before the last part appears, you may think at first that that sense of confusion results because you missed something the first time around. All you have to do to check the answer is to go through the procedure again, wait till the red light gets through blinking, then watch closely as the answer glides past.

What, it still isn't clear?

The trouble seems to be that WidgetMasTer is, as they say in the handheld trade, "question-progenitive"—for every uncertainty you bring to it, it presents you with at least one new uncertainty. The only known way to get a clear answer out of this oracle is to have no uncertainties to begin with. If you already know the subject backwards and forwards, you can nearly always unravel its answers.

Very different from WidgetMasTer is the "Mechanic's Special." For instance, if you tap out, H-O-W R-E-M-O-V-E S-T-U-C-K N-U-T? the wide screen answers:


One Mechanic's Special is worth many WidgetMasTers. But, so far, the trade market has a wider selection of WidgetMasTers.

Of course, whatever you're looking for, the device not only needs to be good in itself. It also has to fit the situation. If, for instance, what you are looking for is a gift for a younger member of the family, considerable thought may be needed.

A checker or chess-playing model, for instance, can often keep a boy happy and out of trouble for upwards of half-an-hour at a time—but be sure to get the kind that can be "backstepped" to show previous moves. Otherwise, there will be howls that the handheld cheats. Incidentally, the "Disrupt" button, that knocks a temporary hole in the chess handheld's calculating ability, is not to be sneered at. It gets tedious pushing the "Reset" button to start a new game.

Any game-playing model, of course, may seem "non-educational"; but then, nearly everyone agrees that a dater is educational; and do you really want:

"Say, do you know what happened in 1066? . . . No, no. Everybody knows that. I mean, do you know what else happened? You don't? You don't know? You mean to say you don't know? Well—"

Then there is the very educational "Historical Facts" model:

"You've heard of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, haven't you? . . . Okay, quick—What do the 'E' and the 'S' stand for?"

Avoid like poison the "Political Science" jobs. Those so far available obviously were put together either with the kindly help of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, or by charter members of the Death-To-Taxes League.

All these specialized models are, at least comparatively speaking, standard traditional devices. So are the:

6) Pocket computers. Most of us have had some chance recently to find out what can happen when we first design our own programs. The newer handhelds of this type may have a still larger storage capacity, faster speeds, easier programs, newer microtapes with more ingenious prerecorded programs, crystal-needle master programs, new sensing and acting attachments, independent detachables—and with all this extra latitude, it is, of course, possible to get into a worse mess; but, at least, it is still a mess of a familiar kind.

It is the recently marketed "companion computer" or "pocket buddy" model that adds the tricky new dimension to handhelds. With these you can lose more than your money and your disposition.

Take, for instance, the "CCI," which is "Mark I" of the new "Constant Companion" series. This device fits in your shirt pocket, has a "receptor"—a kind of little eye on a flexible stalk—that sticks over the pocket's edge—and a grille that "hears" and on occasion "talks."

CCI was introduced at a price of ten thousand, now sells for six thousand five hundred, and, to the non-enthusiast, it is well worth this price not to have one. It is rumored that the price will come down further in the near future. The value of not having one seems likely to stay up.

How does CCI work?

There is the first catch.

No explanation of its construction is given, and curious competitors have found that it self-destructs when opened. This means you do not really know its strengths or limitations. It is rumored by the salesmen that the device is in contact with a ring of satellites which in turn are in touch with four gigantic interconnected computers.

And what does CCI do? A quote from the brochure will give the idea:

". . . your Constant Companion is at all times on the alert. Beyond the reach of human failings, he (sic) never forgets, never falters, and never fails . . . If you have an appointment or a birthday to remember, your personal friend and pocket private secretary will prompt you at the proper time . . . If you wish to review a scene or an event, CCI has it. If you want to reexamine a spoken agreement, test again the nuances of personal expression, your Constant Companion will unfailingly help you . . ."

CCI is a personal portable combination reminder service, bug, and memory. But, how does it work? How, for instance, does the device communicate with the ring of satellites? What if you drive through an underground tunnel, or board a submarine for a submerged cruise? Does CCI somehow stay in contact with the ring of satellites? If not, why don't the instructions warn you? If so, the Defense Department will be interested.

Incidentally, CCI is already reported to be the subject of study by a government "task force" to determine the legal and technological means to, in effect, subpoena your "Pocket Pal," in case you ever land in court.

Meanwhile, if you have an argument with someone who insists you said what you know you didn't say, you can "back-key" to the appropriate stage of the argument, set the device for "Databanks—Repeat Conversation" and have the indescribable thrill of hearing your own voice blow your own argument to bits.

As if they had not done enough already, the manufacturers of CCI are out with a handheld boasting "extended capabilities." This is CCCI—"Constant Companion and Counselor, Mark I." This device incorporates an earphone on a cord that goes down the back of the neck under the shirt collar, to just behind the shirt pocket, where a pin-type connector passes through into CCCI itself. The cord and earphone permit CCCI to talk directly into your ear.

CCCI has its own sensing apparatus, plus tiny skin and pulse attachments, and a set of special glasses ("two hundred flattering styles available"). Its sensing apparatus follows what's happening, its skin and pulse monitors watch your emotional reactions, and the special glasses enable the device to tell where you are looking; the device's circuits then correlate what is going on outside with your inner responses.

That it can do this is, of course, impressive. But do you want it doing it to you?

CCCI was, naturally enough, made to sell, and to do that somebody has to buy it. It is priced at twenty-five thousand. There is a little problem there. Who will pay for it?

Two answers seem to have been arrived at.

First, it can be rented. Under a "special introductory offer," you can now use it for a week for "only three hundred and fifty dollars." That's the first answer.

In groping for a second answer, the planners seem to have asked: What might lead anyone to pay the price?

To see the answer arrived at, consider the slant of this sample from the advertising brochure, which incidentally is headed, "You Don't Have Everything If You Have No Constant Companion To Guide You In the Most Intimate Affairs of Your Life." The brochure reads:

". . . In this ultramodern era, the powerful logic and memory capabilities of the high-speed electronic computer have long since revolutionized manufacture, transportation, and communication—but they have left mankind still wandering in jungles of personal emotional ignorance.

"NOW, with the scientific miracle of CCCI, for the first time the mighty djinn of the Computer Age stands at your side to guide you adroitly through the mazes of ignorance to mysterious pleasure palaces of the senses. The jeweled secrets of ecstasy, hidden to others, are opened to you, who know their value to be beyond price.

"Where others blunder and hesitate, your guardian djinn guides you on a magic carpet to the heart of whatever tempestuous interest rouses your imperious fancy.

"Wise in the ways of human nature, encoded deep in its capacious memory banks for instant reference and lightning retrieval, CCCI represents a fusion of new knowledge and ancient wisdom, of—"

In case anyone hasn't caught on, the following paragraphs get the idea further pinned down for the wide-eyed reader, using words like:

"Houri . . . enchantment . . . delights . . . forbidden knowledge . . . wisdom . . . harem . . . silken . . . seductive . . . sensuous . . ."

Without ever exactly getting to the specifics, the general idea planted in the mind of the prospective buyer is clear enough. And—Who knows—this approach may make sales.

But what is the device worth?

Consider the experience of an acquaintance we will disguise as "S. L.," for "Secret Lover."

S. L. was secretly fascinated by a certain brunette, but was also sunk in tortured despair because of his own inadequacies. The exact nature of S. L.'s inadequacies can be left to the imagination, the important thing being that, to deal with them, he rented CCCI for a week, and at once confided his troubles to his new "constant companion and counselor."

"I'm scared," he concluded, after unloading his store of tortured doubts into CCCI's capacious memory banks. "What if she rejects me? What can I do?"

Into his ear there spoke a wise elder-statesman voice:

"Success is impossible at a distance. Closeness creates opportunity."

This sounded reasonable. So, after some further vacillation, S. L. got himself invited to a party whose only redeeming feature was the likely presence of the brunette. As S. L. circulated amongst the guests, the wise elder statesman voice in his ear was reassuring:

"Confidence is the key. You are assured and confident. There is every prospect for success. You will succeed . . . That is she? . . . Yes, pulse, respiration, visual focus, and all other indicators agree. The subject is now being fixed for reference in memory banks, and all channels are—One moment—"

The elder-statesman voice suddenly sharpened, freezing S. L. to the spot as he stared at the girl, who also froze, staring wide-eyed at him, while in S. L.'s ear, CCCI poured out urgent warnings:

". . . Attention! Subject is equipped with an Allectronics Elder Brother Mark III Protector! This is a dual-function device to guard against emotional entanglement in the user while repelling external advances, using high-voltage fine-wire shock prods!"

S. L. stared, paralyzed by this intelligence.

The girl stared back, blushed, winced, and suddenly whirled and walked fast toward a door leading to an inner hall of the apartment. CCCI was pouring instructions into S. L.'s ear:

". . . pursuit is inadvisable! The Allectronics Mark III will deliver a warning shock to subject if she has any interest, and will deliver a severe shock to you on contact. This will condition subject against you, and you against subject. The correct tactic is to withdraw at once, and attempt to determine—"

S. L. abruptly jerked the plug out of his ear, and went through the door after the girl. Totally forgetting CCCI, he called out in a low angry voice, "What are you running away for? I haven't done anything!"

"Because," came the angry reply, "every time you looked at me, I get an electric shock!"

"Well—that isn't my fault!"

"Well, it certainly isn't mine! All I'm trying to do is protect myself! You've got Wolf Wiring!"

S. L. had never heard CCCI spoken of as "Wolf Wiring" before. But the unexpected exhilaration of the conversation carried him past the confusion:

"If you don't like Wolf Wiring, I'll get rid of it. At least, I'm not a human lightning rod!"

"Ouch! Damn this thing!"

"Why not send Elder Brother home, too?"

"All right! I can't stand this!"

Anyone who considers this incident can decide for himself just what CCCI and Elder Brother Mark III Protector are actually worth.

The thing to do seems clear enough. Stick to handhelds of types that have been around for a while, and try one at twenty bucks or less first. That makes it easier to get an idea how they work, what the one you have lacks, and what you want, before you spend more.

As for any existing model that will benevolently run your life for you—Well, as they say: "This approach shows great potential promise for the future; at present, however, considerable further development work appears to be needed."

The last word on this subject seems to be that there isn't any last word yet; but keep your eyes open and your guard up—They no doubt are already struggling with that "further development work" that appears to be needed.


Back | Next